Unconvinced: To Do Lists are Evil, Schedule Things Instead

Prolific productivity writer Eric Barker – hang on, you can’t have lazy productivity writers, can you? – argues that whatever doesn’t get scheduled doesn’t get done. He has a point. I disagree with the logical extension of this that To Do lists are therefore worthless and the calendar is king. Here’s the core of is argument:

To-do lists are evil. Schedule everything.

To-do lists by themselves are useless. They’re just the first step. You have to assign them time on your schedule. Why?

It makes you be realistic about what you can get done. It allows you to do tasks when it’s efficient, not just because it’s #4.

Until it’s on your calendar and assigned an hour, it’s just a list of wishful thinking.

How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m. – Eric Barker, The Week (18 September 2014)

Read the full piece for more but I’m unconvinced. I seethe logic and I am actually scheduling times for certain things every week yet, I don’t know. I have a recurring task to check the Writers’ Guild email inbox that I’m responsible for. It takes about two minutes if there is email in it, less if there isn’t. I could schedule an hour for that and relax for 58 minutes.

But I think you’d argue that it would be sensible to schedule an hour for doing, say, all Writers’ Guild stuff. That’s certainly less time-consuming than taking each Guild task and assigning a time to it.

So let’s say Tuesdays at 9am, I do Guild work. That’s what I need to schedule, not every single damn task in it. And come Tuesday at 9am, what will I open to start work? My To Do list.

I nearly skipped pointing you at this piece because I think it’s one good point puffed up to be a whole article. But there is an interview within it with a professor who sounds remarkable at getting a lot done. So do have a look, if only for that.

Case study part 2: Melissa hits a brick wall

Previously in part 1… Melissa Dale (not her real name) has never used any kind of To Do list before this week but now her work has ballooned and she’s writing lists “to tame” the job and stop being overwhelmed. She’s got her list and she’s cracking on with it. Now read on.

It’s yesterday afternoon, I’m working away here and this email lands:

From: Melissa.Dale@acme-psuedonym.com
Date: 15 October 2014 13:56:24 BST
To: wg@williamgallagher.com
Subject: RE: Case studies

Number one on my To Do list only just completed! 🙁

Notice the time. She started at 09:00 and this was just before 14:00. That’s getting on for five hours spent on the first of what is an enormous To Do list. I think that when this happens to you, you end up looking at me and saying nuts to all your advice, it clearly isn’t working.

It isn’t.

But on the one hand I think it still will in the end and on the other, I don’t see an alternative. Trying to do her new duties the way she did before is just not going to work. I can admire Melissa for having coped with her job for a long time without To Do lists but in a way that’s hurting her now: she’s not had to be prepared to handle so many new tasks at once. So she’s got these new tasks but she’s also got the task of handling the tasks. That doesn’t go on a list but this doesn’t make it any easier.

We have a slight complication in that Melissa can’t show me her To Do list: there’s too much on there that is confidential. So I’m trying to help her with the theory, it’s down to her to apply it. And that’s fine, that’s really how it ought to be, but Melissa’s in the trenches there and I think she’s going in with a list that isn’t helping her.

To Do lists are dangerous things. If you’re the type of person who just likes To Do list, that’s happy for you. Most of us like having done things and the list is the way to do that, so we like the list’s effect. We’re not OCD-organised list fans. Melissa is certainly not a list fan. But she’s been forced to use one because of the sheer volume of work and the thing with sheer volumes is that they tend to also come with sheer timescales. She has not got the time in her day to step away and concoct a perfect To Do list.

Ordinarily, I’d be glad about that: I want you spending time doing things, not twiddling with lists of things.

In this case, though, she dumped every single thing out of her head and onto the list – so far, so great – and has then immediately begun working through it. Exactly as it is, right in front of her.

I’ve advised her to take a few minutes to look at all of the tasks. Look for ones that belong together or have anything in common. Phone calls, for instance, she’s got plenty of those. Whatever task you’re doing, there is the task itself and there is the run up to and the lead away from: with a phone call it’s perhaps getting a desk or a space where you won’t be interrupted, it’s looking up the number and then after the call it’s noting down what has happened and what tasks have come out of it. If you do the next call tomorrow, it’s exactly the same thing. But if you do the next call right now, it isn’t.

You’ve found your quiet space, you’ve got all your phone numbers, make as many calls as you can in one sitting. Think about all the calls you can make. Every job is divided into many projects – Melissa now has responsibility for different areas of the UK so you might well create a North East list or a South West one – but ignore that division and make as many calls across as many projects as you can. You save a little time before each one by already being there, already being ready, and what’s more you have just attacked your To Do list in many different projects. You’ve pushed them all forward.

Melissa didn’t sound very convinced by this but she’s going to try it. And she’s going to look for the same thing in other areas: can you group all your emails together, for instance? If two tasks on two projects require you to be in the same place in the North East, can you arrange to do both on the same day?

