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To-Do Lists Don't Work (hbr.org)
187 points by xav on Sept 29, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 126 comments



Can we get "(for me)" added to the topic here? There's no such thing as an organizational system that works (or doesn't work) for every person out there.

I personally use Taskwarrior[1] for work (because I'm in the terminal all the time anyways), and aside from a couple of edge cases, it's the simplest and most effective thing I've found.

Our group uses a JIRA[2] instance that I've customized the heck out of to make an effective "This is what needs done, grab this if you have any spare time" system. The motto is "No ticky, no worky" - anybody doing anything work related generates a ticket for it. We've got shell aliases hooked into the web service, so anybody can just do a command like:

  ja awesomeproject 'Finish work on the gonkulator' inprogress
For home and personal, I'm a fan of Any.do[3], it's a Chrome webapp and native Android app. The Chrome app lives in a button on the top bar for easy access, the Android app stays in the notification pane and shows what you should be doing next, and it has this feature called Moment where it runs you through your pending tasks once a day, and you mark them as done, to do today, or to do later. Great way to make sure you keep visibility on stuff.

    [1]: http://taskwarrior.org
    [2]: http://www.atlassian.com/software/jira
    [3]: http://any.do


  > Our group uses a JIRA[2] instance that I've customized 
  > the heck out of to make an effective "This is what needs 
  > done, grab this if you have any spare time" system. The 
  > motto is "No ticky, no worky" - anybody doing anything 
  > work related generates a ticket for it.
Understand that the system you've created implies that someone else has decided that the work is worth doing, someone else has broken the work down into manageable tasks, and someone else has prioritized it. This may work great for employees who need a lot of direction, but starts to break down as tasks become larger and more complex, and the goal is to leverage the knowledge and experience of the person doing the task.

Markovitz is really advocating an approach that works better for employees who are essentially given whole projects to manage, and are empowered to steer the direction of the project overall:

  > You might think, “There’s no way I could tell my boss
  > that I can’t do this by mid-February.” But I’d argue that 
  > you have to say no. The CFO says no when the president 
  > wants to move into a new building or hire new people, and 
  > the company can’t afford it — that’s part of her fiduciary 
  > responsibility. You have the same kind of responsibility — 
  > to set expectations about what can be accomplished with 
  > the amount of production time you have available.
(edit: Both approaches have their place, given the work and the team. It's important to understand both approaches, however. I see a lot of frustration from employees who want more say in the overall project direction when they're in a "just do what you're told" kind of job. Similarly, some employees really love the ability to focus on the tasks assigned, and not having to worry about whether they make sense from a business perspective.)


Ah, I should probably give more detail there. We operate on a kind of tiering system, technicians, sysadmins, and engineers. Sysadmins and engineers are generally the ones entering tickets, and the technicians the ones working them. Generally, but not always. It works as a good reminder system too for all kinds of assorted tasks that would be easily forgotten.

I think you've made a bad assumption in that only one or two people are breaking down projects into smaller tasks - that's not the way the software is set up, and it's not the way it works in practice for us. Anyone can assign subjobs to any main job, and this happens on a pretty regular basis.

The major bonus is that it allows management to see who has the least amount of stuff they're working on and allocate time effectively. When you've got north of 20 people being managed by 2, and you can tell at a glance who has more free time, I don't think the utility of this can be overstated. It definitely makes our lives easier, and I'd like to think it helps the company make money, but I don't have a good way to quantify that.


  > We operate on a kind of tiering system, technicians, 
  > sysadmins, and engineers. Sysadmins and engineers are 
  > generally the ones entering tickets, and the 
  > technicians the ones working them. Generally, 
  > but not always.
Right. In general, a sysadmin or a engineer ("someone else") decides what should get worked on, and enters it into the issue tracker. The technician is not involved in this decision making process: They just pull tasks and work to complete them.

To pull Markovitz' article back into this, the sysadmins and engineers are (I assume) able to push back on the business, providing a reality-check when plans are unrealistic, and they are the ones he's suggesting should not work off of a simple to do list.


Are your shell scripts/aliases available anywhere?


They're probably simple wrappers around https://marketplace.atlassian.com/plugins/org.swift.atlassia...


That's exactly what we use. Unfortunately the scripts are full of various hardcoded internal info and I am not at liberty to post them. The CLI tools here make it very easy, though.


If they didn't sound authorative, they wouldn't be able to play to peoples' insecurities and therefore get less pageviews.

And pageviews sell Ads!


Can we get "(for me)" added to the topic here?

Such a disclaimer (or rather "for some people") could be added to almost every lifehack / productivity tip / work habit / fitness technique / etc.

Work at home / in the office / in the cafe / for yourself / in a team / pair programming / standing desks / morning walks / coffee brewing / IDE tools / soylent / fasting / feasting / work-life balance / pretty much everything else.

People make absolute statements of universal truth to pitch their confidence and certainty, but really it seldom applies to more than a small subset.


(I think) This is similar to how you could preface nearly any statement you make anywhere with "I think". My instinct is to qualify everything and I often have to go back and delete the qualification because it pointlessly weakens every sentence. Either that or I notice it after I've already written and cringe at re-reading it (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6457261). (I think) It is usually better to let your readers decide which statements are subjective and which are objective.


Well the problem of not mentioning "I think" is when you pretend that "X does not work" while 99% of your peers use it and do not seem to have a significant problem with it. Then the statement makes more sense if you phrase it "X does not work for me" or "You may like X but I don't", since it would then seem that you are a very unique person with a very unique problem.

