The Big Idea
Your to-do list is making you unproductive.
Questions I Answer
- How can I organize my to do list better?
- What’s the best way to use my to-do list?
- How can I be more productive?
- How can I increase my efficiency at work?
Actions to Take
- Try doing a daily brain dump… the Daily Download from inkWELL Press is perfect for this!
- Start creating your own Priority List, not a to-do list, so that you can get the important items done, not just the urgent ones.
Key Topics in the Show
Why to-do lists don’t really work in today’s society and workplaces.
Understand and combat that feeling that tasks are always eating away at you.
How to work more effectively by using the three priority levels that keep your tasks organized.
Everyday examples of how you can respond to Insignificant tasks so that you can focus on the Important ones.
Tips on how to begin using this new system in any area of your life.
Resources and Links
- The Daily Planner from inkWELL Press uses the priority list to help you be more productive.
Hello, hello everyone. Welcome to Productivity Paradox. I’m your host, Tanya Dalton and this is episode 33. Today, we are talking about why to do lists don’t work. If you’re one of those people who’s been making to do lists for a long time and you find that somehow at the end of the day you’re still feeling unsuccessful or that you haven’t accomplished enough, it’s not you. It’s the to do list that’s the problem. All right. So, before we get there and talk about that, let’s just take a second to have a quick word from our sponsor and then we’ll start diving in. Today’s episode is brought to you by FreshBooks. If you are a freelancer or entrepreneur FreshBooks is the simplest way to be more productive, get organized, and most importantly, get paid.
I’ll share a little bit more about FreshBooks later on in today’s episode, but let’s go ahead and get started talking about why to do lists don’t work. Let’s back up for a second and understand where did the to do list even come from. What was the origin of this productivity trick? Well, in 1918 Charles Schwab was the president of the
largest ship builder and the second largest steel producer in America at the time, The Bethlehem Steel Corporation and he was looking for a way to increase the efficiency of his team. So, he arranged a meeting with productivity consultant Ivy Lee. Mr. Lee asked to meet with each of Schwab’s executives for about 15 minutes to come up with a solution and when he was asked the cost of developing this new system, Lee said, nothing, unless it works. After three months you can send me a check for whatever you feel it is worth to you.
So, he created The Ivy Lee Method, which is at the end of each workday write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Prioritize the items in order of their true importance. Then, when you arrive the following morning concentrate on the first task and finish it before you move on to the second task and approach the rest of the list in the same way. At the end of the day move any
unfinished tasks to a new list with six new tasks for the next day and then you just repeat that. Well, after three months of implementing this system Schwab was so delighted with the progress his team was making that he wrote Lee a check for 25 thousand dollars, which is about equivalent to 400 thousand dollars now and I obviously like the idea of an evening list. I mean I credit my five minute evening-dom as the one thing that has easily doubled my daily productivity.
I believe in it so much that I created a notepad called The Daily Download just to do that exact activity but other people took this idea and they used it as the springboard for the advent of the to do list and I don’t believe this method accounts for any of the modern day distractions that we have. I don’t believe to do lists really work. So, why is that? Well, it’s been shown that our brains can only handle about seven options before we are overwhelmed. It’s easier to make decisions and act when
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there are fewer choices. So, looking at a large number of items on your to do list causes analysis paralysis or it basically sends you back to that default email checking mode and when your list contains a jumble of time tasks, some that’ll take a few minutes and other tasks that’ll take an hour or more, well most people will automatically take care of the shorter tasks, because there’s a psychological payoff. That little dopamine hit that comes from crossing off something on your to do list, we do that because it feels good to cross items off our to do lists.
A lot of people write down things they already did just to cross them off, but your list is supposed to be there to get you closer to your goals. It’s not really there for mood repair and that boost and happiness that you get from the dopamine? Well, it’s short lived and that really means that those big important tasks that take longer end up waiting a long time to get crossed off and really, usually it’s the longer tasks that are truly the important ones. So, we spend hours crossing off items like responding to email instead of working on the work that will really push us forward towards our purpose, towards our mission in the long run and when high and low priority tasks are all mixed together it’s really hard to know what to work on in the moment. We live in a time when we are so bombarded with so many choices and opportunities. We have more information and more opportunities available to us now then ever before in history and that, well that creates overwhelm.
You don’t even know where to begin and since all the tasks look equal when they’re written down, there’s no context for determining what to work on. So, you end up focusing on a lower priority item instead of the important items and then those important items slip down on your list until they become urgent fires. So, to do lists contribute a lot to your stress. It’s known as a Zeigarnik effect. That’s a hard word to say, the Zeigarnik effect where unfinished tasks contribute to intrusive uncontrolled thoughts, because we remember the task is not done and it kind of eats away at us. You know, when you have that feeling where there’s something in the back of your mind and you just can’t stop thinking about it or you can’t stop stressing about it? That’s that effect.
