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.

The Inescapable Demands of ToDo Lists

I have noticed a wide and growing number of apps on the new iPhone, Android and laptop  that attempt to improve a user’s personal productivity.  They all seem to focus on the same thing:  how to make better lists.

It’s a bit disheartening, because our research here at 2Time Labs shows that lists work fine for a small number of time demands, but after a certain point an upgrade is needed to using a single schedule instead.  While many people repeat the mythology that “it can’t be done” based on a someone’s opinion, there are many professionals who pull off this trick, and many others who are curious to see if it would make a difference for them.

Some of the data comes from new high quality research conducted by Dr. Dezhi Wu.  A great deal of the proof, however, remains to be established and while I’m hoping that another Dezhi comes along soon, here’s a comparison at the steps that take place in both fundamentals:  Scheduling and Listing.

Imagine a conversation between you and your boss in which a new time demand has popped up. Your boss wants to know whether or not you are able to complete a new assignment – “The Smith Report” – due in two week’s time.

With a single schedule: You pause for a moment to check your schedule to see whether or not you have the space to allocate the 10 hours that are required.

With multiple lists: You pause for a moment to scan your personal memory, because a list of all the to-do’s that you need to do doesn’t tell you if you have the time to complete the report by the due date.

This happens over and over again when you use multiple lists – you must use your memory to try to remember what you planned, and for when. This is not a problem when the number of demands on your time is small, but if you have a great number of commitments, the chore of remembering a mental schedule quickly becomes burdensome.

Imagine, that if have multiple lists, that you can easily make the mistake of telling your boss “Yes,” only to discover that you have other deliverables that you placed on your mental schedule, but simply forgot for the moment. That might be an indication that it’s time for an upgrade.

The problem is that ToDo Lists force you to use memory – this is an inescapable demand of this particular technique.

A New Paradigm for Time Demands

Those of us who are older (over 40) have a hard time escaping the To-Do-on-paper mentality in favor of time-demand-in-the-cloud thinking.

In the old days, when you had something to do you added it to a list using a pen or pencil.  That piece of paper/list was the point of storage for what we now call “time demands” here at 2Time Labs.

Nowadays, that same item might be stored in any number of places instead of a paper list, such as:

  • a tweet
  • a comment on Pinterest
  • an email message
  • an instant message
  • a voicemail
  • a page on Facebook
  • a text message
  • a recommendation request on Linkedin
  • an attachment sent to your iPhone
…plus many others.

On the upside, the increasing number of electronic storage locations means that some stuff will be backed up and safe from being lost.  The downside is that we often get confused if we don’t make the jump to understand the nature of time demands, and why we need to think of them as residing in the cloud.

To start off, a time demand is an individual commitment to complete an action in the future.  It’s a mental creation, and it ceases to exist once the action is completed.  Also, like physical objects in space, time demands accumulate in the mind, and create problems when their number exceeds a certain threshold.

An email that arrives in your Inbox may contain several time demands, depending on its nature.  Once that email is read for the first time, it’s disposed of in a number of ways based on your methods.  It can be:

  • stored in your Inbox, while the time demands are committed to memory
  • deleted after the time demands can be placed on a list or schedule
  • placed in an email folder for later view
  • printed on paper and added to a To-Do manila folder

We make the mistake of focusing on the object, like an email message, instead of the time demands which it includes.  Email messages, text messages, meeting minutes, tweets, etc. are all variations of the same thing:  containers or transmitters for time demands, much in the way that a mango skin is the the container for its pulp.  (It’s mango season here in Jamaica as you can probably tell!)

When we try to “reduce the number of emails” we get each day we are barking up the wrong tree.  5000 email messages per day are not a problem if 4999 are spam.  One email can contain 150 time demands.

Once we focus on time demands, it’s not hard to think of them as being stored in the cloud, and all we need is access to the handful we need at any time in order to do our jobs and make decisions.  If the number is quite small, we can even manage them in their entirety, as a group.

