Why your To Do list is a terrible master

Money money money

Regardless of the system you use, a To Do list is an excellent productivity tool. However just like money and fire, a To Do list is a good servant but a terrible master.

The problem is that To Do lists don’t always provide a strong link to the end goal. The tasks are not a goal in themselves, just a path towards it. But people can become focused on the path and not the destination goal. This creates a ‘Check box’ mentality where team members work away at their tasks, divorced from changing situations or differences in priority. The need for the task may have changed or the logical next step may have altered, but they carry on regardless.

To Do lists also erode responsibility. Let me explain why. We have a goal to attain, so we break the project down into discrete tasks. Some of those rely on interaction with other people outside the project team. Perhaps we need some information or approval on some material. The To Do list mentality can’t handle third party interactions well. Asking for the information is a task, which gets checked off. The To Do ball is now in someone else’s court. Now suppose nothing comes back, but that’s ok since we have a tickler To Do reminding us to chase, which we do. Again, the ball is back in their court and we can sleep tight. Except the clock is ticking, and the project is not progressing. The To Do list doesn’t create a work around in this scenario. It causes project myopia.

Unless we take a step back and review all our project goals, then compare them to our To Do list, we’ll fall foul of this project myopia. We take responsibility for the task, not the goal. Make sure your To Do list is your servant, and you’re not its slave.

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  • Alison Murdock

    I agree. Have you found any good tools that can track both? I will say the satisfaction of checking things off does directly link to happiness and relaxation.

    • Anonymous

      Yes. In fact, I suspect I am not alone in writing things down which were not on the list, just to cross them off again.

      I’m using Remember The Milk (web app / iPhone not iPad yet tho). Despite the childish logo it’s a simple system. I tried Things but didn’t get on with it, plus it’s more expensive.

      The best way to avoid this problem though is to create a list of Projects, as well as To Dos. Then periodically review the Projects, in case the To Dos aren’t in sync. That tends to stop the myopia I find.

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  • interesting that you have put in such analog. i believe it’s quite true. yes, they follow and do the work systematically but they lack the emotional touch.

    “To Do lists also erode responsibility… and the project is not progressing”. I think utimately the goal is still to finish the task but if you blame others, blaming others is holding you back, this shows the lack of drive.

    I used to do “To do” list but I find myself easier to handle this in my head, rather than just pen it down

    • Anonymous

      Thanks Steven. To be clear, I do still advocate maintaining a list – for both professional and personal tasks actually. But to keep in mind the goal when reviewing the list. I find keeping a list of Projects to which each task relates is a good way to avoid getting too task-focused.

  • Forgive me for being late to the conversation as I’ve only just discovered your blog (I was researching LEWIS and may apply for a position!). 

    I found in my last firm, the To Do list was omnipresent. As a junior staffer, I know that my job is to handle all those little tasks that make way for the long-term goal, though that goal was not often shared with me. I find that I’m more of a “big picture” person – and that’s not always a good thing, especially for junior staff. Do you have any advice for a young PR/Marketing professional’s To Do list? Or how to best question (that’s too strong a word) how each task fits in the larger scheme? How does the list change as one progresses in their career? Thanks! –Lisa