Well, Actually

To-Do Lists Are the Wrong Tool to Get Your Stuff Done

4 reasons why doing the to-do might not do it.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

I get why to-do lists are so alluring.

If you have a napkin and some lipstick at reach, you can still make do with a to-do list.

They’re extremely versatile too — you can jot down anything, from “buy milk” to “find the love of my life.” Hell, if you’re really determined, you could cross those two out at once by meeting your soulmate at the gluten-free aisle (that’s called “task batching,” by the way).

The idea of to-do lists sounds neat. The execution, however…

Let’s just say they can still make a shower feel productive if you list it in the “dailies.” But as I aim to show with these 4 remarks (one happens to be about time-travelling): to do stuff, to-dos may not do it alone.

All these to-do apps keep showing up — none has cracked the nut

I was too uncool for drugs in my late teens so I became a productivity junkie. I tried every piece of software, occasionally mingling with dark-alley internet lowlifes to fetch a hack or two — licenses were pricey, and I was perpetually underbudgeted.

So when I see new apps popping every year like funny-looking birds in the Galapagos, even to this day, I make myself the same question I ask when David Attenborough releases yet another documentary.

“Is this truly necessary?”

In Attenborough’s case, yes. But when it comes to productivity apps, developers agree that no one’s built the perfect tool: most users hoard on lists and items until the system snowballs into chaos, forcing them to wipe everything out and start from scratch.

Better to-do software is not the answer. On an unrelated note, here’s a video of David Attenborough describing a tortoise trying to shag a sandal. Consider it highbrow procrastination.

If feels too good to do the to-do

True, to-do lists may not be featured in any Things Humans Love Most ranking (I checked — my pieces are all diligently researched like that) but let’s admit there’s a peculiar pleasure in them, like hitting the right spot when scratching your back.

Of course, fact connoisseurs (or as people call them, scientists) have an explanation.

You surely have heard of the Zeigarnik effect (perhaps one of the last to be a real, scientifically proven “effect” before the label became a standard clickbait troupe). Basically, stuff lingers in our minds when it’s left unfinished.

To-do lists trick the brain into thinking something’s been done, mitigating that Zeigarniesque itching.

However, overdo the to-do, and the itching will get so mild you won’t even have the motivation to scratch it anymore. You’d be watching videos of panda cubs instead of doing actual work (in your defence, baby animals hit all the Things Human Love rankings, so you’re in for a treat).

There’s simply too much to do to cope with a simple to-do these days

Almost a century ago, John Maynard Keynes predicted that developed societies would have so much wealth and surplus that we wouldn’t need to work. Well, someone was overly optimistic.

If anything, the trend has gone the opposite way. Technology created dozens of micro-jobs like answering emails, managing social media and attending zoom meetings, and my Roomba is not quite ready to undertake any of them.

To-do lists might’ve been useful in Keynes times when even elevators had a clerk operating them, but technology has a long way to go before it can handle the steering wheel of this fast-paced society.

Until that happens, we’ll all be hyper-employed DIYers. Trying to tackle this tsunami of complexity with a to-do list is like trying to stop an actual tsunami with an umbrella. Ah, the simpler times.

The problem has to do with deeper issues than to-dos themselves

That issue is time travel. We suck at it.

And by that, I don’t mean when Marty McFly travelled back in time and, in the span of two hours, he accidentally seduced his mom, almost time-paradox killed himself, and took away Jhonny B Goode from black people.

I mean that we’re bad at estimating time.

We’ve not evolved to do well at calendars, schedules and plans. Cave people had no long-term projects and, save for the caves, we’re still people. Same brain.

To-do lists make us fall into the planning fallacy, always trying to bite more than we can chew, and that’s why chaos is bound to eventually catch up with every plan.

4 takeaways not to visit your mum in the past

  1. There are tons of to-do apps available. None of them admits they’ve cracked the perfect system, which is a clear sign that, just as with the question “What was Windows Vista good at?”, software is not the answer.
  2. That surge of organizational power you feel when making to-do lists? That’s the Zeigarnik effect being mitigated. A little is harmless, but don’t overdo the to-do or you’ll spend more time choosing a colour palette for your calendar than actually being productive.
  3. To-do lists are a simpler tool for simpler times. We thought technology will eventually take over our jobs and we’d spend the day frolicking and catching a tan on the beach, but it turned out to be the opposite. Don’t forget: someone used to get paid to push those elevator buttons you’re operating for free — and without a license.
  4. In the end, it’s not the to-do lists’ fault. They’re just too simple a tool to cope with our complex relationship with time. If you use this argument sometimes, this is a good opportunity to segue the conversation into, I don’t know, Back to the Future. Because who talks about to-do lists for this long anyway?




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Loudt Darrow

Loudt Darrow

Informed. Opinionated. I might be wrong but never boring.