10 Things Wrong With Your Todo List

You keep a todo list… yet you regularly forget tasks.

You write down lots of todos… yet you don’t get to them.

What’s going on here?

Do you ever wonder, “Um, hello?  Is this thing on?  Is this thing working?”

What is wrong with my todo list?

Why is My Todo List Not Working?

Lists are great tools for getting things done.  They allow us take our mind off of tracking our tasks, and concentrate on the work at hand.  However, sometimes our todo lists become work in themselves.

Some people wonder why their todo lists have taken on a life of their own and they are not making progress on the things they need to get done.  Tasks linger on their lists for days on end.  Deadlines are missed.  And so on.

So, why isn’t this working?

After all, keeping a todo list is easy… or is it?

The Simplest Solution

I am a big believer that the simplest solution is usually the most effective.  A recent article by a well-known time management author said that you had to fight complexity with complexity.  I couldn’t disagree more.  (PS – See Apple’s products if you have any lingering doubts.)

So, here are 10 things you can look at to improve your todo list’s effectiveness…

10 Things That Are Wrong With Your Todo List:

1.  Too Many Lists – Have many todo lists do you have?  Some people have one for work, one for home, one for that project, and so on.  What happens?  Things are forgotten on different lists.  And entire lists are sometimes forgotten.  Keep one todo list.

2.  Too Complex – Does your list look like a Gantt Chart for the next moon mission?  Todo lists need to be action oriented, if you cannot quickly discern your next task, you need to simplify your setup.

3.  Too Many Todos – Is your todo list simply too long?  Be restrictive in what you decide to take on.  Everyone has an upper limit on what they can get done.  If your list is several hundred tasks, you might need to trim it back a bit.

4.  Too Many Contexts – Do you really need to sort your list by context?  This again goes back to too much added complexity.

5.  Not Visible – Visibility leads to action.  If you cannot “see” your todo list, you will be less likely to act on it.  This is an area where paper-based lists tend to outshine electronic ones.  If your list is right in front on you, versus on an electronic device that you have to turn on, you are more likely to act on it.

6.  Too Many Options – This is usually related to electronic todo lists.  Does your todo list have options like: priority, location, due date, start date, starred, context, assigned to, etc.  Does it take you longer to record your todo options than it would to do the item?

7.  Not Actionable – Some people are good at adding things to their list, but not so good making sure that those things are tasks.  For your todo list to be doable, make sure it is task oriented. For example, “Garage Mess” is not a doable task.  Instead, try “Stop at Home Depot and buy garbage bags for cleanup.”

8.  You Don’t Capture Todos – On the opposite side from those who put too many things on their list, are those who fail to capture todos.  For your list to serve you, you have to get your tasks on the list.  When you think of something to be done, no matter how fleeting of a thought, get it on your list.

9.  It Is Difficult to Get Items on Your List – How long does it take you to add something to your todo list?  If it takes more than a few seconds, then you will unlikely to capture those passing thoughts and tasks.  This is another area where paper lists sometimes excel over electronic ones.

10.  You Don’t Use your List – This one seems obvious.  However, many people are good at writing things down, but not so good at acting on them.  Do you find lists in drawers or on your desk that you made, but never did anything about?  Make sure if you are making a list, that you have the discipline to carry it out.

Make Your List Work for You

Todo lists can be very powerful tools.  They can drive our productivity and accountability. However, be cautious not to let your list get out of hand or become work in itself.  The simplest todo list is usually the best.

When your todo list becomes effortless, you are on the right track.

When your list reminds you of a task you didn’t even remember writing down…  then you know it is working.

Is your todo list working for you?  What are your best todo list tips?

Related Posts:

5 Ways Your Time Management Is Broken

The Secret of Today Versus Todo

Why Do Complex Time Management Systems Fail?

No time for time management? Check out my online course designed to jump start your productivity! Take it online on your time and pace. As well, get direct access to me for advice and questions. Get details or enroll now by clicking here!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • http://www.mymagneticblog.com/ Silvia

    Great article! I like to get my list ready a night before to have it ready in the morning.

    • http://www.timemanagementninja.com Craig Jarrow

      Thanks, Silvia!

      Love getting my todo list together the night before! Gives more time to prep if there is something that needs some last minute attention. :)

  • Adrian Hoe

    I have a good read before going to bed. Yes, it works for me. I still can’t get my list to be as simple as possible. I am using OmniFocus on Macs and iPhone and it has got great features to do projects, contexts and sub lists… etc. I am putting down my tasks on the list and finish them off one at a time. My list also reminds me of tasks I need to do. Software project(s) is/are too complicated and too much to be done so I actually benefitted from doing the list.

    One thing that always bugs me is that I always end up with a few more new tasks added after completed one task. So, my list is ever growing. Is this bad?

  • http://twitter.com/screwjaw Jesse Lex

    My problem isn’t managing the todo list, it’s managing the tasks on the list!

    Too many short-term tasks get in the way of longer-term tasks, but the longer-term tasks have more priority on the lifetime perspective. Then there’s priority short-term tasks that I do automatically and don’t even need to go onto the todo list. And on top of that, social and family commitments!