If you had this kind of statement in other fields, like "Gaming on Consoles is broken", no doubt you'd get tons of people saying that this is wrong, because obviously millions of people have no problem with it.

Making such absolute statements is akin to trolling.


Agreed. There's often a pedantic need to point out some structural "flaw" in a statement and dismiss it, vs. making an effort to gain insight from its message.

"All Cretans are liars" - Epimenides

The logical robot concludes that because Epimenides was Cretan, the statement is a logical contradiction (hah, got you!) and nothing can be learned. A wiser man realizes he should be wary when in Crete.


Consider your example in the context of a HN topic.

    ^  All Cretans are liars
       7 points by Epimenides | 5 minutes ago | flag | 2 comments
Consider your audience: Programmers, startup entrepreneurs, in other words people who deal intimately with logic on a daily basis.

I'd expect this article to be flagged into oblivion, both by Cretans who are not liars, and by people peeved by the obviously incorrect absolute in the topic.

Doesn't it bug you at all when people engage in these kinds of fallacies to further a point, when they should damn well know better?

Would it have really have killed the submitter to reword as "Be wary in Crete" instead of knowingly posting something false? Would it really kill someone who's making an absolute statement, (a knowingly false one, mind) to reword it into something that still gets their point across, is actually correct, and won't lead to endless corrections in the comment thread?

To me, it shows a certain disdain for your reader when bait like this is written.


Well, you can make absolute statements without the implicit "for me" or "for some people" once you've done proper studies that support them...


I've had issues with TODO list in the past, but settled on a combination of a Kanban board using Trello and Pomodoros, which works quite well so far. If anyone is interested, this is what we're doing:

This is how our board looks like: http://i.imgur.com/LnD5a5H.png

Each Monday, we pull a week worth of tasks from the Backlog to the Weekly sprint. Each morning, we pull a day worth of work to the Daily goal. We separate Blocked, Actionable and non-Actionable (things that can't be worked on just yet, but aren't quite "blocked". those are usually the tasks that sit around with the rest of the actionable tasks, but ignored because for some reason there isn't much to be done about them). In the end of each sprint, we archive the "Done" list and start a new one. The numbers in the `()` are the estimated time, and we have bookmarklet [1] that sums it up for each list (for when we plan the weekly sprint).

[1] https://gist.github.com/shesek/5185168


This seems to include the critical factor cited in the article: calendar based commitments.

By scheduling tasks in weekly and daily blocks, you are factoring in priorities and time estimates into your planning.


Funny, I use Trello in a similar manor.

Columns: Ideas -> Planned -> In Progress -> Deployed -> Client Review -> Done (week of x)

Ideas is: for new stories, unaccepted work.

Planned is: for stories the client has accepted as work.

In progress is: for work being currently worked on (also doubles as time tracking).

Deployed is: for stories that have been completed (tested & deployed).

Client Review is: for stories that the client has chosen to accept.

Done is for tracking completed work for that week, a new column is created at the start of the week.

Other conventions used are: Cards are in order, top of the list is the high priority. Blue label for blocked cards, orange for unconfirmed issues, red for confirmed issues.

Another thing used is Trello Points for estimations (a chrome plugin).


I would be interested to learn more about how people use Trello for personal use.


Yep trello is great! I use it too to help me amange all my work. Unfortunately since i am the junior-most dev at my office so haven't gotten everyone else to use it yet. but am working on it. i am sure my manager would love being able to just make a list for all the things that needs to be done and we'd figure out how to do it.


I like your board. I would like to give it a try. Could you explain difference between "Actionable" and "Daily Goal". Aren't all "daily goals" are "actionable" since you transferred them from "weekly sprint" or "backlog".


The "Actionable" list is actually better named "Weekly Actionable". Its the tasks in the weekly sprint that are currently actionable and can be worked on.

The reason we have that is that we noticed that many of the tasks in the weekly sprint aren't always "workable" and delayed for various reasons (waiting for another card to be finished, not relevant until the due date, still need some more refinement/feedback, etc), and that when I was scanning the weekly sprint for actionable tasks I had to keep ignore them manually, and they were just creating noise. They aren't quite appropriate for the "Blocked" list, so we created a separate list for the "actionable" tasks.

I would suggest you to just ignore that list, and see if you the need for something like that really arises with your workflow.


I usually keep a local "todo" list in each project I'm on. It helps me focus, and if I'm away from a project for a while it helps me figure out what I've done (I seldom remove old entries, as it gives me a sense of history).

Like most processes, it's better to keep something like this lightweight. "Nested todos" are about as fancy as things get.

I also check the todo lists into the project. Sure, it makes things a little dirty. On the other hand, it saved another person's bacon last year when I was forced to flip ownership of a project over to that person without much warning. (He discovered the todo list, and emailed me a huge thanks).

Todo lists in a wiki can work well to keep a loose team on the same track, too. Again I think the secret is to keep this lightweight.

If you're installing "Whizzy Enterprise TODO" servers or having meetings about how to manage todo items or trying to extract metrics from todo lists, my guess is that you've put too much drama into the process and should take a walk to cool off. :-)


I should add that one drawback of keeping your TODO list checked in is that people will hijack it and try to use it for scheduling purposes.

The times that I've shared my TODO list with a project manager, I've regretted it. This /could/ simply be that the kind of PM who makes a schedule based on snapshot of an engineer's loosey-goosey list is a clueless git who is not to be trusted. Even when I've directly shared the list and TOLD the PM "Look, don't make a schedule off of this, it's just a basis for discussion" the next thing I know the list has been enshrined in a PowerPoint deck and has become Gospel all the way up. Whereupon the following conversation happens with my mangler [sic]:

"Figby the PM is a clueless git."

