Your To-Do List Is Destroying Your Productivity — Here’s How To Fix It

This is a guest post by Benjamin Brandall.

What’s to blame when you can’t hit to-do list zero? It’s not that you have too much to do, or not enough time — you’re getting in your own way.

By day (and most of the night), I run the Process Street blog. That doesn’t just mean writing articles. It’s reviewing submissions, editing posts and talking to journalists. It’s writing landing page copy, podcast show notes and emails to our subscribers. On top of that, unfortunately, I have a personal life.

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In my quest to stay on top of deadlines without sweeping everything else under the rug, I identified a few psychological barriers I’d unknowingly put between myself and achieving my goals. Here’s how I solved my problems and got back on the right track, as well as how you can do the same.

Name your items properly

Don’t name your to-do list items ‘Start on X’ or ‘Think about X’ — if it’s a project of a size that means it needs a start time, then break it down into steps and have one of the steps as a first, easily accomplished goal to break you into the project. A good guideline for your to-do item titles is: ’verb the noun with the object'.

While good names follow that pattern, bad item name are mysterious. They don’t indicate a task is actually being done (or are small projects in disguise).

Distinguish between tasks and projects

Take a look at the state of your to-do list right now. Is there anything on there that you couldn’t finish in one sitting or physical action? Some embarrassing items that have been sitting at the bottom of mine include ‘Content tracking system’, ‘Need a set of landing pages for target keywords’ and the good old ‘look into Buzzstream’. It’s no shock that these items were never acted upon.

Skimming through your list and trying to prioritize items for the day isn’t easy when the items aren’t quantifiable.

For projects — collections of tasks which could take anywhere between a few hours to a few years — a different approach is needed not just to organize them physically on a list, but to make sure progress is made and it isn’t ignored because of how it’s phrased. The way to do that is by breaking tasks down into chunks.

Be careful with time-based tags

I filter my to-do list by the time it takes to do something, for example #quick, #medium, etc. Whenever I have a burst of energy and want to get a few things cleared off at once, I’ll filter my list by 'by the ‘#quick’ tag (this works in WorkFlowy and Wunderlist) to show all items that can be done in a few minutes. This is all well and good, and can inspire me to start working through little nagging tasks that might otherwise get lost somewhere because they’re ‘so easy they could be done at any time’.

On the other hand, tagging things by the time they will take brings up issues when you’re tagging bigger tasks with things like #long. Who likes the idea of starting on something long? And how long does a medium task take, anyway?

Anything other than a quick task should, again, be broken down into sub-tasks. I can sadly say I have never ticked anything off my list that I’ve tagged as long or medium. Better options include #project, #research, or a description of the task that indicates its length whilst not making it sound awful.

Keep ‘to-do someday’ tasks out of sight and out of mind

A task management technique a lot of people have had success with is restricting your to-do list to just two items. Why does that work? Well, for people with a success mindset who want to actually get things done, it makes you focus on the two most important tasks, not two inconsequential items that are neither urgent or important. It’s also a form of mental decluttering. A list full of every hope and dream you’ve ever had would be massively distracting, and it’d be hard to discern between which things are due right now and which are part of the overall picture.

A way I found of marking my top two tasks is by using Wunderlist’s stars. Pretty much every to-do list app in existence has a way of filtering tasks marked by a star, tag or label. On paper, you can get as creative as you like with how you mark important tasks.

The rest of the tasks which aren’t in the top two should be kept not lower down the list, but in a totally different section. For to-do list app users, a separate list called backlog or inbox is a good call, but for a more old-school method try a separate page or dividing line which makes it clear that you shouldn’t touch that until this is done.

Don’t be so liberal with reminders and notifications

About a month ago, I set a system up to make sure I completed all of my daily tasks. This is about 10 tasks of varying complexity, from a bit of housekeeping to the king of busywork — inbox zero. I set reminders throughout the day which would trigger as push notifications on my phone and desktop. You would think that it would keep your tasks top of mind, but what it does is desensitize you. A soundscape of distracting chimes reminding you to vacuum when you’re in the middle of something important puts you off the whole task altogether. And when you see it’s overdue for 12 days already, it’s not the most motivating thing.

A study into the distracting effect of notifications revealed they have an effect on your productivity even when you ignore them, Would you believe they’re equally as distracting as a phone call? Setting up notifications that will distract you from focus work can ruin your efforts and throw you off track badly.

Keep your tasks all in one place

With the huge range of task management software out there, it’s easy to accidentally scatter your tasks between apps that you don’t visit every day. Think about it — Evernote has reminders, so when you’re working inside there you might be tempted to quickly set one up for a task you’ve jotted down. Trello has due dates, WorkFlowy has completable list items and Gmail has reminders attached to emails (but it is best to keep your to-do list items out of your inbox). Even Slackbot can remind you of your tasks.

