Why Your To Do Lists Never Work (& How To Fix It)

You consider yourself a reasonably productive and conscientious person. You know where you want to be in the next five or ten years, you work hard to meet your goals, and you make sure that you keep a to-do list every day. Few things give you as much satisfaction as crossing off something else on your list, and for a good reason. Research has shown that getting things done releases dopamine in our minds the same way that surfing social media does.

But somehow, your to-do lists aren’t as effective as you’d like to be. You relish being productive and you hope to be able to fit more into your day, but you also don’t want to be overwhelmed, overworked, and over-stressed.


You don’t necessarily need to make huge changes to how you work, though. Making small, calculated tweaks can provide a much more significant and longer-lasting impact on your productivity. Here’s how to do just that.

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1. You don’t centre your daily task list around your goals

Having a to-do list is not in and of itself any cause for celebration. There’s a difference between getting things done and making progress towards your goals. You could be perpetually busy, the kind of busy that forces you to tick things off your to do list with astonishing speed every day. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re moving closer to where you want to be in the future; you could just be running on the spot.


Expanding your vision of daily productivity so that it encompasses your goals is vital. Spend a few minutes at the start of each day to revisit your short-term and long-term goals, then go over your task list so that you can understand how each item contributes to those goals in one way or another. Doing this also helps you to take out tasks that don’t add value or benefit to you or those around you, so you’re not expending precious energy unnecessarily.


2. You’re not prioritising wisely


Ineffective deadlines

It’s not enough to write what you have to do and put a checkbox beside it. You also need to ensure that you write down the appropriate deadlines for each task. Telling yourself you need to do something without giving yourself a deadline for it and keeping track of it only opens the door to procrastination. Research has shown that the shorter the deadlines you give yourself, the higher your sense of urgency, and thus the likelier you are to get things done.



Leaving complex tasks to the last minute

Additionally, complex and time-consuming tasks that come with longer deadlines are often one of the greatest causes of procrastination. It often stays on your task list for days, sometimes weeks, while you direct your attention to everything else except the hardest thing on the list until the very last possible minute. The more complex the task, the likelier you are to stave it off.

If it’s this complexity that’s causing you to leave it languishing endlessly on your to-do list, make it simpler for yourself. Break down every complex task you encounter into smaller mini-tasks. Assign yourself a viable deadline for each mini-task.



3. You don’t factor in time spent in meetings

While putting together a daily task list, we often write down everything we can remember to do without thinking about the amount of time we can actually spare to work on those tasks. You might come into the office in the morning raring to go and resolving to have your most productive day of the week yet. Because of that, all you’re thinking about is putting as many things as possible on your to-do list.

In reality, the time you have in the day to work on these tasks differs every day. Some days are so full of meetings that you barely have time to do anything else besides checking and replying emails.

Time-consuming meetings are an ugly reality of the corporate world. It’s not for no reason that Elon Musk and Joe Bezos both have strict rules about when and how meetings are to be conducted.


In the short term, to have a realistic plan for getting things done every day, you need to factor in the possibility of time-consuming meetings. Knowing that you have less time to do your work will help you automatically decide how best to maximise the time you have, instead of blindly squeezing everything into narrow windows of time.

In the long-term, though, you need to look at how to make your meetings more efficient and less time-consuming.


4. You’re itemising every little thing

The longer your task list, the more stressed you’ll be. On busier days, it might be inevitable. But if you’re itemising everything in your life and putting it on your list for the sake of having it there, it causes you unnecessary stress.

According to Dr. Sheena Iyengar, an expert on choice, the human brain can only consider a maximum of 7 options before it gets overwhelmed. Similarly, just looking at an extensive to-do list with more than 7 items on it will send you into choice paralysis. Ultimately you have so much to do that you end up doing nothing at all.



5. You don’t state the next immediate actionable step

That’s just the nature of knowledge work today; the work never really ends. At the same time, this is what makes it so hard to disconnect from work. Your brain keeps reminding you of unfinished work even when you want to rest.

To combat this, it’s crucial to have a daily shutdown ritual at the end of each day. Look at what’s still undone and make a plan for how you’re going to pick up where you left off. Doing this helps your brain to fully unplug and put all work thoughts out of your mind so you can focus on other non-work-related responsibilities.



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