"Don't worry. The PM management chain is trying to fire him."

"Couldn't happen soon enough. But what do we do about his PowerPoint deck?"

"I think we're screwed."

"Next time I'm going to line up the items so the first letter of each line reads 'FIGBY IS A CLUELESS GIT'" and then point that out in the scheduling meeting."

"(sighs heavily)"

My mom thinks I'm in high tech.


exactly! todo lists help ALOT. I usually use trello for this. It really helps me remember on monday what i was doing on friday and what needs to get done. None of the complains in the article make sense to me. When i make a todo list, i usually have a sense of direction so I dont get stuck in the "choices choices" problem. Besides, didn't anyone teach you how to prioritize stuff? "Urgent, Important; Important, not urgent; Urgent, not important; not important not urgent;"

Oh and trello really helps me enter a TON of information into a task so i dont face the "they all look the same on paper" issue. heck i even use the comments feature as status updates to keep logging whatever i am doing on the task. Todo lists are great! (or atleast they are for me. especially trello)


What do you do when you don't have a sense of direction?

I wish a todo list would make me do things I wouldn't dare do. Like things you don't usually write in a todo list.


I have a higher-level "ideas.txt" file. It looks a lot like my TODO list:

Things to learn

Things to read

Stuff I'd like to do

I visit it every few weeks. There are entries from 25 years ago that I haven't touched, and probably never will. This year I checked off [x] Learn Python for Real, and a few other things I won't share. (Haskell is probably one of those things that will remain unchecked, until I find a project for it).


To me, working on something daring is all about the excitement. The problem usually is that i get excited at the wrong times. Having amazing ideas when you have your hands full isn't exactly useful or productive. heck it turns out to be counter productive at times! And when i do have my hands free, the ideas dont come. so The best way for me is to jot down those ideas on a trello board with as much detail as i dare, so that i can visit it later and feel that excitement all over again and actualyl DO those things. works for me :)


Try adding a "wishlist" or "if I finish everything else early" section. You'd be surprised at how quickly some of those items get done when, um, procrastinating on the other tasks.


I am a fan of this setup. I call them project logs. As you mentioned they are great for when you are away from the project for a while and need to get up to speed.


I understand what the author is trying to say, and I've been in that situation where I've mixed small tasks with short and long term projects. I've tried a number of things over the years, but a todo list created with pencil and paper is the most effective way for me to manage my work. It is not a motivational tool. It's not a project management tool. It's simply a task tracking system with very low overhead. Everyone's different, but todo lists do work for me if the items are scoped properly and prioritized.


I agree. We try many tools in our small team, but the main problem was, that we had to fill in simple steps or small problems and for that were all tools to complicated. Effect: after a short while nobody use them.

We come back to paper and whiteboard. For own simple tasks we use paper. For team tasks we use a simple whiteboard nearby the coffee machine ;-)

But after a while we had the problem that nobody see what the others have done (end up with too much talking -> waste of time).

We decide an another approach, we didn't write todos, but we write about what we have done. Advert ;-) We create http://teamspir.it to write a log about the daily work.

Effect: Everybody knows what the team member have done and why, because we write our sight of view about the things we have done. Positive effect was, that we review our work and look what we do right or wrong.

For me it is very motivating to write at the end of the week about all things i have done. It give me a better feeling about how many things are finished. Normally i have a wrong memory about that and i think "Oh god, i did not do anything this week", but this is wrong, when you reflect your work, you see how much you have done.


I do a mix between a pencil and paper todo and a written one. I wrote in OneNote (that enables you to write multicolumns lists), print it, and they add things with the pencil.

I never found a practical software to handle the complexities (whatever they are) of ToDo lists.


Exactly. TODO lists work very well on short term tasks. Daily programming tasks for example, that are put on a TODO list and then completed one by one for example.


Hasn't the Harvard Business Review ever read the book "Getting Things Done?"

Anyone serious about managing their time is familiar with each of these problems and develops their To-Do list with these complexities in mind.

The To-Do list is dead. Long live the To-Do list.


All these articles are written to market something, in this case the author himself.


This is a pretty poor area to market yourself. Covey might be dead, but Allen is still productive and IMHO, is a better writer than this guy.


Shocking, isn't it? But he goes on to describe GTD concepts that would make TODOs meaningful as if he is the original source of said ideas.


Most of the ideas are quite old- possibly enough to be considered 'public domain.' From Daytimers systems to 'getting organized' self-help books, these things have been around since at least the 1970s.


This article says some of this stuff is as old as Benjamin Franklin. http://www.inc.com/ss/brief-history-time-management#0


TODO lists -don't- work? Maybe they'd work with some mindfulness, context and discipline? The author acts as if David Allen's "Getting Things Done" did not exist. GTD calls for all these things and, at the most basic level, you're tasked with assigning priority to, creating context outlines for and estimating time commitment for all of your tasks during the first time block in your morning.

GTD became well-known because it works. You just have to take the book seriously enough to both finish and internalize it. Difficult, perhaps, for many in the information-age [quick-fix-age]. GTD is a lifestyle versus a system. That's the only way it works.

Software: org-mode is what I use and it's amazing. You can create massive collapsable lists with TODOs, outlines, context with code-blocks that can be set to any language, direct links to files/emails/websites/almost-anything. It's versatility and scope is so enormous that it can be adapted to suite any conceivable need. Like scheduling? Go to a TODO item and CTRL-s (C-s for you fellow emacs users) and a calendar pops up. Select a date, hit enter and it's agenda'd. The agenda can be set up to send you reminders via iCal, Growl/libnotify/Snarl, appointment-mode, Remind, Google Calendar... practically anything!