    All of this is about my personal and extra-curricular professional (but would like to make my primary professional) task list. A lot of it has to do with catching up professionally by doing self-motivated things, and I’m VERY motivated to do them. Little things like purchasing a pair of shoes, exercising, trying to find a dentist that works for my insurance and myself. . .all important things but easy to put off.

    It probably just takes willpower to get these things done. Any tips on mustering that type of willpower?

  • http://www.fellowstream.com Deborah Fike

    My todo list is very dynamic. New things are constantly popping up that take priority over what I thought I was going to do. Creating a flexible todo list that allows you to prioritize on the fly is super useful in making sure you’re always doing the most relevant thing, thus making your list more relevant.

    • http://www.timemanagementninja.com Craig Jarrow

      Deborah – Agree! A flexible todo list is important.

      Priorities sometimes change. :)

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  • Eric

    I’ve never really found the idea of To-Do lists very effective for today. For tomorrow yes but for today not so much. I like the idea of Things-To-Get-Done-Today. Keep a simple idea of things you absolutely have to get done today, no matter what. These aren’t just “maybe I should get done” or “would be nice to get done”. These are absolutely have to get done. Period.

    The To-Do is stuff that over time can get done and once is important enough then goes on the, you guessed it, TTGDT list.

  • newbizblogger

    Hi Craig,

    It’s taken me a LONG time to find out what works for me, but I finally have. I have one global list, which I continuously add all the things I have to do, immediate and long term. Every morning, I transfer 7 tasks to my daily todo list.

    Do I always get them all done? No. Do spur of the moment things come up? Sure. But it relatively keeps me in line. ;-)

    Thanks for sharing this great article!

  • tclemendor

    Great article. I do have a tip to add. “Develop a daily to do routine”. There will be things on your todo list that are daily items. Create a routine of these, try to do them in a single block of time if possible, and include in that routine, “review and adjust to do list”. If you can put that block in roughly the same time frame everyday, great. You can even put a daily reminder in your calendar for “Daily To Dos'”

    • TMNinja

      @tclemendor Thanks!

      I agree with you that a “daily routine” is a very powerful habit. For many, it is a lack of consistency that causes their time management system to fail.

  • tclemendor

    Great article. I do have a tip to add. “Develop a daily to do routine”. There will be things on your todo list that are daily items. Create a routine of these, try to do them in a single block of time if possible, and include in that routine, “review and adjust to do list”. If you can put that block in roughly the same time frame everyday, great. You can even put a daily reminder in your calendar for “Daily To Dos'”

  • TMNinja

    @tclemendor Thanks!

    I agree with you that a “daily routine” is a very powerful habit. For many, it is a lack of consistency that causes their time management system to fail.

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  • jkippers

    Thanks a lot for a great post! The post explains very accurately why I use my inbox as my global todo-list. Yes, the e-mail inbox. It’s always accesible, and a lot of tasks first appears in the inbox anyway. Other tasks I place there by myself by sending an e-mail to myself.

  • jkippers

    Thanks a lot for a great post! The post explains very accurately why I use my inbox as my global todo-list. Yes, the e-mail inbox. It’s always accesible, and a lot of tasks first appears in the inbox anyway. Other tasks I place there by myself by sending an e-mail to myself.

    • TMNinja

      @jkippers Thanks for sharing!

      If that method works for you, then by all means use it. :)

      I find that most who use their inbox as their todo list quickly become overwhelmed by it. And love sending yourself an email as a todo. (I think we have all emailed ourselves at some point…) :)

      • jkippers

        @TMNinja@jkippers Thank for your reply!

        I think one of the reason people get overwhelmed by the inbox is that they lack some simple techniques (excuse my lack of english spelling skills) to keep the inbox empty. Being able do differ actionable information from reference-information, regonize procrastination, handle the inbox in batches of time etc.

        I do believe keeping a separate (preferablye only one) todo-system apart from the inbox can be a good thing for some people. Many people (like me) gets their attention drawn to the inbox anyway because of the constant influx of new tasks there. I’ve taken the consequens of this, and stay in the inbox. That way I don’t have to bother moving tasks to another system.

  • TMNinja

    @jkippers Thanks for sharing!

    If that method works for you, then by all means use it. :)

    I find that most who use their inbox as their todo list quickly become overwhelmed by it. And love sending yourself an email as a todo. (I think we have all emailed ourselves at some point…) :)

  • jkippers

    @TMNinja@jkippers Thank for your reply!

    I think one of the reason people get overwhelmed by the inbox is that they lack some simple techniques (excuse my lack of english spelling skills) to keep the inbox empty. Being able do differ actionable information from reference-information, regonize procrastination, handle the inbox in batches of time etc.

    I do believe keeping a separate (preferablye only one) todo-system apart from the inbox can be a good thing for some people. Many people (like me) gets their attention drawn to the inbox anyway because of the constant influx of new tasks there. I’ve taken the consequens of this, and stay in the inbox. That way I don’t have to bother moving tasks to another system.