I love you, readers, but some of you have odd productivity hangups.
Take to-do lists. I’ve written about these apps for over a decade, and I basically hate all of them. I completely understand when someone adds a bunch of tasks to an app, tells themselves they’ll actually use it, then forgets to ever open said app ever again. This, to me, makes perfect sense—the app didn’t work for you.
It’s not your fault or anything you should feel bad about. It’s just a thing that happened.
And yet, for some reason, people feel guilty about not using such apps. Readers, coworkers, and Twitter friends alike have all told me they’re embarrassed about, say, using a sticky note to keep track of their tasks. These are, invariably, people who get a lot done. It’s clear to me that their system is working for them.
There’s no one way to be productive. Please don’t feel embarrassed about using a system that works for you.
Why people feel guilty about not using to-do lists
Everyone has an ideal, productive version of themselves in mind. I know I do. This version of me can focus for hours without checking Twitter, works out an appropriate number of hours, and is only awkward in conversation to an extent that makes me seem relatable.
I’ve noticed that, for many people, that imaginary self is someone who uses a to-do list app. There are all kinds of places this attitude could come from. Most productivity blogs are obsessed with to-do list apps, for example, and these apps have all done a great job at branding themselves as essential. And, to be clear, these apps can be helpful—I use one every day. But maybe you don’t, and that’s okay.
Use whatever system works for you
Back to sticky notes. A few of the most productive people I know use sticky notes to keep track of tasks, and it works for them. This makes sense to me because the best to-do list is one you actually look at—and it’s hard to ignore a strategically placed sticky note.
No one should be embarrassed of a system like this, especially if it works for them. For some people, paper is the ultimate productivity tool, and that’s great.
And there are plenty of other systems that work. My editor Deb built her own to-do list in Google Sheets.
I don’t understand how she does this at all—to me, spreadsheets are literal torture. But she always gets to my edits quickly. Shockingly quickly, actually, to the extent that I suspect she is a sentient AI. Clearly this system is working for her.
Zapier CEO Wade Foster, meanwhile, uses Gmail as his to-do list:
“Lots of my to-do tasks involve responding to folks who email me. By using my inbox as my to-do list, I can take care of those items without having to jump between my email and another app. And most of my other to-dos come from Slack, so I just send those over to Gmail with a Zap so it’s all in one place.”
Some productivity experts will tell you this is a bad idea. By the time he was 27, Wade had built a profitable company, so I suspect this is working fine for him.
Everyone is just making it up as they go along
My point is not that you should give up on to-do list apps or that you should adopt one of these other systems. My point is that productivity is a deeply personal thing, and what works for other people won’t necessarily work for you. What system you use isn’t nearly as important as finding a system that works for you.
So keep putting sticky notes on your computer screen, typing tasks in a spreadsheet, or otherwise using a system that’s not a to-do list to track tasks. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about, so long as it’s working. You do you.