3 Reasons Why Your To Do List Is Failing You

(Last Updated On: August 3, 2017)

I used to be a devoted to do list user. I had lists on my phone. I had lists on my computer. I had lists in my planner and on post-it notes above my desk.

When I got everything done on my to do list, I felt like a million bucks. In fact, I was so addicted to that feeling of completion that I even added items to my to do list that I had already completed, just so I could cross them off. Seriously. I had a to do list problem.

But, deep down I knew that a to do list isn’t the awesome productivity tool it pretends to be. In fact, my to do list often prevented me from getting things done. Sounds counterintuitive, right? Well, stick with me.

This post includes affiliate links, which means if you choose to buy something using my link, I’ll earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. You can read more on my disclosure page.

Ready to take back control of your time? Download my free Time Management Toolkit here:

3 Reasons Why Your To Do List is Failing You

A to do list is a procrastination tool.

I like to think of myself as an organized and planful person. I used to spend 30 minutes every Sunday night planning out my week and creating my to do list. But, it’s slowly dawned on me that planning is just another way to procrastinate.

How much time do you spend thinking about and creating your to do list? And let me guess, the busier you are, the more time you have to spend creating and managing that list?

Writing a to do list, organizing your to do list, and prioritizing the items on your to do list are sneaky ways that procrastination seeps into your life.

Instead of taking action and getting things done, you’re creating the illusion of getting things done.

It’s the difference between being busy and being productive. When you’re busy, you’re making lists. You’re planning. You’re researching. But you’re not taking action and you’re not getting any closer to achieving your goals.

When you’re productive, you’re completing the important tasks that help you get results.

That planning I do on Sunday nights? It’s busy work. And if I can limit it to 30 minutes a week and it helps me focus my time and energy, then it’s acceptable busy work.

But, if I spent 2-3 hours a week planning, and another 2-3 hours a week creating my to do lists and thinking about the fastest way to complete the items on my to do lists, and organizing my to do lists into prioritized tiers, well… that’s a solid 4-6 hours a week where I actually got nothing done.

Sure, planning feels good. You have a plan! You’re super organized! You know what you need to do this week!

But you haven’t actually gotten anything done.

So, you’re no closer to achieving your goals.

A to do list makes it difficult to prioritize.

Another problem with to do lists is that they’re called “to do.” You feel like you HAVE to complete everything on the list.

Right, you’re thinking…isn’t that the point? These are the things you’re supposed to do, so of course you should feel like you need to complete them.


This is a problem because it means you’re not prioritizing. You’re not doing the most important work first.

I’m not making this up. Researchers at Harvard have found that literally checking a box on a your to do list after completing an item makes you feel good.  The human brain is wired to find pleasure in completing things.

This means that we are drawn to completing the simplest and least time-consuming tasks on our to do list.

It’s easier and faster to pin 10 pins on Pinterest than it is to pitch a big blogger for a guest post. But which task is going to have bigger long-term rewards? Let’s be honest with ourselves, it’s probably the guest post.

A to do list dis-incentivizes the hard, but important work. It rewards you for doing the easy stuff. And eventually the easy stuff is all you get done.

A to do list can stress you out.

You might think that writing a to do list will make you feel less stressed. If you could just write down everything that’s clogging your mind, you’d sleep better and feel organized and purposeful. With the perfect to do list, you’d wake up in the morning and get sh*t done, like a boss!

In reality, a to do list is often a sign that you’re burnt out and overwhelmed. Writing a to do list helps you feel more in control of the chaos, temporarily.

But when your list gets too long, it’s hard to know where to even begin.

Or, as Dr Suess more eloquently put it: The mess is so big and so high and so tall, you cannot pick it up. There is no way at all.

That’s right, I just dropped a Dr Suess #truthbomb on you.

When your to do list is too long, you can’t get it done. There is no way at all. So you start to feel burnt out, overwhelmed and even more stressed.

And if you’re like me, someone who feels accomplished and productive when you cross items off your list, then your to do list becomes a day-ruiner. You just feel like crap because you couldn’t do it all.

Now that I’ve ruined to do lists for you forever (sorry about that), let’s talk about what you can do instead.

Create a priority list.

