There are lots of great ways to reorganize your to-do list in the name of productivity, but I don’t use any of them. In fact, I’ve stopped writing to-do lists altogether and find my workday is actually better off. Here are a few hidden reasons why your to-do list–no matter how you write it–might be holding you back.
1. It Dampens Your Mood The First Thing In The Morning
Confronting your to-do list as soon as you sit down at your desk is frequently depressing. And while it’s true that banking small wins (i.e. crossing items off your to-do list) can be motivating, you may just be recovering the momentum you lost in the act of mapping out your daily tasks. Let me explain.
I have several things I need to do today. Completing this Fast Company article is one of them. As always, I’m excited about submitting a new piece and know I need to look it over and make final tweaks before doing so. Right now, this article is mostly in my head–where it belongs. If it were to become an item on a sheet notepad or in a to-do app, it would lose its imaginative power, which is precisely the thing that makes me excited to accomplish it.
Some activities benefit from not being reduced to tasks. It’s a beautiful, unseasonably warm winter day–almost like spring. If I jotted down “go for a walk,” that activity would instantly lose its appeal. When the idea of going for a stroll remains in my head, I can look forward to it expectantly–because it’s a choice, not a duty. The origin of the English word “task” is the old French word “tasche,” or “duty”; “tasche” comes from the medieval Latin “tasca” or “taxa”–literally a “tax” or “charge.” Who wants to do something because it’s a (taxing) duty? Not me! One of the simplest ways to reframe it may be to leave it off your to-do list entirely.
2. You Can’t Make Yourself Do Things
The sheer fact that so many of your to-do lists get left unfinished should give you pause. It turns out that humans are pretty bad at making ourselves do things we don’t like to do. Researchers in recent years have chipped away at the idea that sheer willpower can substantially impact your behavior in any direction. People who chalk up their productivity to great self-control are likely mistaken. (If you’re looking for a more powerful, sustainable source of motivation, here’s what you need to know.)
3. It’s Killing Your Creativity
To-do list reminders rarely inspire creative thinking. The phone calls and emails we’re supposed to make aren’t moments of inspiration. It’s more likely we’ll say to ourselves, “Whew, that’s done!” after crossing an item off. Moving from one to the next leaves few “white spaces” in our thinking. Yet Wharton researcher Adam Grant points out that creative people don’t act this way; they’re usually procrastinators. In a 2016 TED Talk Grant argued for more time spent deliberating and brainstorming. The relentless pressure of the tasks on your to-do list close off those serendipitous possibilities that can make you more productive and successful in the grand scheme.
At one point in my career I was mulling over the idea of starting my own company. About that time my boss dropped by my cubicle and asked me to take a visiting actor, Marshall Bell (Starship Troopers, Stand by Me, Shawshank Redemption), out to lunch. We went to a local seafood place, and by the end of the meal I’d sketched on the back of a napkin the plan for my new business: Marshall and I would provide coaching to top-tier executives. I’d teach them how to create their speeches, and he’d train them in delivery.
Imagine if I’d passed up that lunch to complete the pressing items on my to-do list! We wouldn’t have launched our startup together, which–many years on–now employs 60 people and reaches clients around the world. It’s harder to think creatively enough to even notice opportunities like these when you’re focused too narrowly on racking up tiny, short-term wins . . .
4. It Weighs Down Your Leadership Potential
. . . which brings me to the final reason to tear up your to-do list: Leaders don’t lead with lists. They lead by being available to others, not shuttering themselves in their offices and checking off items.
Sure, you’ll always need solo time to do deeply focused work, but that’s rarely the highest-value to you or your career. Truly developing your leadership potential means treating every encounter as a chance to persuade and inspire others. And as I argue in my newest book, that includes planned meetings and interviews just as much as spur-of-the-moment exchanges in corridors, elevators, and meeting rooms.
If you’re banging away at your to-do list, you’re likely to say “not now” when a coworker pokes her head in your office and asks, “Do you have a minute?” You’re less likely to stop a colleague in the hall and say, “That was a great idea you shared earlier.” You’ll be on the run–more anxious to knock out today’s tasks than to focus on people, share your thoughts, and hear theirs. You won’t get closer to your team, your boss, or your clients by completing your to-do list.
So throw it out–so you can break away to create, inspire, listen, and lead.