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I Tried 4 To-Do List Methods. Here’s What Worked.


Jan. 24, 2020 Harvard Business Review

You know that slimy, green ghost from Ghostbusters? The one that floats around eating everything in sight?

That’s kind of what my to-do list reminds me of. Every day it just grows bigger and bigger as I desperately try to get it under control. (Anyone have an extra proton pack lying around?)

Things weren’t always this way. My brain changed during my first year of college. Suddenly, it felt impossible to remember things as well as I used to. There was so much to keep track of: homework, internships, extracurriculars, where I put my car keys. It was around this time that I started experimenting with different planners and to-do lists.

Sadly, I’ve never quite mastered the whole “productivity” thing, at least not in a cohesive way. There are a lot of methods out there for staying organized, and over the years, I’ve tried most of them: keeping my to-do list in notebooks, bullet journals, paper planners, phone apps, and hundreds of color-coded Post-its plastered to my desk.

Nothing has stuck… yet.

This year, I decided enough is enough. I scoured HBR’s archives for research on the best to-do list methods out there and pledged to give my four favorites a try.

For four days, I tried four different strategies. Every morning, I set out to complete 12 tasks that required a similar amount of effort, time, and focus, and eight of which were important for me to complete by 5 PM. The number of meetings I had between Monday and Thursday did vary slightly (I’ve noted where this may have been a factor). At the end of each day, I measured my overall productivity and stress-levels.

Monday: No list, just a calendar.

As someone who often feels haunted by their to-do list, the idea of tearing it to shreds sounded amazing — so when I came across an article advising me to do just that, I was thrilled. “Stop making to-do lists,” author Daniel Markovitz writes. “They’re simply setting you up for failure and frustration.”

His idea is straightforward. Rather than relying on Post-its or productivity apps, use your digital calendar to organize your time. For every task you have to get done, estimate how long it will take, and block that period off in advance. Markovitz argues that this method helps you better prioritize your work, gives you built-in deadlines, and keeps you from prioritizing super easy tasks.

I gave it a try. Last thing on Friday, I took one final look at my list and scheduled all of the tasks I wanted to get done on Monday. I left some spots open for lunch, reviewing emails, and any last-minute assignments that might pop up.

Filling out my calendar ahead of time gave me a real sense of control over my time. But as the weekend progressed, I started to panic. As an anxious person, the “Sunday Scaries” hit me on Saturday around 2 pm. I found myself constantly opening Outlook to see what I had coming up. Each task seemed to be staring at me through the screen, whispering “soon.”

Once Monday morning came around, I managed to get it together. When that first *ding* chimed, notifying me it was for my task, I was ready to go. I didn’t have to use any brain power to figure out what assignment to tackle (a huge relief, especially on a Monday morning), and I finished it with 10 minutes to spare. The blocked time on my calendar also alleviated any pressure I would normally feel to respond to emails or multitask. That said, I did have to move some things around due to last-minute schedule changes.

My least favorite part of this method: Not getting to check off my completed task. Checking off tasks literally releases dopamine in our brains, a neurotransmitter that make us feel light and happy — and WOW did I miss that feeling.

Tasks assigned: 12
Tasks completed: 8

Pros:

  • Limits indecision
  • Good for scheduling work-life balance
  • Keeps you on-task

Cons:

  • Scary to look at
  • Tasks may get rearranged with schedule changes
  • No checking off completed tasks (or dopamine)

This method is good for… people who like structure, who aren’t afraid of a crowded calendar, or who love planning ahead.

Would I do it again? As much as I love the idea of straight up shredding my to-do list, if I were to try this method again, I would approach it a bit differently. I would keep a written to-do list and schedule items from it on my calendar each morning. That way, I get both the structure of time-boxing tasks and the satisfaction of crossing them off.

Tuesday: Keep a running list but do just “one thing” on it.

Our brains start to get overwhelmed as soon as we have more than seven things to choose from. For me, this is a reoccurring issue. Sometimes my to-do list is so long that I completely shut down. Instead of deciding on a task to tackle, I stare off into the distance and think non-work thoughts. (If aliens exist, why haven’t they contacted us yet?)

The tactic I tried Tuesday, which I call the “do one thing” method, would supposedly help me overcome this problem. It’s a strategy highlighted in Peter Bergman’s article, “Your To-Do List Is, in Fact, Too Long.” The core concept is: Keep your to-do list, but use it only as a reference — not something to work off of. Every time you want to tackle a task, write it down on a Post-It and stick it where you can see it. Then, hide your full list and focus. Once you finish your chosen task, cross it off your list, and start again.

The idea here is that by selecting one task at a time, you’re more likely to follow through on it, as opposed to hopping half-heartedly from task to task (or just staring off into space).

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