The problem with these brilliant systems is the initial time commitment where there are no pats on the back (no insta-grata) and no payout of any kind. They're both intricate systems that work like a circuit - if the circuit isn't complete, it is broken.

Excellent org-mode guide: http://doc.norang.ca/org-mode.html


Todo lists work great! They may not work for everybody but I wouldn't know how to get through the day without my lists.

I use them pretty much like an OS would schedule tasks to avoid the pitfalls mentioned in the article. If a task is 'runnable' it will get its share because I go round-robin along the lists without preference. All this boils down to is some common sense and self discipline.


Common sense and self discipline--exactly. This is where mindfulness comes into play: self monitoring your status & progress, and introspecting to be cognizant of your motivation. "Am I doing what I need to be doing, or am I distracted?" "If I'm distracted, is there some personal reason, and if so, do I need to take care of that first?" Etc.

I find a bit of meditation while planning my work for the day helps a lot.

A relevant plug, for the to-do list faithful: My brother and I are building a to-do app that helps you organize tasks, monitor procrastination, maintain mindful focus, and track time:

http://fleur.io


I think in the article they try to explain that todos are OK, but todos did not motivate or give a good feeling.

Because when you finish todos, you have more new todos, a never ending story. Thats why todo-list are so negative.


Yes, when you finish todos you have more new todos. That's the nature of life, it has nothing to do with the todos. If you don't feel like doing stuff, then don't. If you do, use lists. Todo lists are positive because they also contain the (usually invisible, but you can typically show them in most todo list software) list of completed tasks and over time that list will get impressively long, much longer than the one of stuff still to do.

People that are hard to motivate will be hard to motivate whatever tool or gimmick you use. Don't blame the tool for that.


Thats my experience too, if somebody don't want to use a tool, then it is irrelevant if it is the best tool in the world.


> did not motivate or give a good feeling.

I use pen/paper todos. It feels great when I can cross one off.

If something is too large, I break out the task underneath, so I can see the larger goal I'm trying to accomplish but still have workable chunks.


What do you use for todo lists?


Depends on what kind of lists... while working on projects with hardware, shopping or not near a computer: paper & pen, stuff that has to do with a software project or organizing either a leo file (but emacs org mode would do just as well). I used taskfreak for a while and occasionally stuff things next to google calendar so the NSA has a copy without having to ask me.


All of the "problems" that he listed of to do lists are solved by using the "Getting things done" method from David Allen.

I personally hate the method of blocking off tasks in a calendar because it is: a) Not agile (can't adjust your priorities quickly). So you get sick one day then you have to adjust your entire calendar for the next month? b) Very cumbersome and totally not suited to the concept of lists of things to do.

To do lists are perfect for storing information about what you might do in the future. You can create various lists to hold information, so that you don't have to constantly try and remember it. Then each day you prioritize and figure out which tasks you are actually going to work on. The point of the to do list is not to create a list of tasks that you are absolutely going to work on necessarily. Instead it's a way to store information and then jog your memory when you decide what you are going to prioritize and actually work on.

So overall I think the idea of forcing yourself to plan ahead of time exactly what you are going to do several days in advance is a horrible idea and very ineffective. What if something more important comes up on the day? You get a call from Techcrunch that they would like to feature your app. Sorry Techcrunch you're not on my calendar.


If you do lose one day, and everything is full, then you do have to adjust stuff anyway, and it forces you to do that.

You don't put things on calendar that you might do - you put things that you will or must do then; and it is important that if something (like that sickness) means that you won't be able to do all X things, then you can know early and choose appropriately which one you won't do in the expected time.

Also, in your Techcrunch example - it makes you informed about the consequences; if you get an option to do a large thing then you'll see what other important things you will be displacing and is it really worth it compared to those other tasks.


Tangent, but that's a great observation on the agility implied in "agile." So many managers and executives think it means "building software faster" because "agile" == "quick" and you get to skip the requirements and design steps and can just start writing code. What it really means is "accommodating change more easily."


No, it that case you will check your calendar and decide based on your priorities in life do you want to reschedule a task you have planned with the new task. With calendar-based systems you usually only plan the current day and for other days you have rough outline how time will be spent.


Asana really changed this for me. I found that for me, personally, breaking a task in to subtasks with the right level of granularity is the perfect solution to combat inaction. If I see myself avoiding a task, I know I haven't deconstructed it enough.

Once the subtasks are small enough I can happily get working, and I get the satisfaction of marking things "complete."

It also serves as a reality check because I've noticed I tend towards personal scope-creep. I finish a task, but while doing it I add more tasks semiconsciously. Then I never feel finished and I hate myself.

However, if I go back to my asana list, I can reality-check and realize I in fact did accomplish the original task. Then I can consciously choose to continue the new task or abandon it or add it to the list for later.


Do you ever find yourself avoiding to add sub tasks because you simply don't want to do that thing you've been putting off?


No, because, (and this is the trick for me) adding tasks and subtasks and planning is a completely separate activity and headspace. When I am doing that, I am in planning mode and I don't imagine how much it will suck to do a task. Just plan.

Then when I do, I just do.


This planning and review phase you describe is the first step in a GTD workflow.


Of all of these objections, only "heterogenous priority" and "Lack of commitment devices" are unsolved by using a hierarchical to-do list.

Paradox of choice? Group your tasks into categories so that you can't see the whole list at once.

Heterogenous complexity? Divide your tasks into subtasks so that everything is ultimately broken down into roughly equal sized chunks.

