To-do lists may actually be holding people back

To Do Lists Ineffective

I feel like the “to-do list” has been a staple of (at least first world) individual organization attempts since maybe the dawn of time. Definitely in the last 20 or so years, they’re everywhere. Outlook and other e-mail platforms have them essentially built in, and when you check in with someone about something (anything, really), the response is typically “It’s on the list!” The to-do list is everything for some people (I use one pretty much every day as well), and it seems pretty logical: here’s a list of tasks, and as I finish them, I check them off. It appeals to base levels of psychology. It’s almost like we’re rats pressing that lever in some sense; task set, task accomplished, strike-through or check. Happy.

But what if the to-do list is actually a bad thing?

Look at this article from Inc, and pay attention to this paragraph about the idea of the to-do list:

More practically, the rigid, reductive format of to-do lists is not optimal for the kinds of work done by leaders, says Teresa Amabile, a professor and director of research at Harvard Business School. “The really important things that don’t generally have a specific deadline may be what you should be spending most of your time on,” she says. “I think many of us who have a strong work ethic feel like we are indulging ourselves when we do that more exploratory work, that deep-level learning that may not have an immediate application but, in the grand scheme of things, may be more important than anything else.”

You know there’s a major problem in business with a focus on the now now now. This is especially an issue when new headcount arises, because oftentimes, companies totally bypass the chance to be strategic about what their different departments need and rather, they rush to fill it as quickly as possible — because in the now now now, it seems that empty chair is money. It’s just one example of many in the whole “When there’s a silence in American business, we rush to fill it with noise” idea — which should be smashed in the face.

Maybe the to-do list, then, creates a baseline for this “think about the now, don’t think about the broader stuff” mentality. After all, who puts “have probing thought session about leadership pipeline” on their Wednesday to-do list? It doesn’t quite fit with “9:30 meeting about launch” and “Get garbage bags,” does it?

This is how that same Harvard professor recommends you tackle it:

In her book The Progress Principle, Amabile emphasizes progress (moving forward with one’s work) over productivity (getting things done well and efficiently, irrespective of their importance). A sense of making meaningful progress, she found, has much greater positive impact on engagement and motivation. Her latest research–not yet complete–suggests that the simple act of looking back on progress also positively affects your sense of accomplishment and how competent and effective you feel at work. For the new study, Amabile signed up people to work for two weeks. Some kept diaries in which they recorded at least three sentences a day about how much they had done. Those subjects who were able to review their entries were more satisfied with the progress they had made and in their own abilities.

That’s cool, and I endorse the idea that “progress” should be the goal as opposed to “checking off items,” but … people need a way to tangibly measure the progress they’re making, and for most people, that’s going to involve some form of list. They could also use the “personal analytics” idea, or focus on “batching” tasks.

It’s interesting if you stop and think that most of the pillars of how we communicate and attempt to track progress in business — meetings, e-mails, to-do lists, “cross-platform” teams, etc. — are actually wrong when you consider the base human psychology involved. Same stuff with “brainstorming” — which essentially makes no sense — and “multi-tasking” — which doesn’t either.¬†And don’t even get me started on the lack of a moral code in the workplace.



Ted Bauer

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