Why a to-do list can make you less productive

I’ve made to-do lists for as long as I can remember and I love the process. Making lists is something I did daily and one of the first things I did when feeling overwhelmed, which I know has a lot to do with control. I’ve recently realised the extent to which to-do lists were affecting my productivity and self-trust and have been trying out a weekly planning method, which I explain further down and highly recommend trying if to-do list overwhelm resonates with you.

Self-trust is built on doing what we say we will. Overloading ourselves or not being specific with the tasks on our to-do list means we can easily end up not doing what we said we would. We start to identify as someone who doesn’t get things done and who doesn’t do what they say they will. When we constantly don’t follow through or put things off, we’re essentially telling ourselves that tomorrow we’ll be a better, more capable person than today (i.e. that today’s self couldn’t do it, so we’ll hand responsibility over to our future self), which diminishes trust in who we currently are.

How does a to-do list affect this?

It creates overwhelm

We can feel behind before we’ve even started. When this happens, we can actually self-sabotage or give up on the idea that it could be a productive day right from the beginning. In a planner or calendar, you can see exactly what you need to be doing at what time. Perfectionists tend to overload their plate with to-dos because we attach a lot of our worth to being productive, intelligent and working hard. I personally would add things to my list that I knew there was no way I’d have time to do that day. This diminishes your self-trust every time.

It creates decision fatigue

With a to-do list, we have to constantly make decisions throughout the day: when to do the task, how long to spend. We have a finite amount of decision-making energy each day. The more we spend on making these kind of decisions, the less we have for the ones that really matter. A schedule created in advance means most of the decision process has already been done.

It doesn’t give us a sense of accomplishment

We often end up adding more and working longer hours because we don’t have a clear cut-off time. We don’t trust ourselves to be as productive tomorrow. We tend to put vague actions and vague times. When tasks are vague, it’s difficult to gain sense of accomplishment. We’re likely to go to bed feeling like we didn’t do enough.

With a weekly schedule made in advance, you can be realistic, set fewer tasks and feel the sense of accomplishment when you do it. You can draw a line under when you’re going to stop. And stop then. The impact of trusting yourself is so powerful. Clear times means more motivation to be focused and we’re more efficient. This helps shape your identity as someone who gets stuff done and is productive (if you’re working on changing your identity to someone who is productive).

Re-writing our list becomes a form of procrastination

This is a big one for me. Rewriting my to-do list (often multiple times a day) made me feel so in control of my time and my day. It does the opposite and it’s also a tactic to avoid doing the things that really matter on your list. It gives us a false impression that we’re being productive or in control. Planning as a form of procrastination is a huge perfectionist trait (see my post on why we procrastinate here.).

We don’t get time to relax

A to-do list can be never-ending. We never feel like we’re done, so we don’t stop. Or we finish, but then allow work or to-dos to sneak into our evenings. With a planner, you can plan in ‘clean rest’: downtime with absolutely no work and no guilt. Without this, our brain switches off during working hours. With rest planned in, our brain acknowledges that rest is coming and won’t switch off when we need to focus most. With a planner,

To-do lists make is harder to tell when we’re self-sabotaging

If we haven’t set clear times, it’s difficult to tell when we’re putting things off or making things longer than they need to be.

We misjudge the amount of time we need

We often don’t need more time, we just need greater focus over shorter periods of time. This comes from a solid planning process. A planner allows you to look at time of day you’re most productive. Instead of planning 8 hour days and wasting some of that time, plan a shorter day with clean rest and downtime and you’ll get more done in less time.

What to replace a to-do list with:

Power planning

I was introduced to this technique by Sam Laura Brown (the Perfectionism Project) and it honestly changes your productivity around as a perfectionist. I’ve learned a LOT from her and I highly recommend checking out her podcast if you identify as a perfectionist.

With planning this way, it’s important to be realistic. Plan for how you’ll feel at 4pm and 6pm, as well as for productivity peaks. Putting aside an hour or two to do this on a Sunday evening is so worthwhile because we could easily waste that time during the week procrastinating or re-writing our to-do list.

  1. Write down everything you have to do this week. This is really overwhelming and it will be. sit with the overwhelm and don’t panic.
  2. Shelve. Decide what doesn’t need to be done this week.
  3. What are the most important things that will get you closer to you goals?
  4. Allocate each of these tasks an amount of time. Be realistic. We often adapt to the time we have. If you give yourself 30 minutes for a 20 minute task, you’ll take 30 minutes.
  5. In your diary, icalendar or planner, plan in downtime first.
  6. Then plan in the tasks you need to do that week.
  7. Is it realistic? Are times realistic? Imagine yourself starting each day and how you’ll feel before each task. Is there enough rest? Reshuffle.
  8. Throughout the week, remind yourself that things can be reshuffled. If you haven’t got done what you wanted, that’s fine – place it into a different part of your plan, make adjustments and, most importantly, be kind to yourself about it.

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