Lack of context? Again, organize everything into sublists so that you do have context. Put notes under the item if you need even more context.

Heterogeneous priority? This is just not a problem with to-do lists in the first place. You have a reminder there, so take care of it before it becomes a problem. If you need another tool in addition to make sure you actually get it done, that is not an indictment of to-do lists' inherent ineffectiveness.

As for the lack of commitment devices, this is again not some fatal blow to to-do lists. To-do lists are not going to magically solve all of your problems. You will need other tools and you will need to establish good habits as well.


Calendars work when other people are depending on your decisions, and it's basically more important to make a decision than anything else. Everything is driven by the need to make that decision. The decision may be imperfect, but the overall system can tolerate that most of the time - and when it cannot, it appears as a schedule problem.

Calendars fail when you need to perform labor to complete a piece of work, and you don't know how long it'll take. A to-do list is a detailed list of tasks to complete, generally in a specific order, to complete a piece of work. That work is probably part of a larger piece of work. There are dependencies between pieces of work. Times, if they exist in the to-do list, are generally estimates.

The only way to put tasks into a calendar, if you want the calendar to reflect reality, is to pad out each task with extra time. That way, the schedule doesn't fail.

However, if you padded out your to-do list with enough extra time so you could fit it into a calendar that could remain largely unchanged for the next year... your productivity would be pretty low. It would be a pretty relaxing job, however.

There are problems when these two different ways to organize work aren't reconciled correctly. You have work crunches, where people are forced to work late, or you have calendar failures where your obligations to outside parties aren't met, or both.

Both are intolerable, and a sign of bad management.


I use a hybrid approach of GTD for managing lists and the pomodoro technique ( a task time bucketing system) for execution of tasks. It works well for me. GTD isn't perfect but it does cover many of the concerns that the author has raised.

Using the GTD approach you can minimise the heterogenoous complexity, priority and lack of context problems. Frequent reviews of your lists will mean that your action lists contain work that has to be done, this helps to reduce the effect of the heterogenous priority since you will tackle the tasks sequentially (they will all have similar priorities). Most tasks that have a high priority are not always urgent and can be planned. GTD and the pomodoro technique both have mechanisms for dealing with urgent, high priority interruptions.

I know my post isn't too clear if you are not too familiar with GTD and pomodoro but I just want to briefly illustrate that there are a few approaches out there to help.

1. GTD (http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifehack/gtd-workflow-chart...) 2. Pomodor technique (http://pomodorotechnique.com/) 3. Time boxking (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeboxing)


I have friends that swear by the calendar, but it doesn't work for me at all. I tend to think in terms of dependencies - my plans and goals are basically one big DAG. What's nice though is that you only have to focus on the nodes that don't have edges pointing to them. I even use software for it; my life is basically a graph.


Could you share with us what you use? I often feel the same way. Thanks.


Well I have a $250 piece of software called Flying Logic. I like it because it automatically lays out the graph when you draw a new edge.


Scheduling works for me. Not a TODO list. I schedule what I shall be doing tomorrow and as soon as that's done, I get out of office. This motivates me to start work early in the morning, just to feel relaxed after finishing my work for the day by 11:00, for example.


That somehow never works for me. Partially because when writing code you cant always knw how long wil it take (issues come up all the time. debugging can take a while especially if it's a big project and there is a lot of code written by a lot of different people)


You bring up a great point that I think the article left out—scheduling the tasks ahead of time before the day you have to do them can help tremendously. For me, that is motivation in and of itself that I can just start the next day with it already planned.


This is exactly what the article is advocating:

  > The alternative to the feckless to-do list is what 
  > I call “living in your calendar.”
Or did I miss a subtle difference in with your approach?


I schedule blocks of time for certain over-arching projects, and then pull out that specific projects TODO list when my calendar tells me.

Gives me an excellent balance of rigidness and flexibility. :)


I have never seen someone successfully guess at how long tasks will take and use that as a method of planning. At some point you are dropping tasks off, or adding them to your day which means you are still working with some prioritization system. Save your calendar for time-critical events/tasks, everything else is a list, hopefully prioritized.


The problems that the author mentions are behavioral problems not problems with to do lists in general. Nothing is stopping someone from adding priority, context, etc. To do lists in their simplest form are just a way to get it out of your brain and in a real-world format so you don't forget them.

It's actually a really interesting time for people building software in this space: http://alexdschiff.com/post/58069189811/chaos-in-consumer-pr.... Lots of shut downs, fundraises, acquisitions and chaos that is consolidating user bases in one of the most fragmented industries around.

I'm writing an essay on the subject right now, and I think the biggest problems with productivity software come down to these three things:

1) It's not just your to do list. Most tools try to make arbitrary distinctions between what is a "to do" vs. what is not when the way that most people operate — and this is often a shocker to people that are into productivity — is just "I need to write SOME thought down for SOME reason LATER." For example, people might make a "note" that is just "Local Natives" - the name of a band. But isn't that representative of a task, "Check out Local Natives"? The lines are blurry, and while most people keep track of tasks in some way, they don't really "do" task management consciously.

2) No one is getting social right. On the one hand, there's Evernote, which deliberately ignores social, and then there's email, which is a great way to send things to people but a terrible way to keep track of things for the recipient. In the middle there are collaboration tools, but any project manager can tell you getting everyone to adopt a new system is heinous. IMO, you need to start with and build around the individual first (like Evernote), but tightly integrate a social layer to get those notes and to do's to other people on top of it.

3) Now what? The author makes an important point about context. Note-taking apps and to do lists have incredibly rich data about people that can be leveraged to actually help deliver that context and guide people through the next step. The next generation of productivity software will be less about helping people stay organized and more about actually helping them execute and get things done.

