Whether you're a task management newbie or have been listing like a maniac for 30 years, chances are you've probably acted like one of the following three task list management mistakes at some point. Which one do you most closely identify with?


How many itemized tasks can you do in a day? Forty-two? Sixty? You can hammer out 87 to-dos in an average day, right?

Probably not.

The overlister starts each day with a blank list and then goes to town on the task list. Every tiny chore, every grand scheme is written down.

There’s nothing wrong with this type of listing. It’s called brainstorming or spitballing and it’s a great way to let the right side of the brain get creative with task listing, which is generally a left brain activity. Sign the kids up for kid yoga? Sure. Stencil witticisms onto your flower pots? Easy. Learn to square dance? It’s Wednesday; Wednesday is a fine day to learn square dancing.

But spitballing isn’t particularly useful when planning out a single day. The overlister adds and adds and creates a list tall enough to induce vertigo. And as the list grows, each task is de-emphasized. Important tasks are drowned out by the sea of possibilities.

Your brain will always tend to favour the shortest tasks, which means fewer of those important tasks are accomplished each day. The frenzy of a hundred chores may cause the overlister to become crippled with decision. Rather than spending two hours working on one valuable task, an overlister will spend two hours on 27 meaningless ones.

Finally, an overlister is constantly plagued by the itch that there is more to be done. No matter how many tasks are completed each day, the list is never finished. This creates anxiety in the gaps between productive work. Leisure is unfortunately redefined as procrastination, and sleep is often sacrificed.

So don’t be an overlister. Cap your daily task list at a number you can achieve. If you aren’t sure what a sufficient number is, continue to reduce the items in your task manager each day until you have a day in which you finish everything on the list. You may have whittled it down to only 3 or 4 to-dos, but it’ll give you a good sense of the practical number of tasks you can achieve. From there you can grow it back to a modest, manageable number.


What’s wrong with this list:

  1. Be a better father
  2. Enjoy life
  3. Carpe Diem

Nothing, really. If you’ve seized the day parenting in an enjoyable manner, well done. This is a fine list of values to live by, but it isn’t daily task list management.

The central conceit of a “to-do” list is that you are “doing” something, and doing things is much easier if your list is written in a way that describes exactly what you should be doing.

The blight of the vague-rant is that the more undefined a task is, the less likely it is to be done.

To counter this problem, be specific with your tasks. Not only will you be more likely to attempt items that have specificity, but you will feel a sense of accomplishment at having finished a task, rather than the nebulous uncertainty of having worked on a major project without seeing any specific progress.

Let’s look at an aspiring guitarist. This guitarist has the passion but not the skill, so they add “learn guitar” to their task list. But “learn guitar” is more conceptual than “doable.” So the guitarist changes the task to “practice guitar.” That is doable, but it still isn’t terribly accomplishable: how does a guitarist know that they have practiced enough for the day?

The guitarist takes it a step further, and lists “spend 20 minutes practicing chords” or “practice Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue until I can play it without error.” Now “learn guitar” has turned into something accomplishable, something achievable in a day, and most importantly, something that the guitarist knows how to do, which means they will be much more likely to attempt it in the first place.

A month of “learn guitar” on a list will likely end with very little actual guitar learning. But a month of completing varied, daily, specific tasks which all add up to the final goal, and that guitarist will sound more like Van Halen and less like Wild Stallyn.

Scheduling down to the last second

Scheduling is certainly necessary. Meetings, appointments, events… As much as you might hate it, you don’t get to decide when your son’s piano recital starts. You can’t keep your podiatrist on hold, podiatrists are hard-nosed people. And the San Diego Padres will not wait until you show up to the stadium to start their game (well, they might, they’ve had a particularly bad season and every fan counts).

So you must schedule some tasks. In fact, scheduling is actually a wise thing to do. It’s a particularly smart idea do block out specific time for important items on your list. If you designate blocks of time for major projects, one hour where you turn off the phone, disconnect the internet, and focus on a life goal, the simple act of focusing on that goal for an hour becomes the accomplishment, even if no measurable progress mark was reached. And eventually those dedicated hours will add up to measurable results.

But where the schedulifier fails, is by trying to hammer out a block of time for every single thing they do in a day.

It’s a setup for failure. Life happens. Any given day contains a certain amount of chaos, serendipity, and unexpected tragedy. Our brains expect the randomness and are well equipped to deal with it, but it’s not something you can schedule, and trying to bend your every action to a specific schedule will almost never be achievable.

Thus, as one task is delayed, all other tasks must be re-adjusted and reprioritized. A schedulifier may end up spending more time attempting to assign arbitrary boundaries and deadlines to tasks than actually doing the tasks.

Also, scheduling every single thing on your task list doesn’t take into account tasks that aren't time oriented. For instance, “make decision about car purchase," is a perfectly valid to-do. There’s no shame in penciling in the task of making up one’s mind. But decisions aren’t simple time-spent = work-done equations. A decision, especially a big one, is something that rattles around the brain, that may need time to grow. It’s a task that needs to be done, but will almost never fit into a day broken into itemized minutes.

So schedule, just don't schedule everything.

But remember…

There’s no wrong way to go about your task list management. Everybody’s brain works differently. If you’ve found a rhythm of getting things done that does involve micromanaging every minute of your day or working from a to-do list of 117 items, then by all means, stick with what works.

But if you’re having problems managing tasks and if you’ve found that by the end of the week you haven’t tackled any of those big ticket items, then evaluate your task lists; make sure that your tasks aren’t too vague, too rigid, or too many.

What task management techniques are working for you and your team? Join the conversation in the