Writing a to-do list seems like a tidy little way to keep track of what you need to accomplish, but it can fall short or even derail your success. To-do lists don’t provide context about the tasks, they don’t give you a timeline, and they’re easy to ignore. What’s more, to-do list prioritizing systems can be complicated and hard to navigate.
So should you ditch your to-do list completely? Absolutely not, says Paula Rizzo, author of Listful Thinking: Using Lists to be More Productive, Highly Successful and Less Stressed.
"Lists can change your life if you use them correctly," says Rizzo, founder of ListProducer.com, a website that offers tips and courses for making lists. "It seems so simple to write a list but there's actually a right way and wrong way to do it if you want to be successful. Oftentimes our bad list-making habits are holding us back."
The content of your list is key to its usefulness. Here are six items that you should remove or never put on a to-do list:
The first set of items to cross off of your to-do list are the things you do every workday, such as checking your email or attending a daily morning meeting, says Ari Banayan, cofounder of the personal development blog Habit Nest.
"The point is to remove anything from your list that you'll get done regardless of whether it’s there or not," he says.
If a task keeps reappearing because you keep putting it off, chances are you’re never going to do it, and that’s OK, says Rizzo.
"Give yourself permission to cross those off forever and move on," she. "It’s OK if you don’t learn to speak Italian."
Just because you can do something doesn’t always mean you should, says Rizzo.
"Look at your list and figure out which items could be given to someone else to take care of for you," she says. "Being able to delegate items will free you up to do the tasks that make you money or bring you joy."
If you can accomplish the task in a few minutes, then do it, don’t write it down, says Grainne Logue, marketing manager for the checklist app Buckets.
"Any item on your to-do list that would take less than 5 minutes to do, shouldn't be on your to-do list; it should be done," she says. Instead, use a to-do list for tasks that take more time and brain power.
Long-term projects usually end up on the bottom of the list until the deadline gets so close they become last-minute emergencies, says Jamie Novak, author of Keep This Toss That: Unclutter Your Life to Save Time, Money, Space, and Sanity.
"Flipping your to-do list upside down once a week can help you get things done," she says. Instead of listing a big project, which may feel overwhelming, break it down into manageable steps. This will help you make progress on part of your goals.
Writing a to-do list can and should feel like a brain dump, but that can turn into a never-ending amount of work. Long lists can be paralyzing, and the key is to make a short daily to-do list from items on your master list.
"If you’re honest about your capabilities, you’ll have to admit that you’ll likely only have the opportunity to accomplish three to five tasks in a day," says Maura Thomas, author of Personal Productivity Secrets: Do What You Never Thought Possible With Your Time and Attention … and Regain Control of Your Life.
Having a smaller list will set you up for small wins that will boost your confidence and keep you moving from task to task, says Rizzo.
"Determine which tasks need to be dealt with first and put those on a separate list that you’ll use to get through the day," she says. "Make sure you only put things on your list that you have the time and resources to accomplish on that day."