Disclaimer: I'm the co-founder and CEO of a company in this space called Fetchnotes. We're gearing up to release a new version with the above 3 things at the heart of our approach. If you're interested, get in touch: alex(at)fetchnotes(dot)com.


I've been evolving towards a hybrid of the two approaches. I think To-Do lists work much better when you also have "time buckets" scheduled on your calendar. In other words, schedule time on your calendar in which you'll be able to complete or at least partially work on specific tasks and then use that time appropriately.

For example, instead of scheduling "write up a proposal for so-and-so", schedule "work for so-and-so" and then writing up a proposal could be one of several tasks needed for that project. Instead of scheduling "vacuum the downstairs floor", schedule "House cleaning" and then that's just one of several tasks you could do.

I find that when you schedule individual tasks, it gets crazy because some things take more time and other things less time and pretty soon your life has nothing to do with what you actually scheduled. (Which feels weird.) On the other hand, if you just have a bunch of ToDos and your calendar is mostly empty, you're going to be constantly feeling frazzled. A combination of the two seems more ideal.


I've found that having a "Done" list in addition to a todo-list works for me.

I have Trello as a todo list and used to use iDoneThis as my "Done" list. With iDoneThis, all the projects and other stuff I was working on would get lumped together. I wanted to be able to separate projects, but still be able to see them all together in one feed.

I ended up making a web app to do this for myself and have been using it for the past few months. Just decided to open it up for other people to use a few weeks ago, so I've been collecting some emails. It's at https://jots.me

I have some beta users right now, so if anyone's interested in trying it out, use this signup link for HN: https://jots.me/signup?code=hn5

It gives you 5 "cards" (what would be calendars in iDoneThis) so you can separate 5 different projects.


This sounds a lot like what Tom Limoncelli has been recommending in "Time Management for System Administrators"

http://shop.oreilly.com/product/9780596007836.do

It takes real discipline to implement but you get a better control of your life if you do.


The first reason given for why to-do lists don't work is "the Paradox of Choice". Alas, the studies claiming to measure a Paradox of Choice didn't replicate and related followup studies have found roughly no effect of additional options on the ability to choose. In a great many contexts, people really like having lots of options - it makes it easier to find the exact thing they want. Maybe to-do lists is one of those.

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/print/2013/08/more-is-mo...


TODO lists certainly can work. I use 2 levels of lists, a long-term list and daily lists. If a daily item isn't finished in a day I copy it into the next day's log entry at the end of the day. I've been doing it like this for around 7 or 8 years now. I combine this with my daily log (vim text file) to track what I've done and what I should be doing.

I don't use the lists to tell me exactly how to do things, but as a way to track what I to be looking at next. I also have status symbols for items. ! means important, P for when a patch has been sent for review but not pushed upstream and X for complete .


When your list comprises items of varying priorities, you tend to take care of the “A” priorities and let the “C” priorities lie fallow…until it becomes an “A” priority itself.

I had to re-read this three times to be sure I was getting it... his contention is that sometimes a "C" priority is really more important than an "A" priority???

The entire point of prioritization is that you do the most important stuff first, and if you don't have time for everything, well at least the stuff that didn't get done was not really the important stuff anyway.


I had to reread it several times as well before I finally found a charitable interpretation. What he's saying is that with a to-do list, it's easy to just get all of the high priority stuff out of the way, and then when all you have is low priority stuff, just to dick around for the rest of the day.

On the one hand, there's some validity to that point; most people can't actually take care of every low priority item on a long term to-do list immediately without burning out. Balancing that with still taking care of the low priority items before they become crises can be difficult.

On the other hand, taking care of the A priorities and then ignoring the C priorities altogether is simply doing it wrong. The author suggests putting everything on a calendar instead of using to-do lists. I think this is dumb reasoning. There's nothing stopping you from using both.

Put everything on the to-do list. Get your high priority stuff out of the way, and then put the low priority stuff (or the stuff you have an ugh field around) on your calendar. This is way more efficient, and leverages the quickness of the to-do list to prevent you from accidentally forgetting something entirely.


I believe he's talking about some prevention is better than cure sort of thing. It's not important to get your car checked today because you have important things to do. However, if this happens every day, then one day your car is going to fail. Then, getting the car checked becomes a priority but if you'd fit it in earlier on, you could have gotten away with never having to deal with an emergency.

Essentially, he's talking about how we discount future risk when we prioritise tasks.


My interpretation was that sometimes, leaving tasks to balloon from 'C' to 'A' priority comes with a massive increase in cost. In that case it's better to schedule time to deal with the 'C' task earlier.

This is nothing new, of course, and, like any other advice, has to be applied in context.


I think what he's saying is that "C" priorities, will become "A" priorities after being left alone UNTIL deadlines (urgency) pushes them to the top of the list.


Aside from using my inbox like a traditional "inbox" (things stay there until they done and/or are no longer relevant) I started using a pen and paper and a bullet journal (http://www.bulletjournal.com/) and it works amazingly well. I organize my month, week, day (every morning) keep track of appointments and write meeting notes all there. It's helped me keep track of the little things and make sure they don't fall though the cracks.


This is just focusing on the list as an ends to itself. I have little doubt that a list is not capable of "working." However, the among the many different processes of creating and organizing a list, there are probably jewels that help a ton of people. Oddly, these processes will be widely different for many different people that all have similar artifacts. This is why some people will say "to-do lists work for me" while someone with almost an exact replica list will say "it just wasted my time."


