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To-Do Lists Are Not the Answer to Getting Things Done (medium.com)
146 points by ingve on Nov 20, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 75 comments

I don't know about most people, but this works terribly for me. Motivation is huge for my happiness, so I want to do something when I'm in the mood for it.

This means I do keep a list of the things I need to get done, so whenever I've got free time, I take a look at the list and see what I'm most in the mood to do.

Of course, this is the real world -- sometimes something has a firm deadline so you have no choice (so of course you do things you aren't in the mood for).

But I want to run errands when I'm in the mood to go outside. I want to go to them gym when I'm feeling energetic. I want to wash dishes or clean my apartment when my brain is conked out anyways. I want to work on a hobby when I'm feeling creative. I want to read a book when I'm feeling relaxed.

Or at work, I might be in the mood for writing e-mails, or working on a presentation, or chatting about a project, or catching up on reading. They'll all get done eventually, but why not do the one you'll most enjoy at the moment, as long as you can?

And I know myself well enough to know I never have any idea what I'm going to feel when. Will I be feeling energetic or creative or conked out tonight after work? Tomorrow when I wake up? The day after on my lunch break? Who knows!

Scheduling time to do my things is a disaster for my happiness. I'm sure it can work for other people, but it's not for everyone.

>I don't know about most people, but this works terribly for me. Motivation is huge for my happiness, so I want to do something when I'm in the mood for it.

That's a sure-fire recipe for never doing most things one needs to do, because most of those things are not things that one looks forward to anyway.

Even for the core work someone does (e.g. writing for a writer), people mention time and again that setting up times in advance and committing to them works better than getting in the mood.

I concur. If you schedule in advance, it's much easier to break through the initial emotional barrier of starting the thing you're anxious about.

I used to hate scheduling, now I swear by it. The change was entirely in my understanding what "scheduling" means. I used to treat this as iron-strong commitments. Those made me dislike scheduling because I felt I'm losing autonomy over my own life. Now, I treat scheduling in advance as my best-effort plan for efficiently doing what I want, subject to revision at any point I deem necessary. I found allowing myself to shuffle the schedule around as I need made it feel liberating, and my worries about losing autonomy pretty much disappeared.

You may want to try SkedPal. The Fuzzy Planning behind it works exactly as you described. http://www.skedpal.net/help/skedpal-basic-scheduling-concept...

Depends on what makes you happy, though. If you focus on the satisfaction of crossing a dreaded task off the list after you've been avoiding it for a few days, that can make the task an attractive choice.

This mentality can be a little dangerous. You're training yourself to cater to your moods. This can result in important but not urgent tasks that you're never really in the mood to do never getting done. Or, if it's a task that has to be done, a lot of resistance because you're used to waiting for motivation to kick in.

For me, a better approach has been to consciously force myself to do things I don't feel like doing. I push through low energy, distractions, or boredom and just get it done.

You might expect this to lead to sub-optimal performance or suffering through unenjoyable tasks. Sometimes it does, but in my experience, a more common result is the good feeling of having pushed through a barrier and found a second, or third wind.

I used to try this method, but it's never worked for me. My productivity is so incredibly low when I'm trying to work on something I don't want to do that it's just a big waste of time.

If it's something actually important I'll do it eventually. If it's something I truly dread, I might do it at the last possible moment, but I'll do it.

Perhaps there's a middle ground.

I've found that my moods are fairly cyclic. I'm high energy in the a.m., start to trail off in the afternoon and then catch a second wind after dinner. To the extent I'm able I structure my day around these cycles, reserving the high-concentration/creativity tasks for the a.m. and the more mindless/mundane for the afternoon. Evening's a free-for-all depending on whether I still have work to do or not.

Different approaches work for different people. I wish people would understand that, instead of assuming that what works for other people is ~secretly harmful~ and they should just use what works for the speaker.

The first and only ironclad law of productivity is "Do what works."

But the corollary of that law is "try and figure out what works for you". So test the different approaches, instead of assuming they won't work for you; evaluate them honestly, and stick to those that produce results.

Totally agree that scheduling is not for everyone. I've also read a lot of so called productivity expert saying that you should write down all the things in mind without bothering scheduling them. IMHO, there's no single solution for personal productivity boost but to work hard and figure out the best solution for yourself.

Different tools for different cases. What I find helpful (as long as I'm in a mood to stick to it):

- Writing down all the things in my mind (i.e. mind dump) - tremendously reduces my stress and clears my head; a good mind dump makes my mind feel temporary empty, unburdened. After doing that I usually quickly review what I wrote down and make a conscious decision about what to do with each item (e.g. put it on a TODO list, ignore it, shoot a mail about it and forget), so that those things don't start immediately cluttering my head again.

