The benefits of ignoring todo lists

To do lists are incredibly popular. If you have any doubt, just search the App Store or Product Hunt for todo apps. They’re are literally thousands and thousands of them, all promising to help you stay more organized, and be more productive. But are they actually helpful? Do they help you be more productive, or do they just force you to feel like you’re drowning in tasks, and you’ll never make any headway?

In my personal experience, there are benefits of ignoring todo lists.

THE RISK OF TODO LISTS

It’s really easy to see the appeal of todo lists. They promise that you’ll be more productive--they can be helpful in not forgetting all the various things you need to do. Items can be organized into various categories, have due dates assigned, and can help you feel like you’re accomplishing things. All of that sounds really great and positive— until it just overwhelms you and makes you not want to do anything at all.

That’s been my experience the past few weeks. I was all-in on todo apps and project management apps. I was adding practically everything to a list that I wanted or needed to do— some that would repeat daily, others weekly, and others were one-off tasks of things I needed to do. The act of writing all of that down felt incredibly productive. Organizing everything into lists felt like I was moments away from finishing everything.

Then at the end, however, I saw this huge monolithic database of tasks. There were hundreds of things that I needed to get done. I also got into this weird habit of feeling that if I did something that wasn’t on my list, I didn’t actually do anything. I felt tempted (and caved in a few times) of actually adding the item to my list post-finishing it, just to immediately cross it off.

As a result, I felt compelled to add literally everything to a list. I wanted nothing to go unrecorded. I added all my daily habits I’ve been working on, like reading, meditating, and even listening to new music. Things that I used to enjoy for the sake of enjoyment were now tasks I needed to complete. Everything in my life now had to have a measurable outcome. In order to achieve happiness, I need to meditate. In order to enjoy music, I need to find a new artist or album. Everything had to have a purpose to why I was doing it—otherwise why was I doing it at all?

TODO LISTS CAN DRAIN THE JOY OUT OF YOUR LIFE

There are many things we do as humans that honestly don’t have a reason for them other than the fact that they’re enjoyable or fun or time off for our brains. Not everything needs to have an immediate outcome. Listening to music every day might not be explicitly productive the same way as coding for an hour—but doing so helps us stay happy and connected to the world. I’d say that’s incredibly productive in the grander scheme of things.

After a few weeks of this crazy task list obsession, I was incredibly burned out. I didn’t want to do anything. I needed a break just to be human again. Which is exactly what I did—I took a break from everything and just let myself get back to a normal state. A state where I could do things because I wanted to, or needed to, and I trusted myself to do the work required. I didn’t totally eliminate writing things down—there are plenty of times that it’s great to jot a quick note down otherwise it’s lost forever in the ether, but that’s different than putting everything into a list. It’s more about remembering versus feeling the need to "score it".

If you enjoy using todo lists and can’t imagine yourself without them, then that’s awesome—keep doing what you’re doing. However, if you’re like me and feel a struggle with them, then just don’t worry about it. There is no single way to be productive—trust what works best for you. Maybe you just need to create a few reminders of things (like I finally settled on—like bill reminders). Just don’t measure yourself based off what everyone else is doing. Feel free to do things that aren’t really tasks, or that don’t have an immediate outcome. Be human.

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