Once the number grows, however, we get overwhelmed, and try to find ways to cut down the need to be looking at too many all at once.

The first attempt people make is to migrate from one single list to many lists.  This helps a bit, and the technique works as long as the number of time demands remains below a threshold.  What’s important to note is that a list or sub-list is just a particular view of all the time demands that exist.  It might be a view of the tasks to do in the office, those that are urgent, those that require big commitments of time, etc.

When a user upgrades to a schedule, it’s an attempt to shield oneself from the onslaught of all the time demands at once, as they are spaced out over time.  Once again, the schedule is just a particular way of looking at all the time demands that are in the cloud.  It’s a more robust tool than a simple list; the fact is, a schedule is just a list enhanced with dates and durations, and sorted by the former.

In other words, it’s also a view of all the time demands that you need to complete. It requires more time to set it up, and more time to maintain, but much less time to review than simple lists when the number of time demands is below a certain threshold.

No single approach is better than others but it’s important that professionals understand that they have a choice, and that there is likely to be stress if their approach is not a sufficiently robust one.

Comparing Listing and Scheduling

I have noticed a wide and growing number of new iPhone, Android and laptop apps that attempt to improve a user’s personal productivity. They all seem to focus on the same thing: how to make better lists.  In this post, I try to encourage developers to look at better ways of using a schedule instead of using a list.

It’s actually a bit disheartening, because our research here at 2Time Labs shows that lists work fine for a small number of time demands, but after a certain volume an upgrade is needed to managing a single schedule in order to remain just as effective. While many repeat the claim (without evidence) mantra that this upgrade “can’t be done” there are many who have successfully implemented this technique, and a whole lot more who are simply curious.

Some of the data comes from recent, high quality research conducted by Dr. Dezhi Wu. A great deal of the proof, however, remains to be established and while I’m hoping that another Dezhi comes along soon, let’s take our own closer look at the difference between the activities that take place when someone is using lists versus a schedule.

Linda with her Lists
Imagine Linda: a hard working professional who uses lists to manage her time demands. She’s in a meeting on Friday and her boss offers her an assignment – the Draft Report- that should take about 3 weeks to complete. Before she accepts, she needs to decide whether or not she can make a solid commitment.

Where does she look to make the decision?

Her schedule only tracks appointments and meetings with other people, so her determination comes from checking her memory. She must present the results of the assignment at a meeting on the due date, so she places that date in her calendar, but the 10 hours of activity that needs to be performed to get the task completed are all assigned to her memory.

She adds the item “start working on Draft Report” to the bottom of her list of around 150 items. (It’s actually categorized and broken down into a number of sub-lists.)

At the moment she adds the item to her list, she also mentally makes a commitment to complete the 10 hours of work that’s required. She thinks that Thursdays and Fridays are no good due to other meetings, so she must work on this report from Mondays to Wednesday. She’s fresher in the mornings, so she thinks to herself that she’ll rule out working on this report after lunch. She doesn’t think about the item again for the week.

The following week, on Monday morning, she starts the day by scanning her master list of 150 items. As she goes through, she makes a mental commitment to do things at different times.

After lunch, she re-scans the list to refresh her memory and to mentally rejigger her plan because at her pre-lunch meeting she had to commit to another 15 hours of unforeseen Beta Project activity in the same 3 week period. Also, 2 more meetings were added on Tuesday that might prevent her from following the plan she had mentally laid out.

She makes a mental note to pick up scientific calculator that she’ll need to complete the report that night, so that she can work on the Draft Deport on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, she discovers that her mental note didn’t work and that she can’t start the Draft Report without the calculator. She determines that she must try harder to remember, as she works through the items in the list, and once again commits the schedule of activity to memory.

She checks the list of 150 items a few times per day, and after every meeting, in order to refresh her memory of what is due when, and what sequence she must perform her time demands for the best results.

