Is your 'to do' list just a form of procrastination? Six criteria to fail proof your list

Updated: Oct 14, 2020


Do you have a useless 'to do' list? The kind that gathers metaphorical dust as the items on it linger for days or months, immortalised on paper? Initially, you did genuinely mean to action each item, yet for some frustrating reason the things that make it on to the list are too easily neglected. Let's be honest. That's not a 'to do' list. It's an 'I like to think that I'm the kind of person who will do this thing, but I probably won't actually do it' list. Not all that useful.


If the list doesn't prompt you to act, it's useless.

I'm a list junkie. If an inkling or task leaps into my head, I reach for a pen and note book to capture it on paper. Sometimes, this is effective. But if I'm not deliberate about it, that list is no better than a masked form of procrastination.



Six criteria to fail proof your list


1. If I put this task on my list, is it just a form of procrastination?

If the list doesn't prompt you to act, it's useless. Yet ironically, sometimes the act of putting a task on a 'to do' list sends a message to your brain of 'mission accomplished'. The task stops there, instead of starting. A useful test is to apply the 2 minute rule from David Allen's book, Getting Things Done. If the task takes less than 2 minutes to complete, do it immediately! For example, send off an email, make a call, etc. This minimises double up and reveals attempts to procrastinate.


2. Is this item a call to action?

Frame your task so that it's a clear initial step that you can put into practice, not an obscure 'hope to do'. For example, 'read X book for 30 minutes before lunch' is different to 'read 100 books this year.' The 100 books is an excellent goal, but it's not so great on a list.


Ever noticed that you can miraculously accomplish entire projects in a short amount of time under pressure, but you can't seem to do the most basic task if it doesn't have a end date? That's normal. Use it.

3. Is your task realistic?

Don't set yourself up to feel like a failure later. Keep it simple and practical. Think about what you need to do by when and how you will actually do this. If you don't consider how you will accomplish your task - taking into account all the practicalities and stumbling blocks that you will encounter along the way - you'll struggle to translate your task into action.

4. Does your task have a clear deadline?

Big goals and self-directed tasks often don't have a strict deadline. For example, it could be a desire to learn about a particular subject, a DIY home project, or a recipe you'd like to try. You could start it any day and any time, right?

Funnily enough, the tasks that can be done at any time often aren't done at any time. Instead, they tend to remain incomplete. Our brains usually do better under a modest amount of positive stress (called 'eustress'). Ever noticed that you can miraculously accomplish entire projects in a short amount of time under pressure, but you can't seem to do the most basic task if it doesn't have a end date? That's normal. Use it. If that thing is important to you, create a deadline and stick to it.

5. Realise that the list is subject to change.

Life happens. Sometimes, it's better to be flexible or capitalise on unanticipated opportunities. If you create a list, accept that you might have to break your list to think on your feet, redirect or just take some time out.

Keep it simple and practical. Think about what you need to do by when and how you will actually do this.


6. Don't schedule more than you absolutely need to in a day.

Do you function at a 9/10 of your capacity, day in and day out? That's not as admirable at it appears. Busy does not equal effective. If things are frantic, ramp it up to a 9 for that project or period. This should be a sprint, not a marathon. For most of the time, aim to schedule your day at a 6/10 and deliberately build buffer time into your daily schedule in case things change.