7 Reasons To-Do Lists Damage Your Productivity

#1 — You misunderstood the purpose of to-do lists

Younes Henni
Aug 27, 2020 · 7 min read
Photo by niklas_hamann on Unsplash

Let me guess. Your to-do lists make you feel overwhelmed. Your stress levels skyrocket as high-priority items are past their deadlines. By the end of the day, you feel frustrated because not all the work has been done. You postpone the unchecked items to the next day — the list grows bigger and bigger over time.

You fell victim to something called “the productivity paradox”. You create to-do lists to get things done and increase your productivity. Instead, they make you feel less productive. Your self-esteem crashes to the ground.

I don’t blame you and neither you should. Like most people, you didn’t receive formal training on how to create effective to-do lists. According to a survey by LinkedIn, 90% of professionals admit to not getting through their to-do lists on a regular basis. You are not alone!

I will present you with 7 problems that your to-do list is suffering from. For each problem, I will give you a solution that will help you create the perfect to-do list formula.

1 — You Misunderstood the Purpose of To-Do Lists

Why do you create to-do lists? Most people answer “to get things done.”

“To-do lists are less about getting all tasks done and more about getting the right things done.”

That’s not the purpose of great to-do lists. The true purpose of to-do lists is to help you organise your tasks and isolate the important stuff. To-do lists are less about getting all tasks done and more about getting the right things done.

A great to-do list will focus your attention on the high-impact high-value work. It will prevent you from getting distracted by low impact work that’s not relevant to your goals and objectives.

2 — You Didn’t Assign Deadlines to Tasks

To-do lists without deadlines are wish lists. Nothing more. If you don’t invoke a sense of urgency to complete a task then you will lean toward inaction.

Another issue is to assign deadlines that are too far in the future. When you do this you fall victim to “Parkinson’s Law”.

Parkinson’s Law

“Work expands as to fill the time available for its completion.”

This means that the completion of your task will take as long as you want it to take. If you don’t assign a deadline to your task then your time to finish it is infinite!

Solution — Assign a proper deadline to each task

Make your deadlines honest and realistic. Do your best to estimate how long a task will take.

It’s not good for you to assign short deadlines to complicated tasks. You will only add stress and anxiety. On the other hand, assigning a deadline too far in the future will cause Parkinson's Law to kick in.

The key is to do your best estimate — based on experience and trial and error — then give yourself a bit less time than you need. This way you will avoid too much stress and make sure you don’t fall victim to Parkinson’s Law.

3 — Your Todo-List Is Too Long

Endless to-do lists are discouraging. They are a constant reminder of how much work is waiting to get done. If you always end the day with unfinished tasks, it will be devastating to your motivation.

Long to-do lists are a very common mistake among professionals. That’s because most of us confuse to-do lists for brain-dump lists. Brain-dumps are meant to take ideas/tasks out of your head into paper or digital apps. But they are horrible to work from. They are filled with unrelated tasks that lack a proper separation based on context, priority, and urgency.

Solution — Limit your to-do list to 5 tasks

Don’t work from your brain-dump lists. Instead, create a working to-do list for your daily work.

Your daily to-do list should have five tasks. No more than that. Ideally, you should cross all five tasks by the end of each workday. Carefully select 5 items from your brain-dump list and move them to your to-do list. Work on them one by one.

If you finish all tasks before the end of your workday, check if you can squeeze an extra task to work on before the day ends. If yes, then add the new task and start working on it.

It’s important that you finish your day with a sense of accomplishment and progress. Which means all tasks from your daily to-do list must get crossed by the end of the workday.

4 — Your To-Do List Has Unrelated Tasks

What project does your to-do list address? What type of work does each task need? Is it a creative task? Or more analytical?

When you face a “cocktail” to-do list of unrelated tasks, you will suffer from the “Paradox of Choice”.

The Paradox Of Choice

The more options we have, the less capable we are to decide between them and the more anxiety we experience as a result.

This, in turn, will encourage procrastination and decision avoidance. You avoid picking tasks because doing so is a huge mental effort.

