Casting Off The To-Do List Shackles

I read with great interest one of Oliver Burkeman's This column will change your life in the Guardian. He was reviewing a productivity author who suggested getting rid of the to-do list. How could that even be possible?

Like most to-do list addicts, I have a love-hate relationship with mine: it gives me a feeling of control, but also fills me with dread. There's just so much to do. How can I ever get it all done?

So I gave it a go. I read two of Mark Forster's productivity books. And he's good, really good. (I recommend Secrets of Productive People.)

I learned two very important things from him.

The first is that the whole idea of prioritizing what's important is rubbish. Even the things that you think aren't as important as the others actually do have to get done -- as they are usually all commitments you have. The only way to reduce the amount of stuff you have to do is to reduce your commitments. This was a bit of a wake-up call.

The second is the concept that most of our to-do lists are just fantasy. I used to have a to-do list about the length of War and Peace, which I just added everything to, with no discretion whatsoever. It was absurd that I was ever going to get it all done. And it just sat there, making me feel stressed and irritable.

So I decided to give Forster's system a try.

This is how it works. You sit down and make a list of five things you need to do. You cross them off the list and when you get down to two, you can add three more. You're never allowed to have more than five things on the list.

It's the kind of thing you really have to try to see how it works, but one of the first benefits of using this system is that it shows you exactly how much you can actually get done in a day. Sometimes I only do five things, or even less. This really brings home the first point I learned from him: the only way to really reduce your to-do list is to reduce your commitments.

I have a personal modification to his system that's evolved as I've been using it. I have two (electronic) sticky notes that are separate from my to-do list. One is for work and one for home. And they are where I write down to-do items that come in to me. Requests, tasks that pop into my head, things I need to buy, etc. But they never go on my to-do list straight away. They sit there for a while and I decide if I really need to do them. Sometimes I can delegate them, sometimes I decide they actually don't need to get done. Having these notes, however, at least rids me of the anxiety that I'm going to forget something.

And for all of those long-term goals? They don't sit on my to-do list anymore. If you want to, say, write a book, you carve out time each week or day to do it. And the fact that I still need to order curtains for the study? I notice that every day when I look at the window. Seriously, why would I need to write it down?

Now that I'm letting the to-do list go, I'm starting to realize that my epic list was the kind of thing that kept me living in the past or the future. All those things I was supposed to have done or all the things I will still had to do. But I'm now realizing what matters most is what I do today.

Photo credit: Day 092/366 - To Do List via photopin (license)

Photo credit: Black Clipboard via photopin (license)


  1. Well said! I keep a Task list at work but at home I JFDI!

    1. That's amazing. You really are a step ahead of me. I hope to implement the Donna K JFDI productivity system next :)


Back to Top