Why Your To-Do List Is Dead Wrong

June 14, 2016

by Dan Richards

Many of us use to-do lists to plan our time and to be more productive. But a recent talk showed why our to-do lists are dead wrong and less effective as a result

In my article last week, Google’s Lesson on Making Your Team Excel, I described a talk by Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, who recently published Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. In a talk to students at the MBA program at the University of Toronto, where I’ve taught for many years, he discussed the background to the book.

Like many of us, I struggle with the sheer volume of emails and the number of things on my to-do list each day. And while I’ve found that the harder I was working the more I felt like I was falling behind, I did encounter people who are one or two standard deviations more productive than the norm.

Here’s how to structure your to-do list like those exceptional outliers.

Seize control of your thinking

One of our challenges is the amount of distractions and demands on our time. Duhigg made the point that the most productive people think differently about how they manage their time. He said that until the industrial revolution 150 years ago, multi-tasking and the ability to work on two projects or ideas at a time was a huge asset. Today, multi-tasking is a big problem that destroys productivity. Duhigg’s research found that the most productive people have trained themselves to focus on what is important and ignore everything else. (If you don’t believe that multi-tasking kills your effectiveness, read about the multi-tasking fallacy in my article, Why the Way You Work Destroys Productivity.)

To be productive, you have to seize control of your thinking so that you are proactive rather than reacting to events and communication as they cross your desk. One way to do that is to employ what Duhigg referred to as contemplative strategies that force us to reflect more deeply on what we are doing – activities such as meditation or keeping a daily journal. Another strategy is spending five minutes at the beginning of each day to write down your key priorities and another five at the end of the day to write down what you’ve actually achieved. Research suggests that this can dramatically increase your productivity. (You can learn more in another of my articles, The Hour of Your Day that Matters Most)

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Why Your To-Do List Is Dead Wrong
To-Do List