To-Do List Don’ts – Part 1

To-Do List Don’ts – Part 1

A functional system to manage your projects and tasks can save you heartache, missed deadlines, and mental overwhelm. But here’s the key, it has to be functionalThe best-laid plans and resolutions to finally use that to-do list app, put everything into your google tasks, or get yourself together often fall by the wayside faster than gym memberships in February. We bounce around from app to bullet journal to notebook trying to find something that we can finally stick with.

Every single time you write down a task for yourself, you are deciding how to spend a few crucial moments of the most nonrenewable resource you possess: your life. Every to-do list is, ultimately, about death.


To-do lists can help us make sure we are working on what matters most to us. Here are the first 5 of 10 to-do list don’ts to help you in your quest to finally create a system that will work for you.

  1. Giving up and not having one. Very few people can function without some sort of system to manage their projects and tasks. A few people are able to work purely from their calendars or keep everything in their heads, but most of us need some sort of list to keep track of things. Even if your past attempts have failed, it’s worth trying a few new ideas to create a system that will work for you. Without a to-do list, it is very easy to get sucked into the trap of just doing the things that are urgent or the things that are easy. You also may find yourself missing whole projects, deadlines, or opportunities that are important to you.

Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.


  1. Having too many lists and losing them. Maybe your problem is not that you don’t have a to-do list, but that you have 25 different to-do lists, all on different post-it notes that are scattered around your home, office, car, purse, or are scribbled on the back of napkins, boarding passes, or even your hand. Pick one place to put everything. You can categorize it by home, personal, administrative, and by different work projects. Find a place that will be easily accessible so that you have a reliable physical or digital place to go. I’ve tried almost all the apps and programs out there to be able to compare and contrast them. My favorite app-website combo is Trello for keeping track of lists. However, I personally come back to my trusty pen-and-paper method. I keep blank sheets of paper in a folding clipboard in my bag, and I write headings with the tasks under them. Each heading is a different project or initiative, and the tasks are below them with check-boxes and deadlines if applicable. The beauty of a piece of paper is I can’t overload it, I can see all the projects easily, and I love the feeling of checking them off when done. Once a sheet starts to run out of room or most of the things are checked off, I start a new paper and copy over things that are still active or unfinished. This act of re-writing forces me to assess whether I still want to do them, whether they are important, and why I didn’t get to them in the last few weeks. I also keep a separate list of things that I want to hold onto for longer. For example, my to-be-read list of book recommendations lives in Trello, along with my ‘Someday Maybe’ list of things for the future. Those don’t need copying out every few weeks and are easily accessed when needed.
  1. Listing projects rather than tasks. If you put something enormous on your to-do list, such as write grantbuy house, or get new job, then it’s very easy to succumb to mental blocks and overwhelm when you look at the item. The negative feeling will then drive you to do easier work as you tell yourself: “Let me just deal with my email before I go get new job!” Or you may avoid the project or the list altogether. One of my favorite lessons from David Allen’s Getting Things Done book is the importance of understanding the difference between projects and tasks. Projects are anything that will take more than one step, whereas a task is typically a single step and can be done in a single sitting. Listing tasks rather than projects will force you to think through what the tasks are for a given project. Depending on the complexity, there may be many tasks and sub-tasks. You don’t necessarily have to map them all out at the start, depending on the project. Start by listing the most important things and the tasks that are bottlenecks that you have to do first to move the project forward. The more overwhelmed you feel when looking at a given project, the smaller the tasks you should write. We frequently procrastinate to avoid negative emotions associated with a task. Procrastination is “a way of coping with challenging emotions and negative moods induced by certain tasks — boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment, self-doubt and beyond” (Charlotte Lieberman, NYTimes). Making tasks as small and manageable as possible helps reduce the negative emotions and overwhelm. If it’s a particularly frustrating task, find ways to make it fun: do it with someone else, do it in a location you like, do it with good music on, and break it down into micro-steps in your mind so that your brain doesn’t throw its hands up and walk away whenever you contemplate the work. As an example, writing papers is one of the necessary but often frustrating parts of academia. Specifically, wading through a panel of reviewers’ negative comments as they shred your manuscript that represents months or years of work can be a task that is laden with negative emotion. The task on my list may be: Revise manuscript based on reviewer comments. By breaking the revision down into achievable tasks, I can focus on the immediate next step rather than on all the frustration and self-doubt that arise when reading criticism of the work. In my mind I break it down into micro-tasks:
    1. Turn on computer
    2. Open file
    3. Read overall summary
    4. Review positive feedback
    5. Read rest of feedback
    6. Go through paragraph by paragraph and perform edits, etc.

The real problem is a lack of clarity and definition about what a project really is, and what the associated next-action steps required are.


  1. Not coming back to it. It’s all well and good to have a long, organized list of all the tasks you have to do, but it won’t help you unless you come back to the list and then plan when you are going to do the different tasks. Create a cadence, whether it’s in the morning, at the start of the week, or several times during the day, when you go back to your list and either schedule or do the tasks. Frequent list-checks allow you to prioritize and adjust and make the most of time that you may have when a meeting is canceled or another task takes more or less time than you had planned. Keep the list with you physically or digitally during your working and planning time and check it at least daily to update your plans or update the list. I typically look at my list at least each morning when I get to my office. I take a few minutes to review the most important tasks. I’ll already have most of the day time-blocked out (see item 7 next time for more on time-blocking) with what I want to do, but then I can plan to use interstices for other faster tasks in between time blocks.
  1. Putting everything on it and then getting overwhelmed tossing in the towel. This is important. Be selective, like more selective than my non-pescatarian 9 year-old daughter who will only eat 1 food item per food group. Be even more selective about what goes on your list. Let’s get a little existential here. We all fall prey to the idea that: If I just got myself together, I’d be able to do everything I want, I’d be a great spouse, parent, sibling, co-worker, mentor, mentee, and I’d finally achieve inbox zero and everything checked off.  Digital platforms make it particularly easy to add more and more to our lists. We often feel an initial sense of optimism and structure when we see our growing lists within our pre-determined categories on our latest app. However, we then enter a period of avoidance and dread when we contemplate opening the app to see our lists that have enough work to carry us comfortably into the next decade. So we delete the app and go back to whatever system or non-system we were using before, or we pick up the next trendy option. We are notoriously bad at valuing the future. This is true of future money and future time. An hour of my time today may be incredibly precious, while I might give away an hour of time next month more easily. Value your future time and self at least as much as your current time.

We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.


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