Advise Me

Why To-Do Lists Don’t Work & What to Do Instead

Ah, to-do lists. So many of us write them. But why? Is it that surge of dopamine we get when we can cross something off our list? Is it the sense of order it gives us? Is it that feeling of accomplishment at the end of a long day?

In theory, to-do lists are great at tackling daily tasks, but in reality, they can leave many of us feeling overwhelmed, dejected and not productive at all—exactly the opposite of what we were hoping for.

So why do we do this to ourselves?

“We as Americans are notorious for focusing on getting it all done—doing it all,” said Jerimya Fox, a licensed professional counselor and a doctor of behavioral health at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital. “The truth is that many of our to-do lists don’t have the context of what you need to do next and how long it will take, which is why it’s so frustrating when you can’t complete them.”

What’s Wrong with To-Do Lists

In many to-do lists, we tackle the “easy wins” as soon as possible. While one task may take two minutes, another may take 2 hours. Invariably, we’re going to go with the shorter one. While this may be quick and painless to do, they may not be the most important—or difficult—tasks to get accomplished.

We may also not account for the complexity of each task. For example, if you plan on refinancing your house, simply writing down a task to “refinance the house” wouldn’t encompass everything involved. It may mean several phone calls, research, and lots of paperwork. Eventually, because this task seems too complex, it will get pushed further and further down your to-do list.

Before you add, “chuck my to-do list” to your to-do list, Dr. Fox shared one thing you can do that works better.

Work Within Your Schedule, i.e., Your Calendar

We can all benefit from working our to-do lists within our calendars. For some of us, our calendar dictates minute-by-minute important meetings, events, and appointments, so why not include important tasks that need to be accomplished that take up time in your day too.

“Our brain wants to accomplish what we wrote down, but often we just don’t have a plan for them,” Dr. Fox said. “We only have a certain number of hours in a day. Putting your tasks within your calendar will help you visually see what can and cannot reasonably be accomplished.”

Dr. Fox shares three tips to work your tasks into your schedule:

  • Prioritize What Matters: Look at your list of to-do items and determine how much time you will need to accomplish each and prioritize the hardest, most important at the top. Ask yourself, “Does this need to get done today, or can it wait until later?”
  • Schedule Tasks In Calendar: Once you have determined the highest priority tasks and the amount each task will take, block out time on your calendar for those tasks that must get done each day.
  • Save Space for the Unknown: Was there a fire you had to put out a work, or you got called home for a sick little one? Invariably, there will be things that pop up during your day that weren’t planned.

Leave gaps in your schedule each day for these unexpected moments—or just to have some time to breathe!

“Putting this into practice can create structure to your day and help you set realistic expectations of what you can accomplish,” Dr. Fox said. “While to-do lists, in theory, are useful, unless you make them a part of your daily schedule, you may as well throw them out the window.”

If the stress of your to-do lists is affecting your physical and mental health, don’t fret. Schedule an appointment to speak with one of our Banner Health behavioral health specialists. They can provide support and guidance and get you back on the right path.

Behavioral Health

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