Lists are still okay, but you need to use the right kind of lists.

Toss your to do list, and try creating a priority list instead.

When I create a priority list, I limit myself to the 3-5 things that I need to get done that week (1 main task per day). That’s it. I like to use this planner because it forces me to prioritize. 🙂

Writing a priority list should only take you 2 minutes because you should only write down the 3-5 tasks that most important and urgent.

This week, my work priority list was:

  1. Promote my newest blog post in Facebook groups.
  2. Outline my new course.
  3. Create a draft sales page for my new course.
  4. Bring my kiddo to two play dates.
  5. Go grocery shopping. (Yep, I have to put that on my list or it won’t get done.)

The end.

These are the 5 things that I absolutely have to get done this week. The three business tasks help me stay on track with my goals. The two personal tasks keep my family life running smoothly. Anything (and everything) else is gravy.

Of course, as the mama of a new baby, my brain is a sieve, so there are plenty of less important and urgent things I don’t want to forget about.

I add those to a brain dump list. Again, creating this list doesn’t take long because I’m just dumping things out of my brain. (Sorry if that creates a terrible mental picture for you.)

On my brain dump list are things like:

  1. Email my friend Jody about visiting her next month.
  2. Bring my husband’s clothes to the dry cleaner (sorry babe, not urgent and important)
  3. Sort out the clothes my kids have out grown.
  4. Clean my desk.
  5. Add affiliate links to older blog posts.
  6. Plan a sales funnel for my course.
  7. Order some stuff from Amazon (tissues/toilet paper/powdered coffee creamer)

I like working on paper, so I just write down my brain dump list on lined paper in a cute 3-ring binder, like this one. And as more ideas pop into my head during the week, I add to the list.

During the week, I was able to complete some of the brain dump items. I emailed Jody.

Okay, so I was able to complete one item on my list. But the point is that none of those items are especially urgent and important, so it doesn’t matter if I don’t get them done right away, or possibly ever…I’m looking at you “Clean my desk.”

And because this is a brain dump list, not a to do list, I don’t feel bad that I didn’t get everything done. I’m just glad I’m no longer trying to hold all that stuff in my head.

Schedule everything in a calendar.

You don’t need a to do list, but you do need to be using a calendar/planner. I prefer a paper-based planner, but something like iCal or google calendar works just as well.

In your planner, you should schedule in all of your appointments first. And when I say appointments, I mean everything.

I block out the time I spend bringing my kiddo to and from preschool, the time I plan to spend grocery shopping, and my date afternoon with my husband. That’s right, we can’t even stay up late enough for date nights, so we go out in the afternoon. Nonetheless, if I have to be somewhere that’s not my desk, it’s on my calendar.

Why write everything down? By blocking out all of your activities in your calendar, you get a true picture of how much free time you actually have. This real picture of your week, instead of the ideal world in which you have endless time, helps you be more realistic.

When you see what you’ve always suspected, that you only have six hours to actually work on your blog this week, it’s easier to prioritize your tasks.

Once you’ve written ALL of your appointments into your calendar, block out time for the 3-5 items on your prioritized task list. Estimate how long each task will take, then write them into your schedule just like any other appointment.

And voila, you’ve overcome the tyranny of your to do list.

Just kidding, time management is always going to be a struggle for most of us. But turning your to do list into a priority list + brain dump will help you banish the overwhelm and get the important things done.

Looking for even more time management strategies and tools? Sign up for my free 5-day mini course.

















Powered by ConvertKit

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • So feel you on this one Emily! I used to pride myself on being a “planner”, but I was totally using it as a way to procrastinate. I’m so detail-oriented and process-driven that I was getting hung up on the creation of my to-do list, rather than doing it. Once I switched to a digital platform (I use Google calendar now) it was so much easier to manage my to-do list and actually schedule when I would get things done. This is the first year in 3 years since I went back to a paper planner, but it’s more of a goal-setting workbook than to-do list, so I don’t feel like I will revert back to my bad habits! So happy to hear someone else has realized the trap it can be! Thanks for the great info!

    • You are totally describing me! I definitely consider myself a planner, and I’m very detail-oriented. I’d love to hear what paper planner you’re using? I want to try out a few soon and review them!