Here Is What’s Wrong With Your To-Do List

Here Is What’s Wrong With Your To-Do List


Whether you’re a fervent disciple of the to-do list, or a begrudging list-maker, most of us can’t work better and faster without a to-do list. Yet, to-do lists always seem to frustrate and overwhelm us. Sometimes there are just too many things to do and you just can’t seem to overcome that. Based on data from the iDoneThis app:

1. 41% of to-do items are never completed.
2. 50% of completed to-do items are done within a day.
3. 18% of completed to -do items are done within an hour.
4. 10% of completed to- do items are done within a minute.
5. 15% of dones started as to-do items.

Based on this data, you’ll always have unfinished tasks; tasks that do get completed are done quickly; and  what you get done often doesn’t correlate with what you set out to do. Most to-do lists are broken and need to be fixed. Here is what’s wrong with your to-do lists:

1. You are overloading your to-do lists.

You have too many unrealistic to-dos in a single day. That could be overwhelming because you may not achieve all those tasks in the limited time you have set for yourself. And when you end the day with too many unaccomplished tasks you will begin to think you are not productive and that can put a negative dent in your confidence.

Social psychologist Roy Baumeister and journalist John Tierney, authors of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, report in their book that one person typically has at least 150 different tasks at a time, and that an executive’s to-do list for a single Monday could take more than a week to finish. Sounds like a setup for failure!

Research by Amy Dalton and Stephen Spiller uncovers how detailed planning works when you have one big to-do item but then, the longer your list of tasks and goals, the less powerful a tool the to-do list becomes.

Overstuffing your lists also causes a persistent thrum of worry in your head, distracting you from tackling the very tasks that are so worrying. Psychologists Robert Emmons and Laura King discovered that the anxiety that results from having too many conflicting goals causes our productivity as well as our physical and mental health to suffer.

So your to-do list gives and takes. It helps you remember the many things you have to tackle but can it can also take away all the energy you have and induce anxiety, depression and stress.

2. How are you making your to-do lists?

Do you really understand how a to-do list actually works? Sounds simple enough — it’s  a memory aid, a sort of external brain that nudges you about all the stuff you mean to  do. But what’s surprising is that your to-do list’s mental badgering isn’t to provoke you to get stuff done! Those distracting, nagging thoughts about uncompleted tasks and unmet goals hanging around in your mind are known as the Zeigarnik effect.

Zeigarnik Effect: the psychological tendency to remember an uncompleted task rather than a completed one. - Merriam-Webster

You’d think that the logical response to “cure” the Zeigarnik effect would be to finish the tasks and meet the goals. However, Baumeister and E.J. Masicampo found that the Zeigarnik effect is your unconscious “asking the conscious mind to make a plan.” It’s not asking the conscious mind to get off its butt to complete some tasks.

In one of their experiments, they instructed a group of students to think about an important final exam while another group was told to create a specific study plan including details like what they would do, where, and when. Then, when given word fragments to complete, the students who’d been told merely to think about the upcoming test filled in exam-related words, while the study-plan group did not.

Even though the planners had put more effort thinking about their task and hadn’t even made any actual progress on the task itself, as Baumeister and Tierney explain, “their minds had apparently been cleared by the act of writing down a plan.” Our to-do lists fail us when we don’t think through steps and plans. And when our lists  grow long, it becomes impossible and ineffective to plan out everything. It’s no wonder
we don’t complete tasks.

3. You give yourself too much time!

Data from the iDoneThis stats show that when people did complete tasks, they did  them quickly. When goals are broken into actionable steps, it takes less effort, energy, and time to cross those smaller, manageable tasks off the list. Generally though, we tend to be lenient on assigning ourselves deadlines, which means the chances increase that the task will never get done.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely found, for example, that students who had longer time to finish three papers performed worse than those who had externally-imposed or self-imposed deadlines that were evenly spaced and earlier. As many procrastinators know, the more time you give yourself, the less likely it is that you’ll finish in that timeframe. And when to-do lists become a constant exercise in pushing  things off to tomorrow and the next day, they’re not effective.

Adapted from iDoneThis‘ ebook, “The Busy Person’s Guide to the Done List”.