Suzy with her Schedule
Suzy is in the identical job as Linda and has the same commitments. She also has 150 action items (in fact she has more) but they are spread out in her schedule, along with the time that she thinks must be allocated to each time-slot.

Before she accepts the action item to complete the Draft Report, she checks her calendar (which happens to sit on her iPad.) She sees that she does indeed have enough free time, and immediately books time in her calendar for 15 hours of work, in order to get the report completed on time.

When she comes in on Monday morning, she scans the schedule for the day and takes a peek at Tuesday’s schedule. She makes a couple of adjustments and goes on her way.

She places are reminder in her calendar to bring the scientific calculator in to work and when the iPad beeps at 6pm that evening, she responds by placing the calendar in her bag.

During the day she actively juggles her schedule, even as she makes new commitments,and declines others, including the 3 week deadline for the Beta Project activity. She requests that it be extended to 4 weeks based on the commitments in her schedule.

Some people fully believe that what Suzy is doing isn’t possible, and it wouldn’t be if she were trying to manage her schedule on paper. It’s not a problem with her iPad/iPhone combination, however and she uses her schedule as her roadmap for all activities that she does each day.

Linda on the other hand must use significant amounts of personal memory, and she’s essentially storing her schedule in her hind. This would not be stressful with 10 actions items on her list at any time, but with 150 it has become burdensome. Lists require constant checking, and that activity also takes a toll as she must constantly make critical decision with a schedule that she has attempted to memorize.

Linda needs to upgrade her skills to use her schedule as the central point of storage for time demands. Coupled with the latest technology, she can skillfully manage what is almost, but not quite, a real-time schedule.

The bottom-line is that for each of us, there is a point where we need to make the jump from using a list(s) as the central point for managing time demands, to the point where we use a schedule.

An Under-Used Way of Listing

I recently completed Atul Gawande’s book “The Checklist Manifesto” and thought so highly of it that I immediately changed my teaching materials to include the topic in every program that I lead.

He makes some powerful points about the need for doctors to take a leaf out of the book of pilots who make extensive use of this technique.  He has been experimenting with checklists for some time himself, and found that they reduce the errors that surgical teams make, and he even shares mistakes that he has avoided by using them in his practice.

It’s compelling stuff, and in the world we live in a checklist is one way to reduce the complexity that we deal with every day.  I have used one for some time at the start of each day, but didn’t quite appreciate the distinction “checklist” until I read the book and started to see places where I could implement them easily.

My first experiment was to set up a “sitting down to write my book” checklist.  It has only 4 four items, but it worked just as Gawande predicted.  I start my writing at 3:30am, and when I get to the computer in my office, my head is sometimes not at its sharpest.  (No, I don’t drink coffee.)

My checklist has helped me to reliably complete a little pre-writing routine that I use to get into the right frame of mind.  Without the checklist, I’ve likely to forget a few steps because there are too many things to remember too early in the morning, but when there’s only one thing, a checklist, I don’t have to think as hard.

I also noticed from the comments on Amazon, that reviewers were confusing checklists and To-Do Lists, so perhaps there needs to be some clarification of terms.  Here’s the definition I’m using:  A checklist is a repetitive list of actions that are initiated whenever a triggering event takes place.

For example, when a pilot loses an engine, there is a checklist to follow to ensure that all the steps taken to fly the airplane do, in fact, take place.  The non-flying pilot is the one who goes down the list, which is stored in the plane’s computer as well as in a binder.

The book has led me to see all sorts of applications, and given my focus this year on assisting  time management coaches, professional organizers, trainers and managers, I’m making checklists an important part of the process of consulting with a professional who is undertaking an upgrade.

P.S. There is an excellent summary of the book over at the New Yorker.

Further Evidence that Lists Are Limiting

In recent posts, I have been making the point that time management systems that rely on keeping track of time demands on lists vs. schedules are limited, and become a problem when the total number increases above  certain threshold.  Lists are simply too hard to review, as they demand at least a weekly check of every single item.

