In defense of the to-do list

As you may know, I have embarked on my very own personal crusade to recover my time management chops, and I have been dilligently following my plan which focuses on applying the Pomodoro Technique, tracking my productivity and planning my days with a to-do list. It was with not a little surprise, then, that I saw this tweet from Adii, a blogger whose writing I greatly admire and an entrepreneur that has really inspired me lately:

So if Adii, whose opinion I greatly respect, has such a strong opinion against to-do lists, I wonder if I'm missing something... So I did a little research to find out what bad things other people smarter than myself have to say about to-do lists.

As it turns out, a lot of the articles that I found criticizing the to-do list seem to have view of what a to-do list is that differs from the concept I employ, and this may be the cause of the bad rep to-do lists have with some people.

It seems that the root of all problems is one of granularity. A to-do list is a good tool to write down the list of small actionable items that you want to tackle over the span of a single day. A to-do list is not a project management tool. Neither is it a place to track your long-term life goals.

Once you realize this, some errors people incur in when creating their to-do lists become evident. For instance, if your to-do list has more than perhaps ten items in total, you're probably doing it wrong. A larger number of tasks seem to belong in some kind of project management app. A to-do list should only hold enough work that you can reasonably expect to complete in a day. Too much more, and you will end the day feeling you weren't very productive, because you will see all those uncompleted tasks sitting in your to-do list.

Granularity is also behind those to-do lists with huge tasks that never get completed. If your tasks are too big, chances are things will come up before you are able to finish one of them, and again you will be left with the dispiriting feeling of not being productive. The best medicine that I know of against this is the Pomodoro Technique. Splitting your work into smaller tasks that fit into a 25 minute time box is a guaranteed way to make sure tasks actually get finished, and ticking off those completed tasks is the best way to keep you constantly motivated.

So all things considered, I still believe that a well built to-do list is a great tool to make you more productive. If you get it wrong though, and your list becomes an endless source of huge tasks and long-term projects, then you are indeed setting yourself up for failure.