The One-Item To-Do List

Are you one of those people who has to write things down to keep from forgetting to do them? If so, then a to-do list is probably one of your best friends. You may even go as far as I do and set reminders on your phone that tell you to do things. After all, a to-do list doesn’t help much when you forget to look at it, right?

Now let me ask you another question – do you procrastinate? Do you look at that to-do list and think to yourself, “I don’t need to have that done until tomorrow. I’ll get to it later”? You don’t need to do it right this second so you don’t forget it later – you have it written down and an alarm to remind you about it.

This is where a to-do list can be a double-edged sword.

How to-do lists can keep you from getting things done

Pretend you’ve just gotten up in the morning, and you’re getting ready for work. You need to shower, pack lunches for the kids, get dressed, get the kids ready, and make sure you have everything you need as you load up the car to leave. In the middle of brushing your teeth, you remember you need to stop at the pharmacy on your way home to pick up some cold medicine. Whip out your to-do list, and write it down. As you write that down, you also remember you need to get ground beef at the grocery store, call the auto insurance company about a policy change, make a doctor’s appointment for one of the kids, cancel your gym membership, and watch a video for a project at work. Write it all down.

Stack of To-Do Lists
photo by Karin Dalziel

This scenario is what a to-do list is all about – write down the stuff you need to get done but don’t have the time to do right now. So where’s the problem?

Fast forward this scenario to your lunch break. As you walk to your car, you get out your list and take a look at it. Ground beef will rot in the car between lunch and the end of the workday. The video is an hour long, so you don’t have time for that now. What about that cold medicine, the call to the insurance company, the call to the doctor, and the quick stop at the gym that’s two minutes from work?

All that stuff might take you fifteen minutes from start to finish. But there’s a lot on that list, you’re tired and want a break, and you’ve got plenty of time after work to get it done.

This is where the procrastinator puts the list back in his or her pocket, knowing they can do it all later, and drives to Taco Bell to have lunch and get on Facebook on their phone before heading back to work.

Why does a to-do list make us procrastinate?

The answer to this is actually really easy – because we can. The to-do list means we won’t forget about what we need to get done, so we can get it done whenever we feel like it. And being procrastinators means we don’t feel like it right now.

For those of you who aren’t chronic procrastinators, there’s something else at play here as well. The list can look overwhelming. There’s so much to do that it just feels better to put it off until we have more time or are feeling more up to working on it.

How to get things done in spite of your to-do list

Think back to the scenario where you’re getting ready for work and you write down all that crap you have to get done. That’s fine; don’t change a thing. You still want to write everything down so you don’t forget any of it.

Now think back to your lunch break. Get out your list, but don’t ask yourself how much of it you can get done now or if you have time to do it later. Instead:

Pick ONE THING off the list to do, and do it. Ignore the rest.

Not so overwhelming now, is it?

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Pam is a preschool teacher and writer with a background in psychology and child development. She's available for freelance work, private consulting, or just a nice chat. Connect with her on Google+, Twitter, Facebook, or via email at p.komarnicki AT social-discomfort DOT com.

One Response to The One-Item To-Do List

  1. Hey, really great post. In fact we just released an android app that helpst with accomplishing exactly that which you wrote in your post. It’s called One To Do and it is a to-do list app, which only shows ONE single task at a time, so that people can focus on finishing that task and then move on, once that task is finished. Check it out, and let me know your thoughts on it. Regards, Vin

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