Overcoming To-Do List Angst

Overcoming To-Do List Angst

Recently, I came across Daniel Markovitz’s article, To-Do Lists Don’t Work, and was immediately floored by the title. To-do lists don’t work? How could this be?! As someone who has been making lists since I was 10 years old (surprise, surprise), I was obviously shocked to learn that to-do lists could actually be a recipe for failure. Markovitz outlines five problems with to-do lists, some of which I agree may be detrimental to overall productivity – namely the paradox of choice and having varied priorities. But, I believe that with each disadvantage comes a solution that will keep to-do lists alive!

Too Many Choices

Renowned research from Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper shows that having more choices may actually have greater consequences than having fewer options. The findings note that people can only handle about seven choices before it becomes counterproductive.

Obviously it’s much less overwhelming when we’re presented with a more manageable set of choices, but what if your to-do list has 20 items at any given time? A good strategy here is to write out individual to-do lists for each day. By identifying the five to seven things you want to accomplish today, your mind is able to wrap itself more easily around the tasks at hand. If you make it through the entire list, you can feel accomplished and even start on the next day’s tasks.


When tackling a to-do list, people often prioritize the most imminent items and leave the others to do at a later time. However, the less time sensitive items will eventually become priorities too, leaving people to wonder why they left them alone for so long. Markovitz provides a good example, explaining that while attending to your car maintenance may not be a priority now, when your car breaks down at 3am, it is suddenly the most important thing.

Things have a way of creeping up on us, but something I’ve found helpful is reading through your entire to-do list (today’s, tomorrow’s, and next week’s…) at the end of each day in order to constantly remind yourself of other things you have to get done and rearranging them as appropriate. That way, you’re more apt to be able to cross things off your list when an opportune moment strikes, even if it’s not a priority or on today’s list. For instance, to use our car example, let’s say you find yourself stuck in traffic next to an auto body shop – voila, car maintenance done. Or, more in tune with PR, perhaps you find your client discussing a topic you’re supposed to be writing on during a briefing and therefore take excellent notes, giving you a jump start on another task.

I’ll admit, I’m guilty of some of the other pitfalls Markovitz outlines with regards to to-do lists, like scanning through my list and selecting the items that I can get done quickly first, simply for the pure satisfaction of crossing something off. But does that really mean the to-do list technique is completely ineffective? Not at all. If you find yourself falling subject to these to-do list disadvantages, it doesn’t mean you have to throw out this technique all together – just simply recognize where you have issues and adapt to compensate.

If you need more tips, here are some helpful articles on the benefits of to-do lists: Why “To-do” Lists Work, How to Write an Effective To Do List. What’s your strategy for getting your tasks done each day? Do you color code your lists or maybe flag emails in Outlook? Share your tips below!


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