To-Do Lists Are Not the Answer to Getting Things Done

I’ve helped thousands of people — from NFL Coaches and Four Star Generals to best-selling authors and hedge fund managers — feel less busy and get more done.

I get asked for advice on improving productivity so much so that I’ve packaged most of it into an online seminar that I call Insanely More Productive.

Today, I want to share one of the biggest secrets I’ve discovered. It’s the secret to some of the most productive people I know and it’s non-intuitive.

SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE DON’T MAKE TO-DO LISTS.

I know that sounds crazy but it’s true.

Most of us who use a to-do list take out a sheet of paper and write out what we want to do, say on Saturday. It looks something like this.

That’s horrible. And it keeps growing and growing because the rate at which people say “yes” to new things is not exceeded by the rate at which they get things done.

TO-DO LISTS MAKE IT EASY AND THAT’S A BAD THING.

And because it’s so simple to add things, these lists tend to grow and grow. Even worse they encourage our default to be “yes” instead of “no.” Because it’s easy to say yes, that’s what we do.

It’s no wonder we feel stressed and full of anxiety.

The real value in life comes from saying no.

To help you say no you need some friction. The solution to the to-do list problem is actually pretty simple. You have to make one change: schedule it.

If you need to pick up groceries, schedule it. Saturday morning at 10am. In your calendar, keep a list of the groceries you need under that block of time. (That’s how the most successful people use lists … under a specific time block.)

Here is what my calendar entry for groceries looks like.

I block time in the afternoon for groceries, because I have a lot of mental energy in the mornings and I don’t want to waste it on groceries.

And when you click on it, you get this

My grocery list

Want to spend a date night with your spouse or partner? Schedule it. And if you’re smart you’ll set this one to recurring weekly.

Want to set aside time for that project you never seem to get around to? Schedule it and you’ll find yourself actually doing it instead of talking about it.

WHY SCHEDULING WORKS SO WELL

When you schedule things, you are forced to deal with the fact that there are only so many hours in a week. You’re forced to make choices rather than add something to a never ending to-do list that only becomes a source of anxiety. And you can’t just schedule important work and creative stuff. You need to schedule time for rest and recovery and mundane things like email.

Scheduling things also creates a visual feedback mechanism for how you actually spend your time — something we’re intentionally blind to because we won’t like what we see.

Being more productive isn’t always about doing more, it’s about being more conscious about what you work on and putting your energy into the two or three things that will really make a difference.

Of course this is only part of the solution.

My productivity seminar has helped students, teachers, hedge fund managers, CEOs, and even NFL Coaches get more done and feel less busy. Maybe it can help you.

If you’re interested in mastering the best of what other people have already figured out, join Farnam Street.