So, to do lists do work really well to keep track of all the things we need to get done and haven’t done yet, but that’s really it. They’re not designed to push us to get the things done that we really need to do or to be more productive. To do lists take away the focus from working on the important tasks. The tasks we need to accomplish to create an impact. The ideal solution forces you to look at the limited time that you have and make choices. We want to define the work that we want to do. Here’s the other issue with to do lists. To do lists are really easy to add to. You can just jot another item down, right? So, they tend to get long. Really long. Really, really, really long. So, it sets us up for a day that is by design, unachievable, because it’s easy just to throw another item on the old to do list, it grows and grows.
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We never get to that feeling of accomplishment. A survey of professionals conducted by LinkedIn found that only 11% of professionals, globally say that they have accomplished all the tasks they planned to do at the end of an average workday. Wow. Here’s the question, if 89% of professionals don’t feel like they’ve accomplished what they need to, how do they feel at the end of the day? My goal with everything I do with Inkwell Press and Productivity Paradox is to give you the tools so that at the end of the day when your head hits the pillow, you feel happy, satisfied and successful and I’m afraid to do lists just aren’t doing that. We need a mindset shift. No more to do lists. Let’s start making priority lists.
This year is our first year to have a daily planner and for me it was something that I resisted for a long time because I felt that daily planners have long spaces full of lines waiting to be filled chocked full of to dos and obviously I always felt it was so counterproductive and it wasn’t until I shifted my own mindset that I began to see how creating a planner that focused on priority lists rather than to do lists could start to make a meaningful impact to each day. So, that’s what I did. I’ve created a system of priority levels that makes it simple to make your lists and these are more focused. As Gary Keller says, the more productive people are, the more purpose and priority are pushing and driving them, but I wanted to make it so streamlined that it would allow people to focus on their purpose and priority while taking no more time than it took to write the standard to do list. So, that was my personal challenge that I came up with for myself.
I wanted to create a priority system that was easy to implement and took no more time than a regular to do list. So, I created my own and I want to talk about this system in just a second but first I want to give a quick shootout to our sponsor, FreshBooks. So, I’ve talked a lot about the importance of tracking your time in this podcast, but it’s even more important if you’re getting paid by the hour. Right? The FreshBooks team has made it really easy to make sure you’re getting paid for the time you spend working. They have a complete time tracking feature within the accounting software. So, it can immediately track the amount of time you’ve spent plus it seamlessly ties to your clients or customers, making invoices a breeze. I love how FreshBooks makes sure that you’re spending more time on the things that matter most and less counting the minutes. So, if you want to give it a try FreshBooks has kindly offered a free unrestricted trial for my listeners.
Just go to Freshbooks.com/paradox and in the section that says, how did you find us, type in Productivity Paradox. Okay. Let’s get back to talking about priority lists. So, how did I come up with these priority levels in this system that I’ve created? Well, I have three levels and the levels represent immediate, important and insignificant items. So, it’s a marriage of the Eisenhower Matrix and the Triage method. The Eisenhower Matrix is a method devised by Dwight D. Eisenhower who is considered by historians as our most productive president and it uses a quadrant
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system that you have to map out and I felt like that was a little bit cumbersome for a daily basis. Now, the Triage method is something I discussed at length back in episode six but it basically was a way for doctors in World War One to try to save as many people as possible. So they divided patients into three categories in order to focus their energy accordingly. Correctly prioritizing patients allowed the doctors to affect the most change possible and made a significant impact on mortality rates and I really liked that.
Obviously, in life or death situations it’s really important to prioritize. So, correctly prioritizing your tasks allows you to affect the most change in your life and move that ball forward to your goals. So, while they may not be life or death like the Triage method, a priority system will definitely improve your life. So, let’s start by talking about the difference between important and urgent. Important tasks contribute to our long term mission and our goals, while urgent items are time sensitive. They’re not necessarily important but these are the things that are shouting out at us. They have arrows and exclamation points next to them. Urgent mode is going to put us in a reactive mindset, because we’re working against the clock. Important mode puts you in a proactive state and allows you to stay level headed and focused. So, I think it’s really important to understand that distinction between urgent and important, because too often we treat all of our urgent tasks as the top priority, even when they’re not important.
I really think that’s important to understand and now that we understand the difference between the two, let’s dig in to how to divide up your tasks and create a priority lists. So, the first one is immediate and these are items that are both important and they’re urgent. So, these are time sensitive tasks that also move you closer to your goals. These can be actions like signing up for classes before the enrollment deadline if you’re in graduate school or making product listings before the upcoming launch if you own your own business. You want to spend some of your time here but we want to make sure that we make plans so that important tasks don’t become urgent if they don’t have to. Here’s a key note. We don’t want to spend the majority of our time here because this is urgent mode. That reactive mode. So, you’re not able to take the time to really focus on quality, because when you’re in that reactive mode that we talked about a minute ago you feel more rushed.