- Big todo lists - mostly useful to keep track of random errands that I'd otherwise have to remember. I'm e.g. happy to tell that I don't remember when my rent is due, or when I have to remind a friend about sending me the details of a project - but I'm confident that my todo list will remind me at the appropriate moment.

- Improvised, throwaway todo lists - help me focus on a difficult task through the process of breaking it down into steps small enough I can execute them one-by-one without getting a panic attack.

- Scheduling - works for me if I schedule blocks dedicated to particular task or project - like "work", "project X", "random", "HN break". Helps me focus without triggering my otherwise usual anxiety attacks. Also I make sure to schedule "random / shallow work" blocks regularly, which exist to ensure I do process my todo lists, that would otherwise go stale.

"Master, what is the way to be disciplined in the Tao?"

"When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep!"

The main point of the article is not that scheduling is superior to TODO lists. Instead it is that continually adding to a TODO list is bad and instead making a schedule makes that impossible.

I feel using a TODO list with time estimates would give the benefits from the article was also letting you schedule flexibly as you feel like it. By putting the time estimates in it makes it easier to say no to tasks that don't have to be done.

Watch out for 'Trivial Accomplishments'.

It's a term I came up with as I observed myself making todo lists, completing them, feeling good about it, but realizing that I'm not getting from A to B on important projects. It's (comparatively) easy to make todo items like 'buy milk', 'get haircut', 'go on date with X', 'read 1 chapter of <book>', but these are what I call trivial accomplishments. Having a todo list 100% made up of these is a good way to fool yourself, because you will feel good about yourself (for a while), because that's just how we work, the illusion of progress fools the brain.

Way out: Separate todo lists into trivial and non-trivial, eg. I have a separate Trello list for each. Make sure your non-trivial list is not empty and you make progress on it. Hard items are writing/output versus reading/input. Another good way to identify them is if they're about Deliberate Practice.

"When you schedule things, you are forced to deal with the fact that there are only so many hours in a week. You’re forced to make choices rather than add something to a never ending to-do list that only becomes a source of anxiety."

Great observation. I get the feeling scheduling is something that MBAs are taught, where "time is the restriction". What about JIT scheduling? In my view, adding dates to every task is another BS and unnecessary task. Here's an alternative restriction, tasks per day. "Ivy Ledbetter Lee" (business productivity guru 100 years ago) had another approach. Spend 15min at end of day doing the following:

* specify six tasks you need to finish

* prioritise them one to six

* do each task, in order, till finished

* work your arse off

* left-over tasks are added to tomorrows list

* repeat

The restriction here is how many tasks I NEED to do TODAY. Read more about "Ivy Ledbetter Lee" below.

[0] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12999116

Oh, wow, JITing TODO lists, this is why I love Hacker News

I create todo lists because I forget what I wanted to do within minutes, or even seconds.

Having a todo list at hand to write these things down means I don't lose them, even if I don't look at them again for weeks or months.

Not sure where you'd put this on a Calendar.

Are you overworked or super stressed? You should not forget things this easily - I was the same in the first half of the year, and it was due to almost unbearable stress.

we are all overworked. todo lists are the only ways to add to the backlog.

Marketing Material. TLDR; Version: In order to get things done, you don't just make a list. You also add Time (calendar) and Place (if applicable) to the Task.

This is same thing someone (can't remember) said that TODO lists get done only if you also put a time and place to each TODO Task.

Personally, I like the Any.do approach of categorizing all ToDo items into Today, Tomorrow, Upcoming, Someday.

It splits the difference between flexibility and awareness of time limitations.

The greatest insight I had when it comes to time management came from a surprising source. I had played around a bit with Pomodoro for my typical intellectual tasks (research, programming etc.) with no real success.

Then on a summer weekend my sister asked me to help her renovate her apartment, specifically I was tasked with the removal of all the wallpapers. I said sure, give me the key and I'll get going over the weekend and actually dropped by Friday after work...by chance I had my Pomodoro timer in my work backpack. I looked around and came to the conclusion that I had absolutely no idea how long it would take me to tear everything down. So I guessed how much I could do in 25 minutes, set the timer (25 minutes) and went to work. I got less done than expected and I suppose you could say I started a Bayesian process of sorts updating my priors but most importantly I realized that knowing how much time something roughly takes is extremely valuable in scheduling work.

