The Scandal of a Bare List: 3 Ways to Upgrade Your To-do List

10 April, 2015

Ryan Anderson

Ryan Anderson


We love to-do lists. We believe in them, use them, and cajole others into using them. They’re probably the simplest way to enhance your productivity. We also know the checklist is a blunt tool, that could use improvement.

The productivity company iDoneThis crunched the numbers on our to-do lists. They found that the average professional’s checklist remained 41% uncompleted. At the same time 85% of the task each person did at work never made it to the list.

This brings us to two facts you already know to be true about your to-do list, no matter how attached you are to it:

  1. You’ll never finish it.
  2. Much of what you do in a day won’t be accounted for with a check-mark. In fact, unless you’re intentional about it, you can end a very busy day concluding you “got nothing done,” because your to-do list is longer than ever.

So how can the checklist morph from a simple reminder tool into a rich, useful report on our days’ activities? We bring you three ideas for making the most out of a checklist:

1. Embrace Incompletion

Productivity gurus have a favorite little object lesson for their audience. You’ve surely been in that seminar: at the front is a big jar and a bunch of stones, pebbles, and sand. When you add the sand and pebbles first, the big stones won’t fit. And then they do the magic switcheroo whereby everything fits when you place the stones first, pebbles second, and pour in sand to fill in all the gaps. The lesson for us: we can accomplish everything if we only put the big things first.

It’s a valuable little image to remember when we’re lost in the weeds of microcrises, but there’s something not quite right about the illustration. We know that our actual lives some days would be better represented by bags and bags of rocks and sand, which will never fit in that damn jar.

Ed Batista writes about this quandary in the Harvard Business Review:

Our time and attention are finite resources, and once we reach a certain level of responsibility in our professional lives, we can never fulfill all the demands we face no matter how long and hard we work. The line of people who want to see us stretches out the door and into the street. Our to-do lists run to the floor. Our inboxes are never empty.

But having too much on the to-do list isn’t the problem, claims Batista, an executive coach and instructor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. The problem is that we think it’s a problem — and a sign of our incompetence. We believe if we could only work “harder, longer, or ‘smarter’ (whatever that really means),” we’d have a full column of check-marks at the end of the day.

Batista believes that instead of chasing this empty promise, we must manage our expectations. Rather than aiming to complete everything on our checklist, we should come to it with a mindset of triage:

Medical staff in a crisis must decide who requires immediate assistance, who can wait, who doesn’t need help at all, and who’s past saving. Triage for the rest of us entails not just focusing on the items that are most important and deferring those that are less important until “later,” but actively ignoring the vast number of items whose importance falls below a certain threshold. [emphasis in original]

Batista concludes that when projects and people call for more of our time and attention than we can possibly provide, we’re not failing. In fact, it’s a sign of success. This is simply what happens as a person gains authority and a good reputation.

In such a world, the most productive people, Batista maintains, are those who have figured out “who to ignore.” We must focus on the projects and people who are in line with our core values and aspirations, and learn the skill of graciously failing to complete the rest.

2. Record the Dones As Well As To-Dos:

If 85% of everything we do in a day never makes it on our to-do list, where does it go?

Typically nowhere. But for a growing minority of professionals, it winds up on the ‘anti-to-do list,’ or the ‘done list.’ This list is a summary at the end of the day of where all your time has gone.

Joe Gascoigne, founder and CEO of Buffer, explains why he’s embraced the practice:

It’s made a real difference for my feeling of productivity, since a lot of the time I used to have that “where did the day go?” feeling without being able to remember what I did. Now I look at my Anti-To-Do List and feel great about all the things I got done. It’s literally possible to move those tasks above the line and create a feeling of productivity. That’s powerful.

But it’s about more than self-esteem. The done-list provides a record of where your time is going, showing you your de facto priorities, regardless of what you’ve listed in your mind or your five-year plan. With this reporting, you can notice disparities between your plans and realities, and work toward adjusting one or both into better alignment. The done-list can also be a useful start if you need to objectively demonstrate your worth to business partners or superiors.

Walter Chen, cofounder and CEO of iDoneThis explains that while to-do lists focus “on errands and little things, done lists are most useful with context and purpose.” This shift in mindframe moves us from what is simply a good tool in getting things done toward a rich accounting of our time and resulting ability to evaluate.

Janet Choi, the company’s Chief Creative Officer, further fleshes out the difference.

[T]o-do lists resolutely face forward, looking into the future. Most task management is narrowly prospective, ignoring your history of how you work, your habits, what making progress and dealing with setbacks look like.

At the end of the day, we wind up using to-do lists to gauge our progress, though they were never created for an evaluative purpose. We write them to reminder ourselves what to do next — but we can’t stop ourselves from feeling either success or failure when we look over how many things were checked off. But the done list is a better tool for this task.

Choi explains that “the past is full of feedback, the kind of valuable information that you can use to make a better plan on how to proceed and prioritize.” She concludes that with a done list,

No longer are you hacking away, willy-nilly, at whatever comes your way. Now you can tell whether or not you’re making progress on the wrong things, or your time is imbalanced between work defined by other people as compared to yourself. Whether it is proactive or reactive work, you know better what to say “yes” or “no” to, because you have a rationale and intentionality about correcting your course.

The done list can be as simple as a document you pull up at the end of every day, but having case management software that automatically accounts for your activities is a beneficial shortcut.

Either way, if you’re treating your checklists as trophies instead of as reports on your activity, you’re missing out on some hefty rewards — both psychological and financial.

3. Look Up from the List

No matter how thorough and prioritized your checklist is, it’s possible to over-rely on it. Renée Warren, CEO and co-founder of Onboardly, writing for Entrepreneur writes of this problem in stark terms:

While you’re focused on the instant gratification of crossing things off, how much of your focus is on the quality of work you’re producing? Your strikethroughs are impeccable, but your work is maybe mediocre at best.

That glow from your empty inbox won’t help you there.

As productivity expert and author Laura Stack reminds us, “doing more isn’t always better.” The amount done doesn’t correlate with work quality. Stack continues: “No one really cares how many hours you were in the building or if you finished your to-do list. People only care about what you’re able to produce and the value of those results.”

Again: we believe in putting all your tasks on one list, and returning to it regularly. But there is, nonetheless, a world outside the checklist. In fact, the reason we love task lists so much is because they free up cognitive space for us to engage creatively with that world. That means that if we ever find our focus on checking off boxes is blocking out the bigger picture — or even just personal needs and desires — we’ve gotten our priorities reversed.

If you find yourself with a narrow-minded fixation on checking off your tasks, it’s time to look up from the list. Review your behavior and aspirations, and get a feel for what is happening around the office, in your field, and in the world in general.


You’ve probably been living with checklists since you were old enough to get your name on the family chore chart. It’s a timeless tool with admirable simplicity. But when you find yourself weighted down with checklist stress, we hope these tips can get you moving forward again.