Throw Away Your To Do List!

If you’re like most people, you find yourself with dozens of tasks that you need to do every day, both personal and for your work or business.  To manage of all this, most of us turn to our trusty “To-Do List”. I used to live by my to-do list. Every morning, I’d take 15 minutes and map out everything I wanted to get done that day. Over the course of the day, I’d diligently cross off the items I completed, while adding new items that came up during the course of the day. Problem was, it seemed like at the end of every day, no matter how much I did, I ended up with more items than I started with! These items would be the base for the next day’s list, and this insane exercise would start all over again. I found that I felt constantly discouraged. How would I ever get everything done? Was I not managing my time properly? No matter how hard I tried, I could never get to the end of my list and frankly found myself spending more time worrying about my list than actually doing productive work.

Then I realized something. The day my list is empty is the day I’m in big trouble. By nature a growing business always has things that need to get done. If it doesn’t, there’s something terribly wrong. I also realized that I had become a slave to this list. That’s when I decided to throw my to-do list in the trash.

Now, that’s not 100% true. I still have a daily to-do list. However, the only items that go on there are deadline driven tasks that MUST be done that day. Pay estimated taxes, enter weekly payroll, buy my wife a birthday present! If it doesn’t have to be done that day, it does not go on the list. I found that most of the items on my past list didn’t have specific deadlines. Review 3rd quarter advertising buys, look into new inventory management system, work on new packaging design. These are all larger initiatives that require more thought and not likely to be accomplished in one day. I was aware of that when I put them on my to-do list, but somehow, having a bunch of unfinished items made me feel non-productive even though I knew they wouldn’t be finished quickly. Turns out I’m not alone. According to the article titled “The Psychology of Productivity” in March’s edition of Inc. Magazine, Just half of all to-do list items are completed in a day, and 41 percent are never completed. As a result, people feel demoralized or depressed because they’ve got these incomplete items looming over them. And, as we all know, demoralized or depressed workers are far less productive than energized and motivated workers.

In Teresa Amibile’s new book The Progress Principal, she emphasizes the importance of progress over productivity. She suggests that making meaningful progress has a much greater positive impact on motivation. She contends that taking the time to look back and recognize what you’ve done, not what you have to do is far more productive. I couldn’t agree more. Instead of a to-do list, I’ve started writing a “what I did” list. I take 15 minutes at the end of the day and write out what I accomplished that day. Try it. It’s very empowering. It allows me to realize how much positive progress I’ve made each day and truly motivates me to start the next day.

In the end, that’s really what it comes down to. I often refer to business as “pushing the rock up the hill” Instead of telling myself where on the hill I want to get that day, I look back and ask myself, “Am I higher up the hill than I was yesterday?”. If the answer is yes, I’m satisfied. It’s as simple as that. Keep pushing the rock. Focus on what you’ve done, not what you need to do, and hope that there’s always something more to do. If there’s not, you’re screwed.