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Why I Stopped Making To-Do Lists

Making lists can be beneficial, but check lists can easily become more of a game than guide. I’ve swapped making to-do lists for actually scheduling my days, and I’ve found myself to be more productive and to have more free time.

For the past year, I’ve been meticulously making to-do lists. I have various notebooks filled with tasks for the day, as well as piles of sticky notes. Although these have helped me to set an agenda for each day, I’ve encountered endless problems with them and have recently made the switch to actually scheduling out my day. In the header image, you can see my schedule for yesterday, but it’s also outlined below:

5:15 – 5:30 > Eat
5:30 – 6:30 > Write about color
6:45 – 8:15 > Run
8:30 – 9:00 > Eat Breakfast
9:15 – 10:00 > Sketch for Einstein Project
10:00 – 10:30 > Design 1 Wireframe
11:00 – 1:30 > Class

> Read ____ pgs

1:45 – 2:15 > Lunch
2:30 – 3:30 > Read ____ pgs
3:30 – 4:30 > Cut Hair
4:30 – 5:30 > Prototype Web Page
5:30 – 6:30 > Eat Dinner
6:30 – 7:15 > Schedule Blog Posts
7:15 – 8:00 > Research 5 running events
8:00 – 8:30 > Plan tomorrow/Journal
8:30              > Brush teeth and gear up for bed

Why am I making the switch?

Don’t get me wrong, to-do lists can definitely help, but they’re not for me. It’s so easy to list out tasks with checkboxes beside them and think, “Oh, I can do that. I can get that checked off.” The satisfaction I got from crossing off tasks on my to-do list was great, but then the reality of seeing ones at the end of the day that didn’t get checked off consistently weighed me down. It became difficult to recognize the things I was actually accomplishing each day, and instead I was focusing on what I wasn’t getting done.

Despite my record of having tasks on my list which that weren’t completed, I seemingly never learned the balance. I would consistently write out more tasks than I was actually able to complete, and in an effort to solve this problem I tried two things:

  1. I tried writing down only three tasks. Although this helped, there was much more in the day that I actually needed to get done. With only three items on my to-do list, I found myself spending the entire day working on just those three things, which would be great if I also didn’t have other obligations to fulfill.
  2. The three tasks were too little and I wasn’t being effective with my time, so I went back to my regular length to-do lists with too much on them, but journaled at the end of the day. I would write about what went well and where I could improve things. This helped, but I still didn’t learn how to gauge how much I was able to actually get done in a day. One day I tried scheduling out time slots for each task, and it worked so much better. I took note of this but went back to my regular to-do list. Later down the road I tried it again, and it worked wonderfully once again. Still, I went back to my regular to-do list. It wasn’t until recently that I’ve switched entirely over to scheduling out my day.

It became difficult to recognize the things I was actually accomplishing each day, and instead I was focusing on what I wasn’t getting done.

Seeing a schedule vs. a list of boxes

Continuing from earlier, it’s so easy to see a list of checkboxes and think, “Oh, I can do that. I can get that checked off.” The problem is, you’re just seeing it as a box to check; you aren’t seeing it in any sort of context. When the item is just listed out as a task, you can only digest the surface of it which doesn’t include the effort or time to actually complete it. There’s no way to really visualize that task as an actual part of your day. It’s just a box or it’s just a task versus it being an actual amount of work over a period of time. Scheduling out my days allows me to be realistic about what I’m doing and see my tasks relative to the other aspects of my day. I’m able to schedule out the stuff that remains constant such as my run, class times, meals, and bed, which then shows me how much time I actually have to work. It’s no longer a guessing game because I can only schedule out a certain amount of work.

One of the biggest shifts I experienced was in my attitude. Before when my to-do list was just a checklist, everything was a choice. It came down to, what can I get done today? Which of these tasks do I want to complete? And when I wasn’t able to complete something, it just rolled over to the next day. Now that I set goals for the week and schedule out my individual days, it has become more of “this is what I’m doing.” I’ve taken the choice out of the equation. What’s on my schedule is what gets done. Then if something comes up and I get off schedule a bit, I don’t get that guilty feeling of having empty boxes because I’m able to journal about my day on the right side of my schedule. The difference between making to-do lists and scheduling my days it the difference between seeing opportunity and actually taking action.

If to-do lists are working for you then keep at it! If they aren’t quite helping you get the job done, as was occurring with me, then give scheduling a shot. I’m inherently an optimist, which can work against me sometimes especially when it comes to planning out tasks for the day. Scheduling simply shows me the restraints of the given day, forces me to be realistic about what I can do, and being able to visualize each day enables me to be more productive over the long haul—each day is less of a scramble to get things checked off.