Why your to do list doesn't work

How wonderful it is to check something off your to-do list. It makes you feel satisfied because you have achieved something. But if you look critically at your list, some tasks have been there for some time. Because of this you postpone and then it becomes last minute work again. You are disappointed and you have a love affair with your task list. This article makes it clear why your to-do list doesn’t work and what you can do about it.

To do or not to do?

There are different thoughts about using a to do list. There are people who do not believe in a to do list. Such a list only gives stress and it only gets longer. Or: by using a to do list you are not concerned with the bigger picture: you are only doing and you forget to think about why you are doing something. Alternative to to-do list? You need an overview to be truly productive. The to-do list in your head does not provide a good overview. It is better to visualize all tasks, either on paper or in a digital task manager.

You do not use your to-do list

Okay, it’s logical that a to do list does not work if you do not use it. Maybe you made one a while ago and you have no idea where it is. So what do we do? We make a new list. And what about the old to do list? Have you ever found old lists somewhere in a drawer? And what do you then see? The items on your old list are still on your new list.

The list contains too many tasks

What’s the big disadvantage of a to do list? Well you can put ánything on it. Small tasks, megalomaniac projects … it is all neatly arranged, ready to be checked off. But this is how it goes. You take your to do list and first look at the quick wins, things that you can check off the quickest. We love checking off. The moment we cross something, some dopamine is produced in our body.

Why doesn’t the action list work?
The small, simple and easy tasks are often done first. And what about the difficult stuff? We keep it on the list. And that’s the big problem when it comes to procrastination. Those big tasks are here to stay.

Bye to-do list, hello task list

Those big jobs are often projects. And this is the weird thing: you can’t do a project. So it makes no sense to put projects on a to do list. An annual plan? Is a project. Writing a draft? Same. What you can do are tasks. It is therefore better to use a task list. Only put tasks on your list. And what about those projects? Chop a project into different tasks and put it on your task list. It is better to schedule the concentration tasks in your agenda.

You can’t do a project, you can only do actions

You may now think: “Yes, but if I start to convert all my projects into tasks, I will get a very long task list.” Yes, that’s right. But what do you prefer? A project on your list that feels like it has been on there for centuries or a long list of actions that you can check off relatively quickly? The latter right?

Your to-do list only shows the end result

OK, you now know why you should not put projects on your task list. Something else to take into account: when we put something on our list, we often think in terms of the desired end result. Think of a holiday, marathon, new kitchen or exam. These are also projects, but formulated as an end result.

The end result doesn’t put you in motion
It is too far away or it is too abstract. The end result doesn’t trigger your brain to take action. It is much more effective to think in the first actions. Ask yourself: What should I do with this project first? You put that on your task list.

You don’t check your to do list often enough

During the day you occasionally look at your to do list. You’ll notice the list gets a bit out of sight. Your attention is demanded by emails and phone calls that come in and colleagues with ad hoc requests.

Do you recognize this? That you pack your things at the end of the day and that you will see your list again. You take a look at it and you are disappointed. You did not do what you intended to do again. Apparently you were mainly busy with someone else’s to do list.

Your task list is your guide. Make sure you start your workday by checking your list and keep it in view. People often check their e-mails a day, but they should check their to-do list more often.

Your to-do list is incomplete

Be honest. Where else do you keep your tasks? Do you use Post Its? Are there tasks on a notepad? Do you still have to dos in your head? Take a critical look at your current task list. Your tasks are probably spread out in several places. Because of this you do not have a good overview.

Less is more. Make sure you keep all tasks in one place. Do you like paper? Then choose 1 nice planner. A digital task manager is more useful because you can easily adjust tasks.

Digital Task Manager

Are you looking for a good digital task manager? There are hundreds of to do apps available and it is sometimes difficult to choose the right one. There are of course both free and paid to do apps. Usually the free to do app also has a premium version. Below are a few to do apps that are worth trying.

To Do & Todoist

why your to do list doesn't work Microsoft to do

Microsoft To Do – This free to-do app is from Microsoft and is the replacement for Wunderlist. With To Do you can easily create project folders and link them to actions. Do you also use the taskbar in Outlook? To Do can synchronize with most versions of Microsoft Outlook. You can download the app on all your devices (recently also on the Mac). Click here for the Microsoft To Do download.

Todoist – This to-do app is free and for more functions there is the Premium version. Just like with To Do, you can easily create project lists and link actions to them. With the paid version you can also create labels and you can convert emails to tasks. Ideal! Works on all devices, both on Windows and Mac. Click here for the Todoist download.


In summary

– Use an action list
– Do not use more than 1 action list
– Keep the action list in sight
– Check your action list regularly
– Do not use your head to store actions
– Cut your project into actions
– Do not think in the end result, but in the first actions

Online coaching

Are you struggling on a daily basis to beat procrastination? Creating smarter to do lists are part of our online coaching program.