Hackernoon logoWhy To-do lists are fundamentally unfit for most things by@roberttochmanszewc

Why To-do lists are fundamentally unfit for most things

Robert Tochman-Szewc Hacker Noon profile picture

Robert Tochman-Szewc

Founder

In all my years at work, one thing that has not ceased to trigger my bewilderment is people using To-do lists. I do not object to them being helpful, but believe they are a suboptimal choice for many kinds of tasks, especially for knowledge workers. Let me tell you why.

Most tasks have more than two states

Unless you go shopping where the item can be either in your shopping basket or not, the tasks you deal with have more than two states. Often, they include multiple steps, are dependent on others you have to wait for, etc. Some of them take quite a while until they can be completed. Options to deal with that in To-do lists are Subtasks, Sections or Deadlines (I will get to the problems with some of them later). They will only save you for so long. Eventually, your To-do list will get clogged with items you are doing but have not finished yet. And you will only be able to figure out how you are doing by looking at each of the tasks in detail.

Task Boards (which I am proponent of), on the other hand, offer a lot more possibilities to deal with states: Not started yet, in progress, waiting for input and completed tasks get one column each. Your scenario is more complex then that? Add a column! You will see how you are doing at a single glance. And it gets better: You can see exactly where tasks pile up and focus on actions specifically resolving that column (ping some people or finally do the last things required). This is just one of the benefits a Task Board can give you.

To-do lists do not favor quality

This aspect stems from me seeing a lot of people approaching To-do lists with the mind-set of “I have to get all of this done today”, but I believe it applies to a broader group as well. With To-do lists poorly reflecting different states, all that is not checked off is piling up in the same place. You will be inclined to check it off just to get rid of it at some point, sacrificing quality. But there is an even bigger drawback: Because you are lacking visual clarity, you will not see systematic issues in how you handle things. You will not see which task you had to start over again and again until you finally got it done, pointing at a possibly deeper issue.

That is another aspect Task Boards handle better: The complexity of your work is reflected correctly. If you have to move a task back and forth multiple times, you will know for sure there was a problem and think about it, potentially improving the process. “Eliminating waste”, as it is commonly called, is only possible with a clear overview of how a process works (even if it is just you doing household things).

There is no temporal dimension in To-do lists

How do you deal with things that are not relevant for this week in a To-do list? There is no way, so your list will grow or you use crutches such as artificial deadlines (potentially sacrificing quality again) or dividing your task list into multiple ones or sections. And when you do the latter, you are actually building a poor man’s task board (considering Trello is free, it is even worse than that).

Task boards offer you a separate backlog column that will not interfere with the things you have chosen to do for now. It separates them visually while keeping them close so you won’t forget. Because the things you want to do now as opposing to next week have effectively different states and should be treated as such.

So why are so many people using them for everything?

I am not sure, but here is my current reasoning:

Argument 1: There is no perfect market when it comes to productivity tools. People do not know about everything that exists out there, so they can only choose from things known to them. And many do not put in a conscious effort to look at different approaches. I come from software development, where Kanban and Scrum are household names. But even I had to put in additional effort to find out what they actually mean as most companies just pick some parts of both and claim to live by those approaches. If there was a perfect market, I believe To-do lists would be the lesser-used tool.

Argument 2: To-do lists are more intuitive. The simplest memory aid is a piece of paper with some items that you scratch off. Tadà, To-do list. Compare that to having to sketch out a board and move things around, requiring either digital tooling or Post-its. You can’t blame people searching for a tool to go with the one they understand fastest.

Argument 3: They work. Memorizing your task list may work very well some days and totally fail you on others. To-do lists solve that problem well whether the problem is easy or hard, so why look for something else? Task Boards offer you an even better solution for the more complex tasks, but if you’re not actively looking for a better solution, you stay with To-do lists.

Conclusion

If there were only To-do lists or I just had pen and paper, I would certainly be using them over my memory. But in the wake of all the innovations in how we work and technology, Task Boards have taken a strong lead for most use-cases, and I’d only refrain from them for a shopping list.

But my intention is not to stop you from using To-do lists. Rather, I want to encourage people to try them and share their experiences why it worked or did not work for them.

Feel free to shoot me a message!

Suggestions

You want to give Task boards a shot? I’ll keep a list of good resources here as I find them. For now, I can recommend the following things:

  • Personal Kanban: Video 1 and Video 2. A basic introduction to Kanban tailored to your personal life with very few steps, ideal for starters. Also available as a book.
  • Trello: Arguably the most popular tool out there, it does the job well for your personal stuff. Also, they are actually doing a great job at bringing Task Boards to the masses.
  • Toyota Production System: The system that started the rethinking of how to manage a process. A nice primer rethinking how you do things and the concept of waste.
  • Agile software development methodologies. Recommending the books that started the movements is a little over-the-top, but O’Reilly has a very nice book if you want an overview over software development methodologies.

My background

My prior experience with task/process management stems from different domains, namely software development (as a person managing a 10+ people team as well as part of a young team where people iterated through a number of solutions), ERP systems, academic research for my degrees, my personal day-to-day planning and of course from shopping lists. I’ve been using Kanban in professional and private contexts for many years now, creating a tool for recurring tasks called I Could Call to solve an issue with recurring tasks other tools do not.

You can find the original post (with up to date links) on the I Could Call blog.

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