Why Your To-do List Never Works Out the Way You Plan


What do you have to do today?

It’s hard to get by a working day without a plan. If you’re a diligent worker you’ve probably made a list of your tasks for the day. And then comes the difficult part: sticking to it.

Keeping a daily to-do list is a productivity superweapon. Avoiding some common mistakes will make sure your to-do list won’t end up complicating your day- and that you’ll actually get things done.

Why getting tasks done is good for you (literally)

Our brains like short-term goals. Crossing items from a list release small amounts of dopamine in the brain, which is the hormone connected with pleasure and motivation.

On the other hand, uncompleted tasks create a nagging sense of unaccomplishment in our heads. It’s called the Zeigarnik effect and it’s the reason why unfinished stuff keeps us awake at night.

That’s why keeping a to-do list is considered a productive good habit. But you’re struggling to get things done anyway, believe me, you’re not alone.

Common to-do lists mistakes (and how to fix them)

A productive to-do list should be short, written down, with clear planning and priorities.
Seems pretty easy in theory. But when one of these elements is missing, we usually end up with one of those:

Mistake #1: the crowded list

It’s a to-do list that’s as long as an arm, with tasks scribbled in every line and corner. Of course, there can be busy days in which we have a lot of work to handle, but that doesn’t mean we should put every single task among our to-dos.

How to fix this:

Keep your to-dos to a minimum: the ideal number is 3 items.
If you have trouble deciding which of your to-dos should go first, you could try using an Eisenhower Matrix:

eisenhower matrix
Image source:


It’s a matrix for providing prioritization (we will talk more about this later on in the post) and sorting out which tasks should be done now, later on, or which can be scheduled for another time, or delegated.

Mistake #2: the list “in your head”

You have your list: it’s there, it’s clear, it’s…just in your head. The trouble is, the brain likes to play dirty tricks and forget things. The more stressed we are, the easier it gets to leave something behind.

How to fix this:

No matter how confident you are in your memory abilities, always write down your to-dos. Writing on paper makes it easier to remember, but a to-do app will also do the trick (it also has the upside of being able to access it everywhere).

Mistake #3: the list that doesn’t exist

Basically, the day is left with no particular, plan, direction, or reminder. Although some people prefer to work in freedom, like creatives, with no plan at all the risk is to be exposed to whatever rains on you.

How to fix this:

Always have a plan for your day, even if it’s a general one. If you’re not really into having every minute scheduled, at least try to have a general plan for the week, and then for the whole month.
Looking back at the work done in the past weeks and knowing the time you spent on your tasks can help you make a more accurate estimate of your time.

Mistake #4: the “everything’s important” list

In this case, there is no clarity as to which should be considered important. In the busiest times, it’s hard to assign clear priorities and everything seems “important”. But the risk is to spend time working on useless tasks while neglecting what really needed your attention.

How to fix this:

Assign clear priories with the Eisenhower matrix, as seen in #1. Remember: when everything is a priority, nothing is really a priority.

Mistake #5: the forgotten list

A perfect list that’s been written down, sorted by priority, placed on the desk…and there it stays, sad and forgotten. Indeed, spending time doing lists is pointless if they are ignored.

How to fix this:

Make a to-do list and stick to it. Place it visible in front of you, so that you don’t lose it. And don’t forget to clean up your desk – decluttering has many benefits for your productivity, not just in terms of lists saved from oblivion!

Bonus: try the “Done” list

There’s nothing more motivational than knowing you’ve been productive. This is why it can be a great idea to keep a “Done” list as well.

Writing down everything you got down and keeping the list in front of you will help you keep track of your daily progress, and serves as a motivation boost to carry on during the day. Remember what we said about getting things done and dopamine?

So… what do you have to do today?

Do you make to-do lists to keep you productive? Let us know in the comments your favorite tips and tricks! If you’re already mastering the art of to-do lists, make sure to avoid the most common workplace time wasters (reading the article is not one of them, we promise!).

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