I went on to calculate roughly how many tomatoes it would take to get each room done and since there wasn't much time left on the Friday figured I could get one of the tiny ones done. It worked, the estimation was fairly accurate and I actually caught myself trying to beat my estimates. On Saturday I had a great plan and a firm goal (get the living room and one extra room done). I eventually settled in on 2 tomatoes followed by a 15 minute break. Worked great.

tl;dr: Ever since that I get more done whenever I know how long it'll roughly take. That means exploring is very valuable. For new tasks I estimate in tomatoes, draw a circle for each and get going. When it takes longer I add squares and once the task is done I update my mental image of how long it'll take in the future.

Whenever I don't know how long something might take I tend to procrastinate a lot until I force myself to timebox it. I think most interesting tasks tend to fall in this category.

The same old thing peope talk about thousands of time. This is just a marketing article to promote the $59 seminar: https://www.bewaymoreproductive.com

Came to the comments to post this, so thanks for beating me to it.

Any time someone says they have "the secret," they are selling you something. And more often than not, there's a good amount of snake oil in that bottle.

Life hack: grab the important bits from the comments and skimming the post here.

I think the big mistake of people talking about productivity is the idea that a single formula works for everyone. For example, I finally discovered that I am most productive when I have no todo lists. I just work better by simply picking whatever has highest priority in my mind and doing it. The point is, if something is important it should be on your mind. If it is not, it probably is not important or urgent. Of course, if something needs to be remembered you make notes, but nothing similar to a todo list. Whenever I have a todo list I instinctively start to slack off.

How about this - different people respond well to different organizational methods? Perhaps like many things there is not a one size fits all solution.

For me, todo lists in the form of a Kanban board with columns that hold longer term "need to remember" tasks really help so I don't forget those things. And when I am sitting idle wondering what to do next, I have a list ready (unless something else pops up that is higher priority).

I think over scheduling might lead to its own inflexibility and paralysis as well. But it might work great for some people!

Steve Blank (2010) Strategy is Not a To Do List


nice observation, understand strategy before todo otherwise it's a rudderless ship

I've been trying having 2 lists. One I call the bucket, where I have things I need to do but don't know when yet. And the other is for things I need to do today. So when today is depleted I pull stuff from the bucket. The only challenge here is putting realistic tasks for the 'today' list. I've noticed that I can only put like 2 or 3 max to actually make this work. The best part of making a very short list is that you can actually finish it, and it kinda motivates you to do a little extra if you have time.

You may want to read up on Kanban, it sounds like you're well on your way to starting to invent the Kanban process for yourself

That sounds a bit like the Next Actions and the Someday/Maybe lists of Getting Things Done by Dave Allen. You might want to look into that. I love it!

Use a calendar instead of a todo-list because that's what the most successful people do.

There. I saved you a bit of time so now you too can go be more "most successful".

I find that this fails if your job involves putting out fires and responding to unpredictable client needs. I used to make a very concrete schedule at the start of a week and by midweek most of it was out the window. I do usually keep small must-do-this-week list, and the key for me in planning is estimating the duration of each task so that I can take advantage of what time I do get, and choose the right task for the time I have.

When I was a manufacturing engineer, I used to have a short list of long term projects, a fair list of medium term projects, and a long list of tasks. A rolling todo list was the only way to stay on top of things.

You can't be the Pinball Wizard when the job requires you to be the pinball.

>When I was a manufacturing engineer, I used to have a short list of long term projects, a fair list of medium term projects, and a long list of tasks. A rolling todo list was the only way to stay on top of things.

I'm in a similar situation. This is what works for me. I use a spreadsheet to keep track of what I'm working on currently and my progress so far. I don't update it all the time - probably something like every 3 to 4 days. sometimes it's as simple as adding a line to say "Emailed Phil with my recommendations, waiting to hear back from him - call him if no word by 23rd".

I'm constantly having to jump between various projects. This is the only way I've found to keep track of status of various things. Sometimes I'll be out on plant dealing with an issue all day or supervising a trial or tied up with meetings etc. Before I adopted this system it was a nightmare picking things up again after a few days away from my desk.

A spreadsheet is an interesting thought for juggling status of a bunch of different projects. I'll try that, thanks!

Check out airtable- I use it for a similar purpose for long term things.

There's a more comprehensive article here:


A little markety but seems like good advice.

Personally though I always need a back burner / ice box (think agile) but in part its handling for the fact that I have bad memory and then can relax a little more that I won't forget it.