GTD® is no exception, as evidence by the feedback they recently received on their Facebook page.

Here is the question that was asked:  What’s been the easiest thing about implementing GTD for you?  What’s been the most challenging to make a habit?

The responses to the second part of the question can be broken down as follows:

25 Total Responses /15 mention the Weekly Review directly – 60% say that this aspect is the most difficult to master.

As I implied, there are a great many people who have no difficulty with the Review, but there are a significant number who are challenged by its demands on their time and energy.

They may need an upgrade from having lots of stuff on lists to having a single schedule.


Should We All Use Lists?

I read a recent article in the GTD News in which David Allen noted that he often gets told by others that he has too many lists.  Click here to read “Why Lists are a Dirty Word.”

The critics go a step further and imply that there’s no way that many lists could work for them.  He notes that “my educated guess is that 99 percent of people’s responses (to lists) are some version of “Yuck! Back Away!”

His hypothesis is that people have this reaction because 1) Lists are hard work, 2) Lists are scary and 3) Lists are disappointing.  The article goes on to show that these reactions are ill-informed, and with more understanding these feelings would be alleviated.

I think there’s more to this than meets the eye.

My observation of users at very different levels of skill is that multiple or long Lists are useful for some people, but not everyone. Allen doesn’t address this fact in his article, and might be attempting to prove that taking this approach should fit everyone.

In one instance, a person might be unwilling to use multiple lists because this technique doesn’t work once the number of time demands becomes too large.  I have shown in prior posts that different techniques must be used due to the lengthy reviews that are required by lots of items in lists.

In the 2Time system, Yellow Belts use lots of lists.  Both White Belts and Orange Belts (who are lower and higher in skill) might respond with a “Yuck!”, but for very different reasons.   White Belts would be unhappy about the use of a brand new tool, while Oranges would be unwilling to downgrade their current system, simply to use more Lists.  (Quite a few years ago, I unwittingly made this change myself, and saw my capacity to manage time-demands plummet before hastily switching back.)

With a more complete picture, both sets of users can make better decisions, and get past the “Yuck!” in order to make informed changes to their time management systems.  This is the kind of choice that all professionals must make when they discover a tip from a guru, read a book, find a new gadget or discover a new piece of productivity software.

It’s a delicate dance, and users must be ready to switch back to what they were doing if they discover that the changes they are attempting to make have an adverse impact.  This reality is one that’s not acknowledged in the article, but it would help users to see that Lists aren’t meant to be either accepting or rejected in total, but used an an upgrade when they produce individual results.


Mission Control Productivity, FranklinCovey, GTD and Getting Things Done are registered trademarks of the David Allen Company (davidco.com.)  2Time is not affiliated with or endorsed by the David Allen Company, Mission Control Productivity or FranklinCovey.

Schedule and Forget It

One of the benefits of having a higher belt (Orange and Green) and switching time demands from lists to a single schedule is that there is a certain peace of mind that’s available.

This is especially true for a high number of time demands.

The reason for peace of mind is simple, and it starts at the moment when a time demand is Emptied from a Capture Point.  If the time demand is converted to a segment in your Schedule, then you have set time aside in the future to get it done.

If the time demand is added to a List, then you have also implicitly set time aside to get the item done in the future, but there is a major difference from the prior option.

When the item is added to a Schedule, you can forget about it until the date/time approaches as long as you have a reliable method for interrupting what you’re doing to remind yourself to get started.

By contrast, when the item is added to a List, something a bit dangerous happens after it’s added:
1.  you make a mental note to yourself of the time that it’s due, or the completion date that would represent a late one
2.  you start to make an effort to remember this due date
3.  when you check your list each day, you must revisit the item to ensure that the due date hasn’t passed, redoubling your effort to remember

The overall effect is that you must revisit the List to check on the item, much in the way that a mother fusses over her baby while it’s sleeping.   This fussing isn’t a problem when the number of time demands is small, but when the total number of items in a List exceeds a certain number, the technique becomes counter-productive.

