Some people are “list people,” while others aren’t. Even if it isn’t your general inclination, you have made a to-do list at some point – likely on a day when you had lots to do. There is a question that might change everything for you. If you can’t live without your to-do list this will make them more valuable. And if you hate to-do lists, this question might change your opinion.
Before we get to the question, we need to spend some time on the to-do list itself.
Why Have a To-do List?
There are three reasons most typically by people who make to do lists.
- Remembering. You may have heard that the palest ink is stronger than the best memory. In my mind, this is one of the best arguments for a to-do list. If it is written down, it won’t be forgotten.
- Focusing. A list also helps us focus. If you are a person who is easily distracted, a list can bring you back to items you have previously determined need to be accomplished.
- Producing. Even the least likely to create a list makes one on a day when they have the most things to accomplish. It almost seems like human nature that if in overload, we make a list.
What is Wrong With Them?
While writing things down (in a place you don’t misplace it) allows us to remember things, it doesn’t imply or guarantee that the list has the most important things on it, or that they are in the right order. While this can be a problem for anyone, this may be the biggest problem for those who rely on lists, creating lists that are comprehensive (great for remembering), but less helpful in terms of focusing and producing.
How Do To-Do Lists Misguide Us?
The biggest risk to the standard to-do list is that it promotes activity over accomplishment. If you get great satisfaction in crossing an item off your list, you may have succumbed to this problem. I have talked to people who do something, then add it to the list, just so they can cross it off!
At their worst, to-do lists promote, reward, and prove busy-ness (i.e. “Look how long my list is!), rather than providing direction to efforts and an aid to our productivity.
What’s the Question?
There are actually two questions – the main one and it’s first cousin. Both capitalize on the benefits of the list and overcome the weaknesses. They are questions of priority.
- What on the list is the most important to complete?
- What is most important to do now?
If you are a to-do list person, applying these questions daily will help you get the most from your list. Ask the questions when you build your list. If you aren’t a list person, you can still ask these productivity questions (especially the second, since there isn’t a list to refer to) and it will guide you to greater results.
Two final thoughts:
- You may have read to this point and be thinking, “I already knew this question.” If so, great, and to which I would also respond, “Are you asking it and acting on it regularly?”
- Even if you don’t like to-do lists, asking and acting on this question can change your productivity and stress levels and improve your life. Ask it regularly.
If you want to improve your productivity (especially if you work remotely part or all of the time), consider our Maximizing Your Productivity as a Remote Employee on-demand learning product. Learn more and get started.
UPDATE: Read Part II of this post, How to Improve Your To-Do List, here.