5 Reasons Your To-Do Lists Aren’t Working

If you’ve clicked on this post, we can only assume you’re either genuinely looking to improve your own productivity or you’re putting off some pressing task by pontificating around the Internet. Either way, welcome, fellow procrastinator. You’re in good company.

Usually, cunctators make the best planners (as opposed to doers) as the mere act of writing lists and goals in itself carries reward. If you really want to crack down on the ever-increasing adjournments to your plans, keep reading – we’ve outlined the most common reasons your to-do lists aren’t working and how to change your habits.

1. Stationery Satisfaction

As mentioned in the intro, there is some immediate reward in getting everything down on paper (or into an app) and out of your head. The entire premise of daily journaling for well-being is based on this. If you’re also a bit of a stationery nut (like myself) then using your favourite notebooks, pens, highlighters, washy tapes, easels, oil paints (however elaborate your practice) is such an enjoyable process, and sometimes lengthy, that once your to-do list is assembled there’s little motivation to carry out any tasks. And here-in lies the illusion of productivity.

Stripping back your designs if you’re guilty of flair over function is a starting point to keeping your planning pages purely productive. If this isn’t the issue for you but you still don’t work your way through that ever-growing task list, then maybe jotting down isn’t for you. Some other way of recording or prompting such as calendar entries, phone reminders or self-emails – anything attached to a deadline – could be a more effective goal setter. That brings us to our next point.

2. No Tangible Deadline

Most of us have been subjected to SMART targets in the workplace, and, corporate jargon excused, it is an effective framework for your goals. When setting out tasks for ourselves we are rarely this prescriptive, and nor should we be, but it is useful to have an end date or deadline as both a motivator and a measure. Without any sort of timescale for a task it can be all too easy to put off and push forward to tomorrow’s to-do list, ad infinitum.

If your ‘to-do’ doesn’t carry with it an external deadline, consider your own personal goals, how this particular task relates to those either short or long term and decide on your own realistic target date.

3. Confusing Priorities

Most of us when scrawling out tasks for the day, do so as they come to mind, with no real sense of order, categorisation or time estimation. It can be confusing to see a mix of personal and work related tasks all listed as one, especially with no clear indication of what should take priority and what can afford to be put off.

Create a more methodical to-do list by separating your goals into categories or adding indicative symbols and colours to highlight your priorities in order. I personally will always scribble and scribe in the order my thoughts occur (and there is little rhyme or reason there) but revisiting my list to prioritise, and think about time needed to complete, is very useful in focusing my attentions on what really matters rather than ticking off a few easy wins to the detriment of higher priority tasks.

4. The Never Ending List

A to-do list can take on a life of it’s own and become far more than you know you could ever achieve in a day. But, in need of a record of your goals as they accumulate, you continue forming these ever growing task lists until it all becomes so overwhelming you end up tackling nothing at all.

A good alternative is to use a master to-do list which is your reference point from which to migrate tasks over to particular days. Choosing two or three “must-do’s” depending on your schedule, and adding a couple of “would be nice-es” to your daily lists will focus your priority on what is an absolute must and also give you a bonus to aim for if you find yourself with an extra dose of productivity. They say that brushing your teeth for just 30 seconds is better than not at all – i.e. something is always better than nothing.  So, in your quest for a more productive day-to-day, even beginning with one priority task is a win if you are consistent and cumulative.

5. Failure to Review

Ultimately the same practice will always yield the same results, therefore the key to an ever improving system is scrutiny and evolution. Unless you’re smashing through those goals at a rate of knots (and the fact you’re here reading this article suggests otherwise) then the chances are you’re yet to settle on a task setting methodology that works. Ultimately, your to-do list is part of a bigger time management plan and conquering the day to day process will feed into bigger successes.  An honest review of how your day or week has panned out, what hindered your progress and what you may need to change to improve productivity the following week, will help you hone in on the MO most effective for you.

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The Copycat Team