Do Your To-Do Lists Damage Your Productivity?

The Dark Side of To-Do Lists

The Dark Side of To-Do ListsTo-Do Lists, we’ve all heard it, if you want to manage your time better, write a to-do list and work through that list until it’s complete.

Are you one of those people who are forever writing to-do lists? Perhaps you see writing your list as the best way to outline your work for the day, to put your thoughts in order and to help you to be more productive.

And indeed to-do lists can do all the things mentioned above, and more. They can also help you to avoid forgetting any important tasks and they can be very encouraging as you ‘tick off’ each item on your list.

But to-do lists also have a dark-side and if you don’t use them correctly they can in fact end up doing you more harm than good.

Read on and we’ll look at the dark side of to-do lists and how they can end up actually damaging your productivity!!

Are You Forever Writing To-Do Lists?

As mentioned earlier in this article. Some people are forever writing to-do lists. And while those to-do lists are potentially going to be beneficial for your productivity, they nevertheless will take you time to write meaning that you’re taking time out of your day.

In fact, for some people writing and using to-do lists can become a form of procrastination. Rather than getting on with work, writing a to-do list might seem like a much more appealing alternative to kill ten minutes and it can almost always be justified by that great phrase, I’m planning my day and no one ever argues with you.

If you have ever started your to-do list with ‘write to-do list’ then that’s a pretty big clue that you’re writing these lists for the sake of writing them (you may laugh, but people do this!).

Are Your To-Do lists a Demotivation?

Writing to-do lists can also potentially be demotivating. Sure, it’s very motivating when you cross an item off of your to-do list and feel that rewarding sense of progress; but it can be similarly disheartening to leave a to-do list incomplete or to just see that it’s so long you’re unlikely to ever even approach it.

Some people have been known to write their to-do lists and then spend the rest of the day working on tasks that are not on their list, and at the end of the day feeling that they have been very productive, they look at their list and get demotivated when they realise they can’t tick anything off, in the worst case scenario they then think about what tasks they have done during the day, add it to their list and then tick those items off.

Do Your To-Do Lists Lack of Structure?

To-do lists unfortunately aren’t very flexible and they don’t have much structure. This is literally a list of things you have to do, either in order of importance or in no order at all. It’s easy to skip items on your to-do list when you don’t really feel like completing them, whilst some tasks might take much more time and energy than others.

In effect then, a to-do list really doesn’t do as much as it could do and you might find that writing a ‘plan’ or timetable for the day would be more productive if you really did want to provide yourself with some structure.

What are your thoughts on to-do lists? Let me know in the comments below

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Till Next time

Mike Gardner is The Time Doctor

Also published on Medium.

Mike Gardner aka ‘The Time Doctor’ and is highly regarded as one of the UK’s leading Time Management and productivity specialists. As well as being regularly featured in both online and off-line media outlets around the world, he is the author of the best selling time management book, Business Owners: Your Family Misses You. He regularly speaks on topics that are congruent with his mission of helping small business owners, entrepreneurs and independent professionals to be incredibly productive, whilst still balancing their business and family commitments in a way that enables them to feel fulfilled and guilt-free. He is an avid Aston Villa fan, a Dad to Neil & Emma, a hubby to Wendy and in his role as an Officer with the reserve forces, he has completed operational tours of Iraq and Afghanistan.

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17 thoughts on “Do Your To-Do Lists Damage Your Productivity?

  1. I think that’s really interesting and makes a lot of sense. I don’t often write a to-do list but then I find I get overwhelmed by what’s in my head and so find it more manageable when it’s written on paper. I don’t give myself a time limit to complete everything though, it’s just a list of things that I must do.

    • Thanks for visiting Hannah, what you have is a master list, the next step is to go through the list and decide on the next action that you need to take, you can then prioritse your actions

  2. My problem with todo lists is that I fail to look at them after I’ve created them. They are a good way to get things sorted out in your brain though. I usually think of them as a focusing tool.

    I do like to put things into my email calendar. Thunderbird Lightning has a good task system that allows you to specify a time/date and reminder for things. That way I can put down something that I need to worry about next week and I don’t have to worry about it until then. It is one of the main reasons I haven’t switched my email/calendar to Google yet – I am very comfortable with the way it works in Thunderbird.

    • Hi Bill, Thanks for dropping by, many people fail to look at their to do lists once they have created them, it’s usually a trait of more creative right brained people. Like you i’ve not moved to google and have no intention of. I’ve not come across Thunderbird but have added it to my list to rewiew.

  3. Nice one you put up here Mike.
    I’ve been a big fan of to-do list. It works a times but honestly, there are those days it could make things overwhelming.
    I will try stick to a daily plan or perhaps timetable as you’ve suggested. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Great post! I find that having a To Do list helps me stay on track. Also when I feel overwhelmed with what I think I have to get done, making a list of each step is really helpful. Most of the time I find that the task isn’t so long, or won’t take as much time as I think.

    I love creating my lists in Evernote, as you can format them with the check boxes that you can tick off. But I also find having a written list on my desk extremely helpful. When I see it I am less likely to get off track.
    Sue Fleckenstein recently posted…Should You Set Up a Writing Business?My Profile

    • Thanks Sue, highlighting everything that you have to do and then identifying what action you have to take next is a great way of reducing overwhelm

  5. There is no doubt that to-do lists help to get things done. I am absolutely hopeless at using them as the list gets longer as the tasks done get fewer. The real art lies in melding in a priority system that either reduces the list as it gets built or moves really important stuff to the “I really have to do this list” list or the bills will not get paid or my boss will sack me or my wife will stop talking to me or my kids will starve type of list.

    • Thanks Mark, totally agree with the prioritisation aspect, but most people prioritise against the wrong things, you have to be clear about goals and objectives in all areas of your life and then you can prioritise properly

  6. I have found that while people know how to write a to-do list, they struggle with what to do next to actually get stuff done. Thus, the writing and re-writing of lists. I created a new task management iPhone app called priorigami: the art of productivity ( While you can enter your tasks, it is designed to help you get tasks done by getting you to set your Daily Top Three and then tracking your progress along the way. With the app, all your tasks are in one place so you don’t need to keep writing your lists. Try it out and let me know what you think —

  7. Hi Mike,

    To Do Lists only work for me for making it to the Dr. or Dentist on time or what to buy at the grocery store.

    Finally figured it out. With my computer and friends…even when using a To Do List… when “check email” is first…guess what?
    End up reading about offers you can’t live without…instead of clicking delete as I should!
    Then all of a sudden-get a notice from Facebook and off and running. (solved that, disconnected Facebook Notifications from my email account)..

    By the way, got here from an FB link from Sue’s Social Monday for Bloggers.
    See Ya!

    ~Cararta and ArtaGene
    Cararta recently posted…BuildMy Profile

  8. I’ve learned not to write everything I need to do, only the top three things. That way, I know I’ll manage my tasks and won’t beat myself up over anything I missed. It’s good to add one or two extras if I know I have spare time.

    Good points!

    • Hi Shan, I’ve advocate a maximum of three things to all my clients, it allows you to deal with the curve balls that come in without impacting on your days schedule too much. Thanks for your comments it is appreciated