I'm glad this is being shared, because I struggled for years with GTD and couldn't find an alternative anywhere. When I started putting tasks in my calendar my productivity skyrocketed. I know when things will get done and it forces me to make tough choices. I have to decide what will get done, how much time will it take and when, but also what WON'T get done and forces me to say "no". We only have limited amount of time - the calendar makes it so clear.

This approach takes much practice to learn how much time everything takes, self-discipline and flexibility when it takes more than planned. The end result is much better control of personal time. Instead of just writing a next action for each project and being anxious whenever I get a new project request from a client whether I will have enough time to finish it by deadline; now, I can estimate project and tell from my schedule when each project will be finished.

To-do list has place in my system as either list of small tasks that I will do in one block of scheduled time. Also, I use list as someday lists, for example next books I will read. I still use some principles from GTD, but I no longer have never-ending to-do lists that paralyse me. Calendar forces me to create a realistic schedule.

This is not for everyone, and based by the popularity of GTD, I guess only minority of people can live in their calendar and schedule almost every activity. For those who are interested, I suggest starting with reading Peter Bregman: 18 minutes and Julie Morgenstern: Time management.


Don't be an idiot, I hate titles like this. Todo lists are one of the greatest things ever invented, and I use them every single day. Tons of them. I revel in them.

HN is such a great place except these ridiculous HERES AN INSANELY BROAD GENERALIZATION THAT IM GOING TO TELL YOU IS BAD FOR YOU WHEN IT IS IN FACT ONLY BAD FOR ME BECAUSE I DONT UNDERSTAND IT threads


I use a 1-2-3 system that works fairly well for all my work related tasks. One main task, two medium ones and three small ones (guestimated myself). I always start with the big one. This is fairly conservative and less than I do on a typical workday but I think not adding too much is important.

I write them down in a notebook each day in the morning (might be better doing it the evening before) and then cross them off when done. Usually I add more adhoc stuff when I'm done with my "pyramid"

I keep track of long term stuff, ideas, projects and so forth in Trello but the day to day todo lists are in a plain notebook. I also keep my inboxes empty and make it a point of emphasis to congratulate myself on removing stuff from my inbox (30 minute mailcheck is usually one of my 3 small items).

Personal stuff...I don't plan that at all.

For me that fixes most of the stuff mentioned in the post. The notebook TODO list works very well for me.


Not this again.

Seriously I am getting bored or the constant reposts on this subject.

Shock. Horror. Something that doesn't work for you works well for other and vice versa. Personally for me a nice notebook (the inner hipster in me really likes the soft cover lined page moleskine notebooks) works perfectly. I use pencil so I can rub out and update each item without having to cross things out and make things look ugly. It is quick and easy to update and very easy to do a quick visual parse over.

For electronic notes I find the Google Keep app to be pretty good with its timed and location based reminders. Although it is much slower to use than a notebook it is quite nice for when I have a low priority task that I will need to be reminded to get around too.


I've been working on a tool (https://then.io) that solves all of these problems with the same effort that a todo list requires. Your tasks are scheduled between your calendar events and within the spans of time you set for them to be executed. They are ordered so that all of your due dates are met, with padding for mistakes.

Paradox of choice, lack of context, lack of commitment devices, and heterogeneous complexity are all solved by the nature of then.io. I would argue that priority doesn't matter, only due dates do. If you have too many tasks to finish before a due date, then you need to make the decision of which due date to push back.


How about to-do lists helping you to remember things? They definitely help me. I'm the kind of person who forgets everything, and doesn't even WANT TO keep useless stupid things in my mind rather than thinking something creative. Like pay rent. It is not an automatic monthly deduction in this apartment. So I HAVE to remember, otherwise it'll be a fine. There is simply a recurring task which reminds me of that. Keeping account of things that need to be done in a big project is also a thing everyone does. The thing is, everyone (including the author of this article) maintains a to-do list in one way or the other.


Yeah...I don't see how any engineer in any field can be effective without ongoing task documentation. Let's say that you have an eidetic memory and you don't need any to-do lists..I bet you also have problems letting go at night which may be interrupting your sleep. One way I've found to fix this is to-do lists! Not huge ones. Not complicated ones. Just one small page by your bedside. Each night, think of everything you need to get done tomorrow and put it on paper. Then excuse yourself from having to worry about it and go to sleep.


The absolute best organisational method I've found (for myself) is an 80 page 5mm square pad and a good quality pen (the Papermate InkJoy 500's are my current favourites).

I've tried Trello, Taskwarrior, org-mode, any.do, todo.sh and any number of other applications but they all do 1 (sometimes 2) things really well but fall down in other ways.

As a programmer who lives in front of a computer I find it deeply ironic that my best way of organizing myself/projects is pen and paper.

Any tablet that can accurately mimic the feel of writing will get my money instantly.


Definitely agree with the "calendar" part. It's hard to create some sort of week plan (or any sort of schedule/plan) with many to-do list types, and it was one of the reasons we developed Thymer back then.

I'm sure not everyone agrees with the importance of a calendar-like component, but it definitely helps to be more realistic about the tasks I plan to do. It also feels like a natural way to prioritize tasks (well, more natural than assigning a random priority number or letter to it, anyway).


I totally agree with the problems Daniel is mentioning. After being increasingly frustrated with most solutions available, we created an iOS app that attempts to solve exactly those problems. You tell the app how long a tasks will take, when it needs to be done and how important it is. Our app then selects the tasks with the highest priority for you every day. It's called Finido: www.finido-app.com

I am curious what you guys think! Is it a solution to the problems described by Daniel?


