Management May 25, 2016 Last updated September 18th, 2018 3,105 Reads share

To-Do Lists May not be the Best Way to Increase Productivity

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No other tool has been made as famous as the to-do list in the time management manuals. Invariably nicknamed as ‘tasks’, ‘remember’, and ‘to do notes’—the to-do lists have even made the foray into the digital assistance circles with considerable success. Rightly, ardent users cite the ease with which to-do lists allow them to track their productivity. However, the fact remains that they make the user more dispirited than they boost his or her morale. But a productivity hack is meant to show the positive side of getting things done, right? Right. That’s why the to-do list, with its nagging

However, the fact remains that they make the user more dispirited than they boost his or her morale. But a productivity hack is meant to show the positive side of getting things done, right? Right. That’s why the to-do list, with its nagging discouragements, needs a rethink.

Tenets of keeping track of work

Humans love a pat on the back. There is no other way to drive workers back into their shells than to pile on the negative feedback. Management sense has always known this. It is thus ironical that your foremost manager (yourself, of course) has embraced the ‘need to get done’ mentality at the expense of savoring the small achievements, now and then.

The ‘done’ mentality motivates

An empty slate, one where you have no achievements (even the trivial, in this case, matter) to show for a given set of efforts is rare. Sayings like ‘a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step’ may sound cliché, but they are certainly truistic. We subconsciously build upon our successes to get the drive to handle subsequent tasks.

Some may argue that the to-do list does this still. That is incorrect as far as to-do lists are concerned. There is no glass-full-glass-half-full with the lists. What stares back at you predominantly when you check out work that you need to tackle on a list are usually the unchecked/un-crossed ones. For that, they may remind you of getting things done, but they surely do so in such a disheartening manner.

The ‘need to get done’ mentality impedes

We spend all our waking lives with aims to do this or to do that. There is no end to the commitments that face us every day. To-do lists, however, have the uncanny ability to make us feel as if we are not doing as enough as is required of us. You only need a healthy dose of a group of little-unchecked boxes (to represent the tasks that you have not completed) for the paralysis caused by feelings of underachievement to start creeping in.

And what better way to muster the energy to finish up on set plans than to be reprimanded for ‘not being good/efficient’ enough? Even without the sarcasm, it is easy to see where the to-do list fails. They keep track of work, you might point out; but at the end of the day, it boils down to HOW you did the work. Not WHEN.

To-do lists are not all bad, per se. They do have their pros too.

Pros and cons of to-do lists


  • They are straightforward, brief, and easy to work with.
  • They are a good form of organization. By freeing you from having to keep track of your commitments mentally, they enable you to focus on what is at hand.
  • They reduce the probability that you will forget something, even what may be as uninteresting or trivial as to risk you overlooking it.


  • They can easily mix up the priorities of the work that needs to be done. If you skip adding the task onto the list that you find as unimportant, you could forget it all together. On the other hand, it does not feel right to add all minor details to a to-do list—unless you resort to creating a myriad of other sub-to-do lists, which beats the logic of simplicity in the first place.
  • A comprehensive list is bound to make you feel overwhelmed. So many tasks, but such few hours—you will likely discover.
  • If you are exceptionally busy, a continuously growing to-do list, in contrast to how fast you tick off the completed work will obviously lead to demoralization.

Better ways to improve productivity

Track what you achieve

To replace the to-do list that constantly accuses and nags you to do things—opt for an “accomplishments” list instead. It could work in conjunction with your existing to-do list, but is bound to make you more motivated.

Oft times, what you have done is more substantial than what you are yet to come around to tackle. Hence, you should use the new list to bolster your self-esteem and you will find that you can derive the energy to go on, and on, and on.

Highlight your day’s greatest accomplishments

The to-do list hides the true picture of whether you are actually growing in skill, expertise, or mettle. Using the lists of your accomplishments, you should go a step further and start ticking off the two greatest achievements for a given period of time. Start with a day. Highlight two attainments. Then iterate over the week, month … year(s).

Ideally, you will be able to perceive where your greatest strength lies, which will, in turn, give you the courage to take on more demanding responsibilities. Conversely, you will also identify areas where you are not performing as you envisioned, which then informs you on the need to prioritize in order to have better-rounded skills.

Align the achievements to the bigger picture

To remedy the limited scope of the to-do list, your list of accomplishments should be as much productivity hack as it is a strategizing tool. Consider it a tool that can serve you on a higher-level. Consider what feats you aim for. Do your achievements align to a bigger picture? Are you on a realistic path towards meeting your objectives? Review and interrogate your list(s). Then draw up the strategies to ensure that you are on the right track to meet your goals.

Ultimately, pursue the feel good factor

You are obviously exposed to enough negativity. The list of achievements should thus serve as a reminder of the small wins that can be drawn from the numerous challenges you face. The feel good factor alone can imbue you with an enthusiasm that would enable you to work harder, better, and aim higher. However, the accomplishments list does not act as an all out drop-in replacement for the to-do list. It extends it, and while at it, it improves productivity.

Images: ”So Many Things in To Do List, business concept/


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Josh Carlyle

Josh Carlyle

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