Don’t Use To-Do Lists!

Why time management sucks and how to better manage your time


Human nature is to finish what we started. Thus, if we do not finish the task at hand, we experience dissonance and feel stressed. This is called the Zeigarnik effect, which is “the tendency to experience intrusive thoughts about an objective that was once pursued and left incomplete (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008, pg. 122)”. The perceived little available time forces us to plan, allot and prioritize as the only option to keep up with what is expected.

However, we have not always been this obsessed with time. Before the Industrial Revolution hit us head on, people didn’t need clocks or timers to get their work done. People had jobs and tasks attached to them. So that’s what they did.

As more and more people needed to be coordinated within the large factories, the time clock was born. With time attached to tasks and people needing to coordinate their own time, to-do lists were born — Well, maybe a little later. Now there are thousands of to-do apps available but the concept of to-do lists is decidedly flawed in my opinion.

Never Use To-Do Lists

We get more done with a clock in front of us, but can never get on top of things. There is just to much to do and a to-do list doesn’t account for time, which is the first issue.

Further, to-do lists contribute to stress. As explained above, mainly the Zeigarnik effect is to blame. People get overwhelmed just by looking at their long list of tasks for any day. This is the second issue encountered while using to-do lists.

The third issue is the paradox of choice. Looking at the 100 things we plan to do today paralyzes us. Barry Schwartz writes that more choices result in increased negative emotions because our sense of opportunity cost increases as well. So we rather check Facebook again. And Instagram while we’re already at it. Oh, but I have to watch this video in which I won’t believe what will happen!

Lastly, the third issue: to-do lists don’t really differentiate. They don’t distinguish between what is urgent and important. Neither do they distinguish between the length of each task. We tend to do the 5 minute task before the one that takes us 2 hours to receive the psychological payoff and dopamine release. Bam, crossed of some stuff, look at this!

Use Your Calendar

Instead of using to-do lists use your calendar. Because let’s be honest, we do need to plan our time nowadays, at least for the time being. Not that this is 100% going to keep you from procrastinating or putting things off, but by using your calendar as your main planning tool you can avoid some of the “to-do list issues”. In my case this method has helped me get of my a** and a lot more done the past couple weeks.

Start by blocking the most important events. Depending on what is important in your life, e.g. birthdays, date nights, meetings, etc. That way you won’t schedule other tasks during those events.

Secondly, decrease the default event duration of your calendar (I suggest 15–30 min). I use iCal and most tasks do not need an hour to be completed. Especially meetings tend to be the least productive parts of our days (so while you’re at it just make everyone stand). Realistically limit the amount of time associated with a task and you’ll be surprised how little time some things take to get done — and yes, we do tend do drag things if we have scheduled more time for them. We’re done with the meeting but still have 20 minutes? Great, let’s talk football!

But most importantly: Schedule everything. Allocate each task an appropriate time slot in your day and then stick to it. From the important Skype call to social media, e-mails, calling your mother back and the workout in the evening.

Lastly, schedule urgent tasks first (duh)! That way, you will have all your brain power available and are not fatigued from the day yet. Now throw your to-do list out of the window and enjoy your the 24 hours in your day. Real wealth is owning your time! Choose where to sell it as work and what people and activities to spend it with!


Worst case, you can always batch your time like Elon Musk, i.e. combining tasks like responding to e-mails while watching the latest Sportscenter highlights while drinking your morning coffee and listening to the news.