The Problem with To-Do Lists

If you work in human resources, you probably have the ever present to-do list. Everyone has them, and they may think that using them is helpful, but one business analyst says get rid of them – and he offers an alternative.

Daniel Markovitz says that there are a number of problems with to-do lists that really make them pretty much useless. The first is that they give you too many choices. All of these choices actually create more problems than they solve because they increase our frustration. And this happens because we see the opportunity costs – the value of what we could be doing but are not – go up. Other research has shown that we can actually only handle about seven choices before we become overwhelmed, according to Markovitz. It is easier to decide and act on things when there are fewer choices. So, when you look at a long to-do list with many items on it, all it does is foster a sense of paralysis.

Another problem with to-do lists is that they lead us to focus on the things that we can do quickly, and avoid those that take some time, so the more time-consuming tasks (which often are the most important) inevitably get pushed aside.

In addition, a typical to-do lists sees you taking care of those tasks that you identify as a high priority first, neglecting the ones that are lower priority, until the lower priority tasks can no longer be ignored. But if you had taken care of the low priority tasks without delay, they would never have become urgent tasks to begin with.

Another problem with the list is that sometimes you get no idea from it how long a task will take or how much time you have to devote to the task, which prevents you from making a good decision on which item to work on. And the to-do list really provides no incentive to do the more important task over the more pleasant task.

What Markovitz recommends instead is to first estimate how much time you think each task will take, and then transfer it to your calendar. This will force you to decide which task you will handle at what time – and will alleviate the problems mentioned above.

By doing this, you also get a better picture of what time commitments are involved, and whether you can meet them. You will be forced to decide whether you can do a certain task, or even if it is worth doing.

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