Do you need a to-do list?

Jeff Atwood wrote the other day that if you need a to-do list, something’s wrong.

If you can’t wake up every day and, using your 100% original equipment God-given organic brain, come up with the three most important things you need to do that day – then you should seriously work on fixing that. I don’t mean install another app, or read more productivity blogs and books. You have to figure out what’s important to you and what motivates you; ask yourself why that stuff isn’t gnawing at you enough to make you get it done. Fix that.

I agree with him to some extent, but not entirely.

The simplest time in my life was probably graduate school. For a couple years, this was my to-do list:

  1. Write a dissertation.

I could remember that. There were a few other things I needed to do, but that was the main thing. I didn’t supervise anyone, and didn’t collaborate with anyone. My wife and I didn’t have children yet. We lived in an apartment and so there were no repairs to be done. (Well, there were, but they weren’t our responsibility.) There wasn’t much to keep up with.

My personal and professional responsibilities are more complicated now. I can’t always wake up and know what I need to do that day. To-do lists and calendars help.

But I agree with Jeff that to the extent possible, you should work on a small number of projects at once. Ideally one, maybe two. Not many people could have just one or two big things going on in their life at once, but more could have just one or two things going on within each sphere of life: one big work project, one home repair project, etc.

Jeff also says that your big projects should be things you believe are important and you are motivated to do. Again I agree that’s ideal, but most of us have some obligations that we don’t think are important but that nevertheless need to be done. I try to minimize these — it drives me crazy to do something that I don’t think needs to be done — but they won’t go away entirely.

I agree with the spirit of Jeff’s remarks, though I don’t think they apply directly to people who have more diverse responsibilities. I believe he’s right that when you find it hard to keep track of everything you need to do, maybe you’re doing too much, or maybe you’re doing things that are a poor fit.

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15 thoughts on “Do you need a to-do list?

  1. I had a similar reaction to Jeff’s comments. I keep extensive to-do lists, but they are more often than not lists of unimportant things to not forget. As Jeff says, most days, the top priorities are easy to remember — well, except when there are 13 top priorities…

  2. I agree with Mark and Jeff. The best insight from the Getting Things Done approach is that by always putting those forgettable but necessary, less-important tasks on a list, outside your brain, you reduce stress and allow yourself to focus on the most important task without worrying you’re forgetting something.

    It’s also not the case that you can always work on your top priority right now. At work, I have a prioritized todo list of projects, and right now the top eight are all waiting for feedback or contributions from someone else.

  3. It’s a matter of abstraction. There’s only one top thing to do after waking up: stay happy. But then how: eh, keep healthy, keep your family healthy, male other people happy. That’s three and fine. But now things go loose: do breakfast, send kids to school, clean up and go to work. There do your short term obligations without contradicting your long term ones. Depending on how much you can grasp, one can go as detailed as possible. Everyone’s todo-list is similar, it’s just a matter of how much detail you can endure.

  4. Not sure why he’s thinking that “todo list” is the same kind of abstraction as “priority list”.

    Personally, I use “todo lists” managed by other people, and yes it’s all about priorities — mine, theirs, ours… but the “lists” materialize as artifacts of various points in what we are doing together, and they are about specific issues — things I need to think about and perhaps fix, perhaps find the right person for, or perhaps explain why things are the way they are, or whatever else.

    Anyways, this is all about what levels of abstraction we find useful for dealing with the things that are important to us. And it seems to me that prescribing the rate at which we deal with our abstractions and the length of the list that we use to characterize what is important to us assumes too much about what it is we are trying to accomplish and how we think about them.

    Put differently, I think his “you” should have been scoped differently. Probably he should have used the word “I” instead.

  5. Preston L. Bannister

    Agree with the spirit, somewhat. What works for me:

    At work I keep a single page todo list, on a small pad of paper. Items get checked off when finished, or crossed out when abandoned (turned out not worth doing). New tasks get added to the list during the day. (Occasionally the list explodes to several pages. Not often.)