One last thing. One last thing that Melissa wasn’t just unconvinced of but actually gave me that jerk of the head that says yeah, right, sure, a likely story. When she goes through her whole list she will find that there are tasks in there that she doesn’t have to do.

I promised her and I promise you. It is always true. Dump everything out of your head and then work your list: you’ll have done some things already, you’ll be able to group others and there will be yet more that you simply do not have to do.

I’ll tell you how Melissa gets on.

Case study part 1: Melissa Dale, investigative officer for Acme Ltd

Okay, she doesn’t really work for Acme Ltd. I can’t really tell you where she’s employed but please picture a very, very big UK organisation.

Similarly, she’s also not an investigative officer, though that title is pretty close to the real one and does give you an idea of what she does.

Last, she’s not called Melissa Dale. I just asked her: what would you like me to call you since I can’t use your real name? I have no clue why she picked Melissa Dale. But it’s a good name, isn’t it?

Here’s the thing. Melissa works a compressed week at Acme and is fairly new to it or at least fairly new to her current responsibilities. But she’s just suddenly taken on much more work: her own jobs have grown plus she’s inherited tasks from a colleague.

Melissa has never before been a To Do list kind of person but now she says she has to be. The sheer volume of work drove her to writing a To Do list:

Because I felt a bit overwhelmed and felt I had to get it out of my head and onto paper. To tame it.

She specifically chose to write her list on paper despite Acme having all manner of computer systems and Melissa herself being very familiar with her Mac, iPhone and iPad:

It’s a more tactile thing. It feels the best way of getting it out of my brain and onto there a list. It’s more physical doing it pen to paper rather than on screen. [I don’t usually write To Do lists but] it seems to work for me sometimes.

She is now using a computer but not through wanting the benefits of a To Do task manager. Instead, she moved to her Acme PC specifically:

Because the list got so long and I kept taking things off and adding things to the bottom. I felt I couldn’t be bothered to keep writing it out every day so that drove me to a computer.

Right now she’s using just a list in Microsoft Word. If you’ve read this site for more than ten minutes and you noted that Melissa has a Mac and iOS devices, you may be thinking I would recommend OmniFocus.

I did. But she doesn’t want to go to OmniFocus, she doesn’t want to go to Things or any other system:

Because I don’t usually write To Do lists, I need to find for myself what works for me.

By this process, Melissa began with no list at all, then moved to paper and is currently writing in Word. I expect she’ll find To Do managers next – but I could be wrong. That’s why I’m going to be following what she does over the next few months.

That sounds mean, like I’m following her from a science or statistics interest when really I just want her to be okay. Still, she’s so different to me that it is fascinating to see what she solutions she looks for and what solutions she finds.

Besides, she said that thing about needing “to tame” her tasks. How could you not now follow someone who says that?

NowDoThis and take it seriously

There’s a new online To Do service called NowDoThis. Go to a website, type in your To Do list right there and watch it look at you. It sits there, the list on your screen in a nice font. And if you’ve included a time – such as “I will do press ups for 1 hour” – then it will also automatically include a countdown clock.

You can hit Done early or you can wait until the clock runs out but then it’ll sit there with a Time’s Up reminder and a ping. Click and you’re on to your next task and it sitting there on the screen, watching you.

If you’re wedded to something like Things, Asana or OmniFocus then it won’t work for you, it just looks you in the eye and backs away, defeated. But for fast turnaround tasks, it’s a strong prod. So long as you take it seriously and don’t do anything like this:

Screen Shot 2014-05-12 at 12.24.33

Excuse me, I’m off to make tea. I have to. It’s right there on my list. What, you thought I’d really do press-ups? You’re adorable, thank you.

Take that, email-as-To-Do-list people

Previously on The Blank Screen… Cult of Mac writer Charlie Sorrell argued that you should stick to email (and a few other things) for your To Do list. I shook. I had to have tea. But in the same spirit of showing you Sorrell’s arguments when I don’t agree with them, I want to show you other people saying much the same as I do about how this is A TERRIBLE IDEA AND THEN SOME.

A to-do list contains only items you put on it. Your inbox, on the other hand, is like a spout with no spigot. You have no control over incoming items, except to consider them one by one and delete them—a highly ineffective way to cultivate a to-do list. Messages turn up at all hours of the day. They can come from anyone with no regard to the hierarchy that may determine your actual to-do list. And more likely than not, only a fraction of them will reflect what you need to get done.

Jill Duffy, PC Mag (12 March 2012)


If you’re conflating email and task management, then the job of simply communicating–reading and replying to your messages–gets bogged down by all the emails you leave sitting in your inbox simply so you won’t forget to address them. (And there are probably a few to-do reminders in there that you sent to yourself!) This approach also makes managing your to-do-list problematic: when you need to quickly identify the right task to take on next, nothing slows you down like diving into your inbox to scroll through old messages.

Alexandra Samuel, Harvard Business Review (7 March 2014)

There. I’ll shut up now. Probably.