I use a bullet journal, it has been lifechanging. So yknow, do what works for you.

My personal experience is 100% in line with this, and it's beyond me why none of the major todo list apps feature drag & drop calendar integration.

I'm reluctantly using Things, and the closest thing it has is due dates and "hide this task until that date". Surely, it wouldn't be that hard to implement a daily planner view that brings up your day's calendar in the right pane, a list of upcoming tasks in the left one, and lets you drag them across ?

I feel orphaned ever since Google acqui-hired then shut down the only app that really nailed this workflow : Timeful. Its AI-based autoscheduling was only a bonus, the UI was marvelous. See https://gmail.googleblog.com/2015/05/time-is-on-your-sidewel... or for some background info: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/on-leadership/wp/2014/08...

Parts of Timeful have been added to the Google Calendar app but it's lacking, and nowhere near as close to a complete, magical and satisfying system as Timeful was.

More than a year later, I'm still desperately looking for good alternatives. "Plan" (https://getplan.co/) looks promising but not quite polished enough, and "Skedpal" seems overkill.

Anyone else in this situation ?

IQTELL.com has 'virtual calendars'. Anything with a due date appears on the calendar automatically. Unfortunately you can't sync these calendars with any other app. Alternatively you can also add an action to an actual calendar manually.

Yes, I have been looking for a split pane drag and drop solution too. No dice. Regardless, IQTELL is so powerful though that no matter when I find an elegant solution, it falls short in other areas anyway.

Have you seen SkedPal lately? http://www.skedpal.net/skedpal-2-0-whats-new/

Fantastical 2 is the only good solution I've been able to find for both calendaring and reminders. It lacks many of the features of OmniFocus but I find the trade-off to be worthwhile.

Agreed! I've looked for alternatives but they all miss the mark. I was considering building my own but haven't found the time.

"I’ve helped thousands of people — from NFL Coaches and Four Star Generals to best-selling authors and hedge fund managers — feel less busy and get more done.

I get asked for advice on improving productivity so much so that I’ve packaged most of it into an online seminar that I call Insanely More Productive."

Why is an advertisement for a $59 online seminar on the front page of HN? Nice title aside, I'm flagging this.

If you look past the ad, the author's main point is a great piece of advice. A task takes time, so if you're going to do it you should schedule it. It's easy to put something on a todo list because you're not committing to doing it; you're just putting it on a list which causes anxiety.

When you look past the ad, there's yet another pitch at the bottom and it's not along piece.

I use a simple version of a TO-DO list. I have a email folder ACTION, and mails with a subject prefix of TODO are moved there with an auto-rule. My wife also adds reminders to the TODO list as required.

This works well for me; I have weekly timesheet and billing to do, and it keeps track of where I am in the workflow. An automated job on my server mails me the weekly tasks required in the subject, and I delete each mail as the task is complete. For example my weekly automated tasks are

   TODO: create invoice
   TODO: add invoice to finance spreadsheet
   TODO: complete timesheet
   TODO: save approved timesheet
   TODO: mail invoice and timesheet to customer
   TODO: confirm scheduled payment received
   TODO: perform weekly backup
   TODO: CAR1 check oil
   TODO: CAR1 tyre pressures
   TODO: CAR1 water jet reservoir
   TODO: CAR2 check oil
   TODO: CAR2 tyre pressures
   TODO: CAR2 water jet reservoir
This allows certain tasks to be performed when the weather is appropriate.

As an aside, an important facet of self organization is time tracking. Does HN have a good way of time tracking? I dislike the stop/start method? Something like stochastic time tracking (https://github.com/dreeves/TagTime) perhaps (but that actually works).

The problem with using calendars is actually you're pretty flexible about when you want to get most stuff done, you just have a deadline. But you don't want to do it at the last minute, so for a weekend task you want to check in a few times to see if you are not too busy to do it.

http://www.dueapp lets you put a time to be reminded and that has really clear snooze functionality. So I procrastinate a lot (snooze) but I'm always aware of it in case I have a deadline, and I don't have to worry about remember it.

(I'm unaffiliated with Due I just love the product)

The philosophy behind scheduling your to dos makes total sense -- if it’s in your calendar, it’s actionable, realistic, and more likely to get done.

Only problem is that it's tedious and time consuming to actually schedule each item.

I created Focuster (http://focuster.com) to solve this problem by automatically scheduling your to dos for you.

An extra bonus is that it reschedules based on cancellations and new appointments.

Would love any feedback you guys might have!