Solution — Categorise your to-do lists by projects and your tasks by type of work

Create a to-do list for each project you have (e.g., writing a blog post, summer holidays, developing an app, writing a business plan, cleaning the house, etc).

For each task in your to-do list, add a label that indicates the type of work this task requires. Here are some examples of labels.

Creative work (e.g., writing, UX design).Communucation work (e.g., answering emails, returning calls).Analytical work (e.g., programming, researching and documenting).

5 — You Don’t Attach an Impact Factor to Tasks

You mix tasks that have a low impact on your work with high-impact tasks. High priority tasks mingle with low priority ones.

Because you mix tasks of different impact, you will tend to work on easy ones. For example, you might tend to answer emails or take part in meetings rather than writing reports or analysing markets. Failure to prioritise high impact tasks will be detrimental to your overall performance and goals.

Solution — Assign an impact factor to each task

The Eisenhower Matrix is a great tool to classify your tasks based on importance and urgency. The figure below showcase how to use it to assign an impact score to each task (from 1 to 4).

Illustration of the decision matrix by Eisenhower.

Tasks that are urgent and important go to the top of your to-do list. They are situated in the first quadrant of the Eisenhower matrix and have a score of 4. Focus the bulk of your work on these tasks.

Tasks that have an impact score of 3 can be scheduled for later. Tasks of 2 are better delegated to people that are best suited for them (they score 3 or 4 in their Eisenhower matrix). Finally, discard everything that has a score of 1 from your to-do list.

Whenever you create new tasks, always assign an impact factor to them using the Eisenhower Matrix. This way you know how to prioritise and get the most out of your day.

6 — Your Tasks Are Defined Too Broadly

The scope of your tasks is too large. Examples include: build a webpage, start writing a novel, study for the mid-term exams. Worse, ill-defined tasks might, in fact, be full-blown projects in disguise. They are actually made up of many tasks.

Solution — Narrowly-define each task on your to-do list

Imply specific actions. Don’t leave anything to interpretation. Break each task into a single objective task (SOT).

Tasks should be actionable and carry a singular objective. You can transform the previous examples into SOT like this:

  • Write 1000 words for my first chapter of the book.
  • Complete practice problems on pages 165–169.
  • Reserve a domain name for my webpage.

Always use strong verbs to command immediate action in your tasks (e.g., call, finish, start, write, publish). Also, the verbs must be very specific about the type of action to perform (e.g., email, call, research, plan).

7 — Your Tasks Aren’t Attached to Specific Goals

What goal does this task belong to? What are the specific outcomes of getting this task done? When you neglect to answer these questions, you become less motivated to get your task done.

What service are you doing yourself by working on tasks that don’t serve your goals? Tasks that are irrelevant to your professional objectives?

Solution — Attach a specific goal to every task on your to-do list

Determine the reason each item needs completion. Assign a “why” to each item on your list. Write a specific goal below every task’s title. Here is an example of this practice.

Task Number 11
- Task Title: Write a 1000 word for your new Medium article.
- Associated goal: Completing this task will get me closer to becoming a top writer on productivity in Medium.

Goals spur you to take action. A written goal is more real that one swimming in your head. It serves as a reminder for what you want to achieve. Hence, you are less likely to procrastinate on important tasks.

Final Thoughts

Productivity has never been about getting busy. It’s all about getting the right things done to progress toward your goals.

To-do lists must serve their purpose at all times. “To get you closer toward your specific outcome. To ensure progress toward your desired goals”.

To-do lists are less about getting everything done and more about getting the right things done. Their role is to help you focus on high-value and high impact work. Everything else can be discarded.

I share knowledge and tips about productivity, high performance, and personal growth. Get my weekly articles in here.


Find out what others have already figured out. Follow to join our community.

Younes Henni

Written by

Science-backed articles to improve your cognitive skills: learning, creativity, problem-solving, thinking patterns. Grab your FREE EBOOK: https://bit.ly/3c7QfeX



A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Younes Henni

Written by

Science-backed articles to improve your cognitive skills: learning, creativity, problem-solving, thinking patterns. Grab your FREE EBOOK: https://bit.ly/3c7QfeX



A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store