Why To-Do Lists Sometimes Do Work

checklist-thumbDaniel Markovitz wrote a great article about a year ago in the HBR Blog Network entitled “To-Do Lists Don’t Work.” From a 2Time Labs perspective it raises some provocative points but then falls into a familiar trap: it tries to argue for a one-size fits-all approach.

He does, however, start off on a strong foot by clearly stating some of the weaknesses of To-Do Lists that defy conventional wisdom.

  1. To-Do lists that grow to be too long end up presenting too many choices to us at any/every point in time. We quickly become overwhelmed with too many choices.
  2. Because tasks that are short are listed alongside those that are long, the mind must contend with the inherent differences between the time required to complete each task, even though they seem to be identical when placed on a list. It’s s little like looking at a row of identical apples, knowing that the one with the shiniest color always has worms.
  3. The same applies to tasks of differing priority.
  4. The task appears on the list without context, as if it were free-floating. For example, one critical piece of background information is always “how much time do I have available?”
  5. His point about “commitment devices” is a bit confusing so I won’t venture a summary.

He rightly points out that when you put together a schedule to replace your To-Do list you are instantly confronted by the time you think you have, but don’t. Advocates of tracking your time spent on different tasks each day are right: when you compare what you planned to do vs. what you actually do on a regular basis, you learn to make better plans.

The article falls apart as it started, which might be a function of the way it was edited, and not written. Markovitz concludes by saying “So do yourself a favor: ditch the to-do lists, and start living in your calendar today.” That line seems out of place in the article – it’s a blunt and didactic statement that follows a nuanced and subtle argument, and it’s the only statement in the article that supports the bold claim of the headline.

While all the concepts that Markovitz outlines do fit our findings here at 2Time Labs, it’s a mistake to go the next step and imply that everyone would benefit from living out of their calendar. Our research shows that people with a low number of time demands do quite well with just a list. They don’t experience the problems he outlines above.

Also, people who cannot develop the skill of using an electronic calendar or can’t afford one are better off using a list than trying to manipulate a paper calendar for large numbers of time demands. (I know lots of people who will never own a computer in this lifetime due to its cost.)

The problem with articles headlines like these is that they don’t acknowledge the continuum of skills that ordinary people require to lead a daily life. It’s a problem in the time management world; a sound observation is converted into a one-size-fits-all conclusion that simply over-reaches, and causes the strength of the original argument to be rejected by those who think just a bit differently.

P.S. Dan gets a lot of flack in the comments of this article… ouch… for over-reaching. It’s tough to bring people back when they believe that they are being attacked. It’s an issue I worry about about a bit as my book will make some pointed observations that others are bound to experience this way.