To -Do Lists are Bullshit

Why I prioritize my life like a multi-billion dollar product company and you can too

Yes, I gave you the Cookie Lyon finger

I used to love to-do lists. I have reams of lists written in notebooks with something inspirational on the cover like ‘Don’t forget your day dreams’ or ‘Queens make dreams happen’. I put checkboxes on the left, I color-coded, I relished in getting my thoughts and ideas organized. It is completely true that writing things down and setting S.M.A.R.T. goals is impactful. In an article written by Kaya Ismail he highlights how writing things down does improve memory. In 2014, the Association of Psychological Science reported that students who physically took notes received a memory boost — particularly when compared to those who took notes via a laptop. As a product development professional, I believe we have to take this a step further. The truth is that without perspective on the prioritization of any given item on a list, we waste a lot of time attempting to do it all. Yes, I said it.


Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

The harder truth is that by the time the items on a to-do list are completed, they may not be as relevant or important anymore. For companies, multiple, hundred-line project lists can be point of record for “value” they plan to realize. These lists are thought about during budgeting season and may have whole business cases attached to them that some poor person spent months on. Then, they go into a long, drawn out requirements/ design process. What usually happens is that the time to market for the items on project lists is too long and the value is irrelevant before the work even starts. New ideas have an expiration date. There is science to this, think perishable food.

What the hell does this have to do with personal life? At first, I thought nothing. On an average day, I could be found in a conference room preaching the importance of prioritization and waste in planning. All the while sitting right next to a cute notebook full of an overwhelming list of goals. [My rant about meetings and productivity is for another time].

I had tangible results in assisting organizations with a new way of thinking about action items, but did not apply these concepts to my own life. It was not sustainable, I was not satisfied, my lists contained too many distractions, I was not making a dent in increasing my income with my cute notebooks, and I was tired as hell.

This is why I started to prioritize my personal life like a multi-billion dollar product development company. In the same, cute motivational notebooks, I take advantage of blank pages to weigh priorities then come up with a short, actionable plan of attack. The results? My vision is a lot clearer. And yes, I doubled my income. These days, I am a big fan of the ‘not to do’ list. I have come up with three questions that make a world of difference

  • What am I looking to achieve?
  • Whats the most useful, time critical thing I can do in the shortest amount of time?
  • If I say yes, what am I saying no to?

I have included an article on various prioritization methods that can be applied to anything in life. See below for 5 tips on how you can scratch the to-do lists and start doing the things that will bring the most action to life. Cheers to burning the to-do lists.

1. Write everything down. Get it out of your head. Cross out the things that are obviously not important and forgive yourself.

2. If you have the time, take a moment to do 2–3 quick, important things on the list right now. Cross them out.

3. Have one view of everything. If it’s work, personal, whatever. You are one person.

4. Prioritize. Refer to the article above. I prefer Don Reinertstein’s weighted shortest job first.

5. Pick no more than 3 to attack on any given day.

Have fun actioning on your goals. If you want some cute, motivational notebook suggestions start here.

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