My overuse of productivity apps — each of which do something slightly different — was the biggest obstacle in the way of getting my tasks in order. If you can’t integrate the apps with Zapier or IFTTT (it’s not always possible or practical), then make sure to at least keep a unified to-do list which links back to all of these places or you’ll end up spending time on checking up on your reminders on different platforms.

Conclusion

Be realistic and admit you’re not going to get 25 items checked off today, and that will free mental space for you to check off the two which matter the most. Don’t cause problems before you start by treating projects as tasks which never get addressed — break them down and tackle them in pieces.

When it comes to productivity, we’re our own worst enemies. Simply put, the biggest reason we don’t hit to-do list zero is because we make it impossible for ourselves. That said, once you know the barriers, you can break them with ease.

Benjamin Brandall is a writer for Process Street. Find him on Twitter.

  • Thanks so much for the opportunity to post on your blog, Timo. :)

    • Timo Kiander

      Sure, you are welcome :)

      Cheers,
      Timo

  • How about picking out 3 important things to do every day and then let the rest be for the next day? Have you tested the Eisenhower Matrix?

    • Timo Kiander

      Hi Martin!

      That’s of course one way to plan your day. Just make sure that those things are mixed with difficult and easy tasks, so that you make progress on each level. And make sure that you have some “backup tasks” ready, if you finish those tasks too early in the day.

      The matrix … yes, I have looked at it, and I guess the way I plan my days is somewhat based on it.

      Cheers,
      Timo

  • I particularly like the bit about notifications. WHY do we need constant email notifications – on our phones, our desktops, everywhere, so everyone’s even minor brain-fart sets off a cacophony of email dings. When email and especially mobile email was new it was kinda cool to have audible email dings – now it’s just downright distracting and even rude to those around us. I even know of some people that have their phones set to flash the light when an email arrives and they are constantly stressed. I take the opposite approach – I regularly do a seek and destroy on notifications and hone them down to the absolutely essential, often if any at all. I also set TIMERS – most devices have a DND setting on them and I set this to after say 8:30pm. Notifications can very easily turn from helpful tool to caustic destructive sanity destroying evil. Manage them tightly.

    • Timo Kiander

      Hi Ian!

      I try to get rid of notifications, too.

      In fact, my phone is muted 99% of the time.

      Cheers,
      Timo

  • Bob

    WorkFlowy lends itself ideally to the ideas suggested in this article

    TASKS and PROJECTS FOR THIS WEEK – add tasks from this list to today’s list when the TOP THREE tasks currently on today’s list are completed #thswk
    Tuesday 10
    TOP THREE
    PAINT PORCH
    Buy supplies
    Paint trim and sills
    Degloss large window and main door trim

    • Bob

      WorkFlowy lends itself to the ideas promoted in the SMART PRODUCTIVE WORK blog article about to do lists that Art Gelwicks posted yesterday.
      Name your items properly use verbs – I will be more mindful of this as I compose a to-do list – “compose” note to Art about to do lists blog
      Distinguish between tasks and projects – WorkFlowy as an outliner makes it easy to break down projects into smaller and smaller doable tasks
      Keep ‘to-do someday’ tasks out of sight and out of mind – The zoom in feature of WorkFlowy makes it easy to focus on the TOP THREE tasks for today
      Don’t be so liberal with reminders and notifications – Makes me think of the current discussion in MEDIUM where the WorkFlowy folks are looking for user input on how to use dates and reminders, and that not all users and the creators are sold on the idea of dates and reminders being in WorkFlowy are necessary.
      Keep your tasks all in one place – All my notes, projects, and tasks are in WorkFlowy
      Be realistic and admit you’re not going to get 25 items checked off today, and that will free mental space for you to check off the two which matter the most. – I have WorkFlowy bullets that are titled
      TASKS and PROJECTS FOR THIS WEEK – add 3 tasks from this list to today’s list when the TOP THREE tasks currently on today’s list are completed
      Tuesday 10
      TOP THREE
      PAINT PORCH
      Buy supplies
      Degloss
      Paint trim and sills
      Don’t cause problems before you start by treating projects as tasks which never get addressed — break them down and tackle them in pieces. – see Distinguish between tasks and projects – WorkFlowy as an outliner makes it easy to break down projects into smaller and smaller doable tasks
      Simply put, the biggest reason we don’t hit to-do list zero is because we make it impossible for ourselves.

      • Hey Bob,

        Absolutely! I love WorkFlowy. The tagging system, like you mentioned, is extremely powerful. I tend to create new tags for each project, since the lists inside the project can get huge and hectic. For example, I might make #SPW-todo, #SPW-outline, #SPW-quotes, then I can quickly filter out any quotes I’ve tagged from any resource I’m about to reference.

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