You'll Accomplish More Without a To-Do List
In Greek mythology, Tantalus was cast out of Olympus and punished for stealing ambrosia and nectar from the table of the gods.
After his death, he had to stand for all eternity in a pool of water, just below the branches of a fruit tree. If he reached for the fruit, the branches moved up and out of reach. If he tried to take a drink, the waters receded.
Call me dramatic, but to-dos lists make me feel like Tantalus. Just as you reach the final item, a new task pops up that extends the list for days, or even weeks. It’s infuriating. Yet, from grade school on, most of us are advised to battle overwhelm by making a list and crossing off one item at a time.
To-do lists taught us that time management means prioritizing what’s on our schedule. However, as Stephen Covey explains in “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” the real key is to schedule our priorities.
Why we struggle to schedule.
It seems logical to think that priorities will take care of themselves. After all, if something is important, we should get it done before tackling lesser tasks. But research shows that only 17 percent of the population can accurately estimate how much time an activity will require. The rest of us unknowingly engage in the planning fallacy, or “positive bias,” which means we vastly underestimate how long we need to do just about anything, from finishing a presentation to driving to a meeting.
Even Elon Musk -- arguably today’s most prolific entrepreneur -- struggles with positive bias. Across several of his companies, Musk has repeatedly set ambitious release dates. Time and time again, he has missed these deadlines. “I think I do have, like, an issue with time,” he told The Washington Post in June 2018. “I’m a naturally optimistic person. I wouldn’t have cars or rockets if I wasn’t. I’m trying to recalibrate as much as possible.”
Even Musk’s brother, Kimbal Musk, used to lie to his older brother about the time so he wouldn’t miss the school bus. Decades later, one shareholder described the billionaire’s confident timelines for deliveries, rollouts and benchmarks as “Elon Time.”
Keep the strategies, lose the lists.
At JotForm, the company I launched 13 years ago, we almost never assign project deadlines. A technology startup that doesn’t set aggressive timelines is somewhat of an anomaly, but we value good work over meeting arbitrary targets.
Eliminating time pressure gives our teams the freedom and flexibility they need to try new ideas, follow creative rabbit trails and find solutions that work. As former U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”
Lists and deadlines can also be potent procrastination tools. Research shows that we get a high every time we check that “finished” box. As Ralph Ryback explains in Psychology Today, “The satisfaction of ticking off small task is linked with a flood of dopamine. Each time your brain gets a whiff of this rewarding neurotransmitter, it will want you to repeat the associated behavior.”
Craving another feel-good moment, our brains often push us to complete a low-level task instead of something that really matters – just to get more dopamine. Yet, the projects we avoid are often the true game-changers. Reaching out to investors, finishing a presentation, or strategic planning and creative development work can take your business to the next level. Finishing a vendor survey, for example, is far less likely to move the needle.
Meaningful activities are also more likely to help us achieve a flow state; that satisfying experience of losing yourself in a project or task. Experiencing flow in your day-to-day work (even when no two days look alike) is an important part of creativity and wellbeing. Surrendering to the moment can boost your innovation, happiness, and engagement.
While the to-do list may be overrated, not all time management techniques should hit the trash. In my experience, achieving big goals happens in two steps: determining your top priorities and then harnessing your natural rhythms to work more effectively.
1. Hunt down the day’s big task.
“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.” – Pablo Picasso
I’m going to pick on the lowly to-do list once more, simply because it’s a ubiquitous organization tool. There’s nothing wrong with making lists per se, but most to-do lists include a diverse jumble of tasks. For example: empty inbox, order product development book, strategize Q2 marketing plan, confirm lunch with Linda, choose tax software.
Developing a creative marketing plan is far and away the most important activity on that list. All the other tasks have their place, but they won’t push your business forward. As Covey would say, they’re the gravel, not the big rocks.
“Long hours spent checking off a to-do list and ending the day with a full trash can and a clean desk are not virtuous and have nothing to do with success,” writes Gary Keller in his book, The One Thing. “Instead of a to-do list, you need a success list -- a list that is purposefully created around extraordinary results.”
Rather than lumping tasks together, I recommend the “hunter” strategy.
Why do I use that name? Well, long before we had overflowing fridges, humans hunted and gathered. If the hunter (or gatherer) didn’t acquire enough food, the tribe suffered. There wasn’t as much to go around. Failing to hunt could mean failing to eat -- and our ancestors weren’t distracted by meetings, texts, and Slack notifications, either.
The hunting and gathering mindset can be powerful in today’s world, too. If you want to give it a try, buy a stack of Post-It notes and put them on your desk. When it’s time to work, pull out a note and write down one, high-impact goal you want to achieve that day.
Stick it in a prominent place and get to work. If distractions or other dopamine sources call your name, look at your note and tune them out. After a few weeks, ask yourself whether you’re feeling more fulfilled. Are you seeing results? Are you making more progress? If so, keep hunting.
2. Harness your personal peak hours.
“Passion is energy. Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you.” – Oprah Winfrey
As we’re choosing that one high-impact task or project, it’s often the thing we least want to do. There are many reasons why we avoid these top priorities, from nagging fear to feeling ill-prepared, to a serious case of impostor syndrome. To run a thriving business, however, we have to swim in the deep end. Starting is often the toughest part, so when you dive in can make a big difference in your results.
When we engage with key projects during our peak hours, we typically experience less burnout. We may also have more energy and drive, and we’re usually willing to finish what we start. Research even suggests that the timing of a project can account for up to 20 percent of cognitive performance variations. For example, if you’re naturally an early riser, you’ll probably work smarter and faster on a creative project at 8 am than at 3 pm. And while 20 percent might not sound like a lot, it can make a huge difference over the course of a month or even a year.
Author Daniel Pink also suggests that 75 percent of people experience the workday in three stages: a peak, a trough, and a recovery period. The other quarter experience these energetic periods in reverse: recovery, trough, then peak. “I used to believe that timing was everything,” Pink writes in his book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. “Now I believe that everything is timing.”
Understanding your own peak hours begins with some personal tracking. Make a spreadsheet or start a journal to record your energy levels throughout the day. Note how your focus, creativity, and interest change at different times, then look for patterns across a full week.
Once you’ve defined your own peak times, protect them at all costs. Use these precious hours to face your essential tasks head-on. Soon, you’ll begin to reach even the most elusive fruit, hanging from the highest branches.