That’s when we need the relief and peace of mind that Scheduling affords.  The moral of the story is that when the number of time demands grows past a certain point, then it’s better to “Schedule and Forget It” rather than “List and Fuss Over It.”

More on Moving From Lots of Lists to One Schedule

In an earlier post entitled Moving from a List to a Schedule, I shared some of the challenges to be overcome in upgrading one’s time management system from Yellow to Orange in Scheduling. It turned out to be a pretty popular post, but I know that there’s a school of thought that advocates that one should never go beyond Yellow Belt skills in this area.

The logic proceeds as follows:

  • keeping a schedule of all or most tasks is too hard / difficult / cumbersome
  • therefore, tasks should be kept in lists
  • schedules should only be used to track appointments with other people

As you may have noticed, I am challenging that wisdom by saying that new mobile technology makes it quite easy to change a schedule on the fly, and in fact, Orange Belt skills are a necessary upgrade when time demands grow beyond a certain point.

A few years ago, I actually did an experiment, and tried a downgrade that I don’t recommend but I’ll illustrate here.

In the following video, the college student who puts together an Orange Belt schedule builds  it up based on 4 classes that she has in the semester.



This is NOT the approach that most books, programs and websites advocate. Instead, they argue that it’s impossible / impractical to maintain a schedule such as this one, even with the advent of portable planning tools, such as smartphones, PDA’s, iPad’s and laptops.

Following their advice would produce the following schedule, and list:

This schedule requires a list looking like this one to support it:

  • read
  • write paper
  • work on paper
  • college activity
  • goto movie
  • swim practice
  • eat
  • shower
  • night out

As I mention in the prior post on this topic, using this approach means looking at this list every day, in order to construct a mental schedule of what needs to be done and when.  Some would argue that you need to construct many different types of lists, depending on priority, location, “context,” energy or other different categories, but this doesn’t prevent you from having to look at most items each day to make sure that nothing is falling through the cracks.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach, which is one that White Belts use.  It’s a useful one for handling a limited number of time demands.

However, a you can see from the video, and from the change that was made at the very end in order to accommodate a “night out,” it’s much easier to manipulate a schedule that’s laid out in front of you, than one that’s stored in one’s memory.

A few years ago, before starting this website, I tried changing my approach from using a full, Orange Belt schedule to using a White Belt schedule accompanied by lots of lists.  It didn’t work – I noticed stuff falling through the cracks, and I kept making mistakes with my mental schedule.  Checking the same lists all the time was a hassle that never went away.

When I reverted to my former habit of what I now call Orange Belt Scheduling, things became much easier, and once I determined how to convert email messages into scheduled items in my calendar, it became easy to manipulate time demands as they flowed into my Inbox. My peace of mind returned.

Luckily, the tools that we have available to us mean that even paper schedules are a thing of the past, but the video is a great one as it shows very simply, the power of working with a schedule that’s laid out in front of you, instead of in your memory.

A New Vision of Scheduling Tools

I just saw an amazing video that shows the real-time progress of civilization over the past 200 years.

The content is inspiring, but this post is actually about the technology. Following on the heels of my post on Migrating from Listing to Scheduling, can you imagine a time when you are able to manipulate your schedule with this much ease? That is, you could turn on a switch from your smartphone which would then project as many days as you’d like in front of you.

You’d then be able to move around time commitments from one time slot to another effortlessly, between different days if you wanted, and be able to see where the errors are in overlaps, overly-ambitious time-frames, not enough exercise and the like.

You’d also be able to add in newly scheduled items from your email with the touch of a button, or from your paper pad or capture pen with the flick of a switch.

It’s futuristic stuff, but how close would we have to get for most of us to rely on schedules rather than lists?  I just completed a time management book that argued, as most do, that it’s too hard to keep a calendar of tasks.  That was probably inspired by the memory of trying to keep a schedule on paper.

Watch the video, and let me know if you get a glimpse of the future.