Menu Join now Search

Get ’Er Done: Mistakes That Make To-Do Lists Ineffective

I love making to-do lists. To borrow a line from the movie Clueless, it gives me a sense of control in a world full of chaos. When I put a solid line through something I’ve completed, that small surge of accomplishment propels me toward the next task. But on the flip side, a long list of uncrossed-off items—which, let’s be honest, occurs more often than not—has an overwhelmingly opposite effect. Since to-do lists are supposed to increase productivity, not inhibit it, I have a feeling mine could use improvement.

Now that I’ve done some research, it turns out that I’m not only right, but also not alone—many habitual to-do-list creators inadvertently turn what should give us a sense of control into an even bigger source of stress. Are your to-do lists hindering your progress more than facilitating it? You might be making some of these common mistakes.

You keep long-running lists.
A long list of tasks may make you feel extra responsible … until you realize that you haven’t finished even a third of them by the day’s end. If you start the week with one to-do list and constantly add to it every time a new responsibility comes up, it’s liable to become as long as your arm. Instead, start each morning with one list covering specifically what you must accomplish that day only, and save anything else for a future list. According to author David Allen in his book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, “If there’s something on a daily to-do list that doesn’t absolutely have to get done that day, it will dilute the emphasis on the things that truly do.”

You rank tasks by priority.
This one surprised me, since I assumed that designating importance to each item helps you run through a list more efficiently. But some time-management experts argue that just putting something on your list should make it an automatic priority. On his blog, Get Everything Done, Mark Forster, the author of guidebooks like Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management, advises against grading. “First rule of time management: the question is not what priority something is, but whether it needs doing at all,” he writes. Stipulating that what’s added to a to-do list has immediate importance achieves two things: it eliminates adding tasks just for the sake of having something to cross off (like when I wrote, “Buy gum from Walgreens” on my list yesterday), and it gives what makes the cut even more emphasis.

You use to-do lists to feel good about yourself.
’Fess up: having a sizable number of responsibilities on your plate makes you feel pretty awesome and important. Don’t be embarrassed; why else do you think I put “Buy gum” on my list? Not only does it look like you’ve got a lot going on, but it also means you then get to cross more things off your list and pretend that you’re a productivity machine. In the spirit of confession, I’ll even admit to adding jobs to to-do lists that I’ve already finished, just so that I know for sure that something will be crossed off by the end of the day. That’s a defeatist attitude right off the bat. Some people also put items on a to-do list that they should complete but know they probably won’t, such as calling or emailing people back in a timely fashion. Writing it down can ease the guilt of not doing it in the first place, as if the thought, not the attempt, is what counts. But since the neglected person isn’t going to see the list, the effort—or lack thereof—is especially disadvantageous.


To-do lists should be used for only one thing: getting done what needs to get done. As great as it felt to cross out “Buy gum” (and subsequently chew the gum), it didn’t make “Pay credit card bill” or “Email so-and-so back” happen any faster. Really, ending the day with a task-free to-do list is a much more effective way to feel good about yourself.

You put big projects on your list.
If my “Buy gum” reference wasn’t indication enough, I can get pretty detailed in my to-do lists—perhaps overly so, since it often leads to a disturbingly long (and anxiety-inducing) list. But being too vague, such as by adding something like “Get vacation stuff sorted out” (something I actually found on one of my previous lists) is an even bigger issue. It’s even more overwhelming than one big list, because there’s no obvious starting point. Plus, you increase the risk of forgetting a small but essential detail, like making sure someone waters the plants or takes care of pets in your absence. Make sure that what’s on your list is a series of manageable tasks that you can take care of that day.

You call them to-do lists.
Clearly, I’ve got no problem with calling a set of daily tasks my to-do list. However, a few time-management experts believe that “to-do” isn’t action-oriented enough to motivate. Instead, they recommend calling them “commitment lists,” “action items,” or other names meant to invoke prompt responses. If thinking of your daily duties as “to-dos” doesn’t give you the inspirational push you need, try using words that emphasize their significance.

Looking over my previous to-do (or “commitment”) lists, it’s clear why so many of them have uncrossed-off tasks—I’ve been doing them wrong this whole time! But now that I know there are ways to increase a list’s effectiveness, no longer will I transfer unfinished responsibilities from one day to the next in shame and disappointment. I can’t wait to see how far I can go beyond “Buy gum” in terms of accomplishments tomorrow.