    Each day I write a new list, copying forward those items not done. The new list is always a single page – the most I can expect to accomplish in one day.

    I keep the old lists for a while. Every few weeks I pull out the old lists, copy the items that still seem worth doing to a new list, cross out the others, and then discard the old lists.

    Works well enough for me. The notion is to stay focused on a small number of tasks, prioritize and prune regularly.

    I do tend to focus a bit too much on the task at hand, at times, so the list serves as a reminder of other priorities.

  6. I find Atwood’s post to be obnoxious, and I find it (slightly) upsetting to see it getting 97 comments. So that is what people are reading on the internet? People seem to have an unending appetite for getting scolded. Perhaps, just as it is said that medicine has to taste bad so people think it actually works, empty advice gets clothed in a rude attitude to give it some apparent seriousness. After all, if this guy is scolding us, he must know what he’s doing.

    What I don’t like about the linked post: This guy says that to-do lists don’t help him. Instead of saying this (“Despite all the hype, to-do lists haven’t helped me”), he tells his readers that to-do lists are bad for them.

  7. This isn’t Jeff Atwood at his best. He’s written some thoughtful blog posts.

    But the reason I commented on it is that there is a kernel of truth in it, as summarized in my last sentence.

  8. “If you can’t wake up every day and, using your 100% original equipment God-given organic brain, come up with the three most important things you need to do that day – then you should seriously work on fixing that.”

    How about glasses, clothes, tools, medicine, etc,
    are they also extra we don’t really need, like to-do list?

    Evolution doesn’t make perfect solutions, that why we need such things as notebook. Personally I don’t need glasses, my eyes are fine, but my memory fails without notebook/to-do list.

    In same manner it is not jobs fault if you need tools to do it.

  9. Jussi: I don’t think that Jeff is arguing that it is wrong to use technology to augment human ability. It would be ironic if he were since he’s a programmer. I believe his point is that your to do list should be so small that external aids are unnecessary.

  10. John, My feeling is that, after having used todo lists somewhat consistently for some time, he now has a good mental model of that kind of todo list, and that he finds that approach superior to the list. I could be wrong..

    In contrast, personally, I do not use todo lists, because they grow too big, too fast, and I frequently find myself discarding or ignoring large parts of them. The overhead of managing them exceeds their value, for me. But I find I do much better when the people I work with are doing some kind of tracking — this helps me find new priorities quickly when I have adequately addressed one.

    Alternatively, I am rather routinely casting “todo lists” into tests or into other kinds of code, but the process of managing that is at a level of abstraction that I find non-productive for myself when I am being useful.

  11. @John
    “I believe his point is that your to do list should be so small that external aids are unnecessary.”

    Yes, but my point was, things in your to-do list, should be things you really need to do.
    And if there still is more than you can remember, then how to fix that? What is the option?

    I think Jeff’s problem is misuse of to-do list, not to-do list itself.

  12. what mark said
    I work in a lab, and have a lot of diff minor things i need to do on a weekly basis, like order lab supplies; you don’t write em down, you forget or have a *damm* good memory
    actually on second thought I would go further: who is this Atwood person to say how other people should or shouldn’t do stuff ?
    It is like saying if you don’t like Steak rare, you shoulnd’ t eat.

    what nerve.
    IF a todo list wroks for me, who on earth is atwood to say otherwise ???

  13. This makes some sense, John. But even when I was working on my dissertation, my To Do list of things needed to accomplish my dissertation grew to nearly 100 items, most high priority and some things easy to forget.

  14. Sometimes your top priority involves many related-but-distinct tasks that depend on hearing back from other people, who can be slow to reply. I can’t “just do it” all by myself to declutter my list, so I need to track the progress for each. It’s much easier to scan the 10 things I need responses on, and see who I need to follow up with, if I have a list.

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