The dark side of to-do lists

I am looking at the lists that I made every morning this week and I feel nothing but despair and failure…

Every list has but one or two items crossed off, and various new items added every day. I feel like I have not achieved anything. In fact, I feel more behind with my workload than when I started the week on Monday. This calls for critical analysis of what in fact happened in my attempt to organise and prioritise my work.

Some of the issues that I see as I look at these lists now…

    • Most tasks on my lists is bigger than a day’s work. By listing them I am guaranteeing that I will not be able to cross that off my list. I will also not cross off anything that is listed after that.
    • Aside from trying to focus on too big chunk of work, I am also allowing constant interruptions, in the form of people at my desk, my phone, email streaming in…
    • Every time someone adds to my workload, it goes onto the list at the bottom. If they shout harder or threaten me, it gets done immediately irrespective of real consideration of how important this is.

I attended a fantastic course a few years back, presented by Dave Duarte that had a session on productivity tools. We were told about the Pomodoro technique.

The Pomodoro Technique

There are five basic steps to implementing the technique:

  1. Decide on the task to be done
  2. Set the pomodoro timer to 25 minutes 
  3. Work on the task until the timer rings; record with an x
  4. Take a short break (3-5 minutes)
  5. Every four pomodori take a longer break (15–30 minutes)

Source: Wikipedia.

Changing how I work

I imagine how my to-do lists would change if I listed things that took me less than an hour to do. The immense relief and satisfaction of crossing something off. Setting micro-goals rather than abstract large ticket items that are prone to be derailed as soon as the next crisis comes knocking.

How would my day change, if I governed my workload and to-do items with some basic principles?

  1. Contract with my colleagues for some un-interrupted 25 minute Pomodoro sprints
  2. Implement a no-entry sign across the office when a person is in a sprint
  3. Close email while doing a 25 minute Pomodoro
  4. Be more assertive about new work being added and prioritizing that work
  5. Understand the cost of work units being pushed down the list
  6. Prioritise excersize, eating and sleeping as things that need to fuel the engine that clear the list

More resources

Read this lovely post 4 Productivity Hacks That Have Nothing to Do With To-Do Lists and video from Ari Meisel.

I prefer doing to-do lists on paper. There is just something immensely satisfying about crossing something off the list. But for those that love apps, here is a link to the 9 best to-do list apps.

I also recommend a great book:


Your Brain At Work is now available on AmazonBarnes & Noble, and in bookstores all around the world.

It’s the story of two people during a day at the office. The book examines what’s happening in their brains that makes work so difficult and strategies to overcome these challenges. It’s based on interviews David conducted with 30 neuroscientists around the world, over the course of four years. The fun part is it’s written as a narrative. Each chapter zooms out to show you not just why things go wrong, but how to be more effective by understanding your brain.

For more information and a video synopsis, visit the Your Brain At Work website.







About the Author

Chantel is a consultant in various industries, including media and advertising, finance, insurance and transport. She has 20 years of experience in this and over the last 6 years has managed large corporate Customer Experience programs and has facilitated the design of voice of the customer, culture programs, customer journey and touchpoint mapping. Chantel is part of a global Customer Experience community that regularly lectures, speaks at local and international conferences and contributes articles to a variety of global publications. She is a founder member of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA) as well as a member of the GlobalCXPanel that provides consulting, training and customer experience advisory and strategy services. She is also chair and founder of BrandLove. Brandlove’s goal is to advance Customer Experience Management and Design as a practice and profession in South Africa and facilitate access to the best information and customer experience experts globally.