I've been using http://workflowy.com for the last couple of years to organize my work and it does work.


This is how it works for me:

Just use workflowy and order your tasks in chronological order for tomorrow. 15 minutes right before bed and you will be efficient as a machine. Be explicit in your tasks, not meticulous. If your daily task has more than 2 levels or more than 5 subtasks, split it up. If it takes more than 2 hours - you probably should split it up. ymmv. And of course take the occasional breaks.

This is for people who do a very wide variety of things and also make a lot of decisions in the process. If majority of your day is in repetitive tasks, might be even counter-productive.

Also, it is not meant as a project management replacement. It's just a to-do list.


For people looking for more advanced todo systems:

1. GTD: Actionable todos with contexts (plenty of apps out there)

2. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Puts a accent on your goals (http://weekplan.net Disclaimer: my app)

3. Personal Kanban: Tells you not to start too many things at the same time (with http://trello.com)


I found to-do list works well. They track things so I don't have to keep them in mind, freeing me to concentrate on the task at hand.


I certainly think the idea of using a calendar instead looks more useful, as presented here. It does put you closer to actually DO what is on the list as it includes planning and time considerations. Perhaps a To-Do list is useful not to forget the things you must do, before you actually add it to a calendar. But I often find a pen and paper to be more suitable for that.


While not a To-Do list in the traditional sense, for me the Mailbox App[1] works rather well as a To-Do list. Every email is treated as a task, some are immediately finished, some I can "push forward" to e.g. tomorrow or next week and I receive a notice at that very time.

[1]: http://www.mailboxapp.com


David Allen literally addressed every single point in this post over ten years ago. To-do lists are fine. Flat ones aren't.


And how about the hubris of my self of yesterday claiming the right to decide what my self of today should be spending time on? I need to write down things that need doing and can't be forgotten, but surely I am in a better position to decide what to do over the next hour now than I was yesterday.


I maintain a lot - and they work for me.

One recent addition to the set has been a 'simple/tired' list - where I queue mind-numbing renamings etc.

It's useful when I just want to do something that requires no thinking at all (at very start of day or late at night).

Haven't found any better storage system then a .txt file yet.


I use org-mode extensively, and personally I don't experience any of the problems the author mentions.


I wonder why ;)

(For context, see my previous comments)


I have tried todo lists on and off. It definitely works for me in the short term when I have a lot going on. Recently I started using an app called Swipes. It has been working great so far. I think it holds up because rather than fighting it, easy procrastination mechanism is built in.


I made a to-do list webapp with a twist just for myself, and it's been really helpful.

The twist is, every Wednesday, it calculates how many of my goals I've accomplished during the past week, assigns me a grade, and sends the grade to three of my friends, to help hold me accountable.


Be great to see this. Anything visible?


Thanks for your nice feedback. The design isn't anything special since it's just for me at this point, but here's a screenshot: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/9229925/Screen%20Shot%20...

I'm planning to share it via Github soon, at which point I'll share the code.


Don't worry about the design :) Getting something that works is far more important. You can find my email etc in my bio so feel free to send something over or keep in touch.


Thanks! :) Will do.


very cool.


I use Omnifocus which mixes the concepts of projects, todo lists, and calendar scheduling together into a very flexible package.

I don't like that all my data is in a proprietary format but it's the only tool that's helped me get my chaotic business life under control.


> I don't like that all my data is in a proprietary format but it's the only tool that's helped me get my chaotic business life under contr

I really wish there were a good task management system that:

1) Supported GTD 2) Is cross-platform (or has an open API).

I've hacked together my own with a combination of my own scripts and the Toodledo API, but their web UI is pretty bad (and even their API is annoying to work with - look up their authentication flow and you'll see what I mean).


I actually began work on that at one point, but decided to stop as "no-one needs another To-do app" -- that said, I'm yet to come across a truly cross-platform GTD app that actually works nicely...


I find Evernote works well enough for lightweight GTD. I don't really want anything more than a bunch of lists I can see anywhere, and Evernote does that. It would be better if it natively supported the concept of a "task", but that's not necessary.


Am I the only one that thinks this article is extremely similar to this one?

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505143_162-57368011/why-to-do-li...


The only to-do list that I've actually used for more than a week is Any.do. I really like how you can organize your tasks vaguely based on time (Today, Tomorrow, Upcoming, Someday). Adding that solves a lot of the author's problems.


I notice the author of this article is ceo of a company that sells personal and group productivity products and services. http://timebackmanagement.com/

org-mode works for me.


> Daniel Markovitz is the president of TimeBack Management


I use either fargo.io (the super cool outliner) or I use a text file. As I do stuff I move it around or delete it from the list. It absolutely still works for me. :)


Does anyone know of any free software that allows you to manage and visualize tasks in the manner advocated in the article?


I may be reading the article incorrectly, but I feel like this could be accomplished with any calendar software (Outlook, Google Calendar, et c.)


This is what I've started doing. I have a few boring and long tasks that don't have any urgency but do need to be done from time to time, and they kept getting dropped, for the reasons outlined in this article.

At the suggestion of a coworker I've started scheduling meetings on my calendar to block out time to deal with them, and so far it's working very well.


It's not free but you could try finid-app.com.


ToDo lists are a necessary evil :) Some manage to tame it, some game it & the rest just blame it.


To-do lists don't work - you do.


what I do is plan my personal tasks in Clear (without a due date) and Brightpod (http://www.brightpod.com). Luckily, Brightpod has a pretty powerful calendar that helps me plan my tasks on a weekly basis.


I'm using rememberthemilk, so far it has been work well with me, 1577 tasks completed and counting...




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