Take a second and pull up your to-do list, whether it’s in that notebook buried underneath other documents on your desk or it lives somewhere on your smartphone.
Once you have it in front of you, take a good look at it and ask yourself:
How many tasks do you have written down?
How many of those tasks have been checked off?
How many are still waiting to be completed?
More importantly, how do you feel when you look at the list?
Does it make you feel more organized and give you a sense of accomplishment, or does it fill you with a sense of dread?
If you fall into the second category, you’re not alone. We’ve been taught from a young age that to-do lists are the key to organization and time management and that working through one will help us get tasks done faster and give us an overwhelming sense of productivity and satisfaction. While to-do lists might work for some people, I don’t believe they’re the solution for most employees or leaders.
In reality, we dive into our to-do lists. We over-caffeinate to help us get to the bottom, crossing off one line at a time, only to come to one horrible realization: there is no bottom because there are always more tasks to accomplish. That rewarding feeling of productivity we assume to-do lists will bring us isn’t reality. Instead, we just feel even more beaten down.
So many professionals already feel like they’re plummeting toward rock bottom — and some feel they’ve already reached it. The past few years have only magnified the pressure, anxieties, and hardships we feel day in and day out, and I’d argue that a time management tool that only heightens this stress is part of the reason why the Great Resignation shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, it was expected we’d lose another 20% of the workforce by the end of this year.
And if you think this isn’t affecting the people who aren’t walking away from their jobs, you’re wrong. As employees and leaders continue to reevaluate how their careers fit into their lives, they are quiet quitting, which is essentially a new term for disengagement.
You know the signs:
withdrawing from the team
increased feelings of cynicism
And you know the consequences:
low productivity levels
decreased quality of work
How are to-do lists aiding in the Great Resignation, quiet quitting, and overall unhappiness in the workplace? Let’s explore this question further.
TO-DO LISTS PREVENT YOU FROM LEAVING WORK AT WORK
We’re living in a time when burnout is becoming even more prevalent in the workforce. An Indeed study found that 52% of employees are burnt out, which is up from the 43% of employees who reported feeling burnt out pre-COVID. Burnout has exacerbated employees’ ability to do their job so much that it’s spurred the Great Resignation.
What do to-do lists have to do with this? I believe when used incorrectly, to-do lists can actually play a part in heightening someone’s stress and anxiety, both during the work day and even at home. You have this long list of tasks at the forefront of your mind, which can prevent you from ever feeling relaxed. A mountain of unfinished tasks is waiting for you every time you enter your office, so even when you’re at home, you can never escape those feelings of stress and truly let yourself enjoy your leisure time.
Research has confirmed this. These intrusive thoughts make it difficult to enjoy the things that once gave you joy. This can mean you no longer make the time for your favorite hobbies, but even more tragic, it can affect the time you spend with your family and loved ones.
TO-DO LISTS ARE AN UNNECESSARY DISTRACTION
I know what you’re thinking, and to-do lists defenders will say the same thing: they are supposed to keep us on track. But they don’t.
Before I talk about this more, let me say that I don’t believe using to-do lists as a time management practice is inherently bad. Writing tasks down on paper or using an app on your smartphone to stay organized is actually extremely beneficial. My problem with to-do lists is when they’re used as the sole guide to someone’s day.
If you let a to-do list govern your every move, it’s easy to be fooled into thinking you’re being productive when the opposite is true. Let’s say I had a massive project to finish with a fast-approaching deadline. My goal of meeting that deadline would require me to spend a good chunk of my time working on that project.
When I sit down with my to-do list in front of me, however, I notice there are a few small tasks I can complete now. Since my brain is programmed to feel good about checking items off my to-do list, I spend a few hours working on those smaller, non-urgent tasks.
See the problem? Instead of being purposeful about my time and energy and channeling that into the productive day I should’ve had, I let myself be distracted for temporary satisfaction. Now I’ve just put myself in a difficult situation, because the time I could have spent working on my goals of completing my project is now time that I need to make up elsewhere in my schedule— which, as you know, is already hard enough to do.
The worst part is we aren’t even self-aware enough to realize we’re doing this because we don’t believe we’re being distracted. We believe checking tasks off a to-do list is productive, even though it’s just an excuse to focus on frivolous tasks in lieu of the more pressing work we need to complete.
There is no end to a to-do list, because there is no end to our work. Why do you think it feels better to add items to our lists under the guise of feeling accomplished than actually completing the tasks themselves?
No matter how many things we check off our to-do lists in a given day, there will always be just as many items—more, in fact,—that we didn’t finish. Who do we blame when we feel like we aren’t making any headway on our tasks? Ourselves.
Some leaders see their list of never-ending to-dos as a failure of their own when, in reality, to-do lists set us up for failure. We internalize these thoughts, which are then continuously reinforced through the very thing that’s supposed to make us feel better. Having a piece of paper or a list in your notes app reminding you of your uncompleted tasks only leads you to believe that you are the problem, not the time management tool you’re using inefficiently.
Instead of recognizing that to-do lists aren’t improving the way you work, it’s easy to label yourself as someone who is easily distracted, who is disorganized, or who is inefficient. You aren’t the problem. It’s your commitment to an unhelpful methodology that’s the real problem.
SOLVING THE TO-DO LIST CONUNDRUM
I don’t believe to-do lists are inherently bad when they’re used correctly. They can be a good organizational and time management support system, but problems arise when these lists are the only thing fueling your day.
Instead, consider this solution. Look at some of the items on your to-do list, estimate how much time you’ll think it’ll take for you to complete them, and put them in your calendar, leaving time in your day for the other inevitable tasks that will pop up.
Not only does this force you to think about the tasks you need to complete in a timely manner to achieve your short-term goals, i.e. like that big project I used as an example earlier, but it also creates a realistic schedule for you.
You won’t be able to fit all your to-dos on your calendar, but that’s kind of the point. You couldn’t cross off all of those tasks off your to-do list anyway, so they just sat there and stressed you out. If you find yourself with some extra time in your day, that’s when you can work on the smaller, less-urgent tasks on your list.
Do yourself a favor: Stop living off your to-do list, and find a better way to manage your tasks and your time. You’ll be happy you did.
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