While scheduling is great sometimes you've really got to pareto your way to whats important. It is important to keep near and far perspective at all times, not to have your time be eaten by menial tasks... that something I am guilty of. If I am slipping I would take a break and try to reframe what is important as something interesting, ask yourself - how this can be exciting, interesting to you?

my 2c.

I use a to-do list for things that are important but outside my focus. Prepare records for my accountant, errands to complete before a trip, a random deadline, etc. If it's inside my focus I don't need to write it down, and if it's not important, it's not getting done.

I think these matters vary enormously for each person. Using a tool badly doesn't make it a bad tool.

Agreed - I personally have a giant running to-do list which I use to put stuff down on and get out of my head, and then never look at it again.

This is totally in accordance with: "Work expands so as to fill the time avaible for its completion." - which I found to be very true. I'm so much more productive, when time restricted. And even more so when schedule restricted, because you can't just say you take a short break which then extends for hours.

This is a repeat of the famous Getting Things Done book, which covers prioritizing your life through organization and scheduling.

>This is a repeat of the famous Getting Things Done book, which covers prioritizing your life through organization and scheduling.

Pretty much the opposite!

David Allen is against scheduling anything other than hard deadlines. The ones which if you miss, you really miss! The examples in the article are the ones he tells you never to put in the calendar (groceries, date night, etc). Anything that you can delay means it does not belong in there.

He does have a tickler file, but that's merely for reminding you, and only at the day granularity.

I agree, this is the opposite of Getting Things Done. I've been using the GTD method (quite obsessively) for about a year now and I love it. I've got clean workspace where everything is waiting for me to do stuff. I have a system of lists categorized by Next Actions, Someday/Maybe, Projects and so on. Both digitally and with paper.

When I saw the title I was surprised. And my experiences are quite the opposite of what I'm reading in the article. My life improved a lot by using lists.

The problem of having to guess how long stuff takes and the cascading effect of constantly having to reschedule everything was very depressing for me.

Nowadays I'm doing the important stuff from the Next Actions list and do something from the Someday/Maybe list for fun. And my calendar and reminders make sure I do the time critical stuff at the time it needs to be done.

This article sounds insane to me.

Getting Things Done does not focus on concretely scheduling tasks for specific times and dates, unless I missed a huge piece of that book.

You're correct, in fact, it warns explicitly assinging a datetime unless it _has_ to be done by then.

That being said, the biggest reason my GTD practice fails is I rarely spend time getting things done, but instead end up grooming an ever-growing to-do list. Assigning datetimes to trigger reminders is tempting...

Don't do it!

Instead, let your list go a little wild, and put the stuff you truly don't need to do in that "Someday" pile and don't look at it until you've gotten a few projects done from the pile you've determined is important.

Good article, but a quarter page nag screen (on mobile) I can not dismiss is pretty annoying and I nearly gave up reading.

The tricky part for this approach is knowing the order things can get done. Days can be dynamic.

I'm wondering if a schedule without times but only durations would be an upgrade from the ToDo list, showing how much can be accomplished in a day, or how long it will take to complete a list.

Did I just describe a personal Gantt chart?

A hybrid of TODO, scheduling and contextual seems to work best for me. I'm using Nozbe and it's about perfect: http://nozbe.com/a-jasoncomely

Why, he's taken a to-do list and prioritized it and assigned deadlines! Then put those deadlines in the calendar!

Just like pretty much every to-do list suggests you do.

The whole point of the article is that visualizing time as space on a calendar is qualitatively different than adding todos to a list because it helps us remember that our time is finite. While the finiteness of our time is an obvious fact, it's the kind of thing that many of us 'forget'. I, for one, found this short article valuable.

That’s how the most successful people use lists … under a specific time block.

Wow, talk about a spectacular exaggeration.


Request for disproof: Any successful people here make to-do lists?

My wife is ultra-productive and is a todo-list person. She does have a tendency to overcommit, which scheduling would help with. But that hasn't stopped her from being quite successful, and she works at a PR firm, which is a job has all sorts of tasks that continually emerge and require prioritization.

I'm less so a todo-list person, but I do use them help to clear my headspace, more so than to run my day. I plan to experiment with more scheduling to enhance my productivity. I don't think I'm the sort that wants to go to the extreme with it, but I think I may find it helpful.

My method is this: - make a todo list - give each item a cost to get it done or level of effort 0.5 - 4 hours - find out how much actual time I have - budget out that time to each item in 0.5 hour increments - optionally make a schedule

Got me through college x 3.

Nor is reading (or writing) blog posts. Or comments.

Click bait title!

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