So, that’s our first priority level is immediate. Next we have important. So, these are items and tasks that are important but not urgent. This is where you should be spending the majority of your time. These are the tasks that don’t have a looming deadline or the deadline is far away and these are the things that are going to move you towards your goal or fulfill your mission and purpose but because they’re not urgent these are the type of tasks that often get pushed aside. We need to put these items up high on our list and place them under this headline of important so they’re given the main focus of your day. Being in a situation without a looming deadline
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allows you do your best work, because you have the time to really push yourself and give yourself the time to think of creative solutions. You’re not in panic mode when you’re thinking this way because when you’re rushed you don’t have that luxury.
Often, these tasks can be habits that we’re trying to set, like doing yoga twice a week or long term projects like developing a business plan but when they aren’t scheduled anywhere they don’t ever get done. They tend to be the first tasks set aside while we take care of those urgent tasks and you’ll notice in our new planner that’s launching in September this priority level gets the most lines in the priority list, because this is where you want to spend the majority of your focus. We want to spend most of our time on the important tasks. So then we have a third priority level and that one is called insignificant. It’s urgent but not important and I’ve heard some people push back on that term insignificant here, so let me clarify. We gave this priority level this name, insignificant, to remind ourselves that urgent but not important tasks should not be at the top of our lists, by default, because they are not significant.
They are insignificant by nature. It’s a mindset shift of bumping these seemingly significant tasks down to the bottom of the lists, but they’re not significant. They’re insignificant because they’re not important because we want to make sure we’re working on the important tasks first. Think about what you could get rid of completely that’s in this section, either by deleting it or delegating it. Do you for example have to sort all the laundry yourself or can other members of the household do that? Do you have to pick up the phone every time you get a call in the middle of your workday or can you set a boundary for when you have the time to devote to talking? Many people are reactors. They respond to action items others have set for them before tending to their own important items.
This can include things like social media notifications, meaningless chores, work tasks, things like that and these items feel urgent because they’re important to someone else and they’re treating them like they’re important but urgent tasks are never ending and they tend to multiply. As soon as one gets done five more pop up. So, we zero in on a goal without really asking if it’s the right one for us. You can be busy doing a lot of good things but still miss out on the most important things. Busy is a four letter word and recognize that busy-ness doesn’t mean you’re being purposeful or that you’re making the most impact that you really want to have. Ask yourself, if I’m not taking care of the most important things, why am I so busy? What am I spending my time on and that’s what I want to challenge you with today. If you are feeling so stretched thin and like you are busy all day long, I understand that feeling.
I have had that feeling myself and it can feel hard when you feel like there are so many things on that to do list. This is why it’s really important to ask yourself those
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questions. If I’m not taking care of the most important things, why am I so busy? When you think about what matters to you, are you really spending time on those things? Why? Why aren’t you spending time on those things? Isn’t that really what you want to do with your time? When you have your priorities in mind it makes it so much easier to cut through all of that noise and all of that clutter that’s around us, because there is so much noise and so much clutter, but having that priority is like having a lighthouse. It shines bright and you know just where it is you want to go, and this is where the priority list really shines its brightest.
You’ve heard me say a hundred times is overwhelm is not having too much to do? It’s not knowing where to start? That’s what the priority list does for you. It tells you where to start. When you have those three levels of immediate, important and insignificant and you write your tasks under the correct heading, you know where to start. You know you want to start with immediate because those have to be done first and they’re important. You’re not going to be doing the insignificant tasks first. This is going to be your guide to help you through each and every day, so that when your head does hit the pillow you do feel happy, you do feel satisfied and you do feel successful and isn’t that really what life is about? Happiness and figuring out what the things that are important to you and your values and your purpose and that is my wish for you with this priority list system.
I’m going to go through all of those different levels of the priority system on the show notes. If you’d like to look at those you can find those at Inkwellpress.com/ podcast under episode 33. Now, I hope you’re really enjoying this season where we are talking all about systems. Next week we’re talking about my all time favorite system of all, automations and we have been having some great conversations in the meantime in our Facebook group, so I really encourage you to join us there. You can join at Inkwellpress.com/group and there’s a little sign up form for you to sign up and we send you all the information you need to become part of our community. I’d love to see you there. All right. Until next time, happy planning.
**This transcript is created by AI, so please excuse any typos, misspellings and grammar mistakes.
Tanya Dalton is a woman on a mission to help women be more productive. She is a keynote speaker helping with time management, goal setting and finding your purpose at work.