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Ditch The To-Do List To Boost Your Productivity

Written by: Alice Dartnell, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


When it comes to mastering our time management, it makes sense that we have to be organised right? The more organised we are, the more we can make best use of our time, and the more productive we can be. So, it makes sense then to have a to-do list, right? Well, no!

Opened personal organizer with a to do list

The Flaws of a To-do List as a Time Management Tool

Whilst they might seem like the right thing to do, your to-do list might actually be the very thing that is hindering your productivity and it might even be adding to your feeling of being overwhelmed!

In research published in the book, The Busy Person’s Guide to the Done List by Bailey Adams, it reveals that 41% of all the items on a person’s to-do list are never completed.

Before we dive in, let me just add – I am NOT against a list. In fact I love lists. I have a list for everything, an obsession for stationary and sticky notes. I literally write everything down (even the smallest of things like what I have got out the freezer for dinner because I can actually be that forgetful!)

BUT whilst I love a list, I also know that there are a lot of flaws to the humble to-do list as a time management tool and I see people make the same mistakes with them.

I want to share these with you so you can start using your to-do list in a way that is going to help not hinder you!

How a To-do List to Reduces Your Productivity

Here are three ways your to-do list is hindering your productivity and what to do instead.

1. You are putting too much on the to-do list

In an ideal world the to-do list is there to help us be organised and know what we need to be doing each day. But a big problem is that it often causes overwhelm because we are simply putting too much on it!

Social psychologist Roy Baumeister and journalist John Tierney, authors of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, report in their book that one person typically has at least 150 different tasks on their to-do list! No wonder you’re feeling panicked and like there aren’t enough hours in the day… Because there aren’t! You are putting too much on your to-do list for the amount of time you have! As the duo also report in their book, an executive’s to-do list for a single Monday could take more than a week to finish.

What we tend to do is have a to-do list and use that as the basis to work from. But this doesn’t work as the to-do list often has more on it than the time we actually have available.

The solution?

Feel free to add to your to-do list BUT don’t work from it! My top strategy is to start learning to diarise your to-do list to make sure you actually have time for all the things on it. When are those (150+) items actually going to be actioned? Allocate everything on your to-do list a specific time when it will be completed.

2. We put everything and anything on the to-do list

One major problem with a to-do list is that we often write everything on our to-do list. It becomes bit of a dumping ground for everything including what we have to action today to the lofty “one day in the future” ideas that are still just a dream.

You have “buy socks for the kids” on the same to-do list as “check out the new gym classes”, “speak to Jim about potential new client”, “research holiday options for the summer” and the idea that maybe one day you’ll write your own children’s book just for fun.

This makes the to-do list a tricky thing to navigate… what are the priorities? What’s a nice to do vs mission-critical? What’s the pecking order of things?

After all, all tasks look the same on paper. The list does not tell you how long each task will take, when you’ll be doing it or how important it is. It also doesn’t even differentiate whether it is even an action or just an idea for now.

The solution?

Have different types of lists. I have an “ideas list” to capture the big thinking, blue sky thinking, “one day” type things and I keep that separate from the genuine to do list which is more about the immediate things I need to do.

3. We don’t break it down

The trouble with a to-do list is that we just put the top-line tasks on there, so they never provide sufficient information about what the actual actions and tasks involve to enable you to get them ticked off.

For example, we will put one-line entries on list, like “organise John’s 40th”, or “revamp social media marketing”. They sound simple, one-action-type tasks but in fact there is a whole set of moving pieces behind these kinds of things.

I had a client who had “update website” on her to-do list for years. That is because it just looks like one simple thing, but you can’t tick something like that off in one go. A to-do list should be broken down simply enough so that each “to do” is one action that you can then tick off. This client wanted to “update website” and in fact, when we broke it down, there were over 25 different parts to this! This was a whole project, not one bullet point on a to-do list!

The solution?

Simply break it down to the smallest component. The easiest way to devour your to-do list is one bite-sized task at a time, so really break it down. If you only have 5 – 10 minutes, you can still chip away at a project when you have it broken down into the smallest tasks possible! For example, my client was able to finally tackle the website project that had been lingering for years because we broke everything down – decide on pictures, book photographer, choose font, check out colour schemes, look at other websites for inspiration, update home page, refresh the contact page etc.

Follow me on Instagram, LinkedIn, and visit my website for more info!


Alice Dartnell, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Alice Dartnell is a time management and energy management coach, trainer, speaker, and author, who is passionate about empowering people to create a life by design, not by default! Known as an expert in time management and energy management, Alice doesn’t teach time management in the traditional sense. Instead, she focuses on the importance of energy management and mindset as the way to improve time management. Alice believes that time management actually isn’t about managing time! Instead, it is about managing you, other people, your tasks and most importantly, your energy! She works with individuals on a 121 basis, as well as through programmes, workshops, and courses. Additionally, she delivers training to org



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