Task Lists and Productivity: Part 1 – Why To-Do Lists are Important

10 mins read

This article is written to discuss the value of to-do lists in your daily, weekly, and monthly task and time management, and includes 3 tips to elevate your to-do list to the next level of efficacy.

On Behalf of To-Do Lists

Ah, to-do lists. The faithful companion of self-declared “list people,” and the bane of others’ workday. To-do lists are a task and time management staple which have been reinvented time and time again in order to maximize efficiency, experience jolts of dopamine throughout the day (who doesn’t love checking something off a list?), and keep individuals on-task. So why is it that so many find to-do lists ineffectual when trying to schedule out their days? A quick search online will show a vastly divided set of opinions, some who argue we should do away with the to-do list altogether, and others who laud their benefits. How can we find some middle ground, recognize both the pitfalls and benefits of to-do lists, and ultimately move forward with feeling on-task and on-time?

The first thing to do, when contemplating the value of to-do lists in your life, is to throw away the concept of to-do lists that many of us have! When you are going shopping on the weekend, you might have a to-do list of stores to visit or food items to grab at the grocery store: eggs, tomatoes, cheese, etc. This list is effective enough for a weekend trip, but is not nearly detailed enough to be efficient in task-management at work.

When building your list, it is important to provide a bit of context, priority, and even how long you think the task may take. Once you do this, most of the debates against the value of to-do lists will fade away, and the question becomes less about whether to-do lists are essential in your work-life, and more how to effectively implement them to benefit your experience!

To-Do List Value? Check!

According to a study done by IBM in 2018 which surveyed business executives, time management was identified as the 2nd most critical skill needed in the workplace today. This was a shift from an identical study done in 2016, in which time management ranked only 7th, meaning that in two years, time management jumped 5 places of importance.1

Why this change? As the executives in this survey noted, the need for soft skills – also called behavioural skills – has become vital to the progress of business as so much change occurs in technology, the way we work, and the work that is being done. Not to mention, with the rise of work-from-home experiences, this importance can only have risen further.

The 1st thing creating a to-do list will do for you is help clear out your mental space. A study at Carleton University, examining those who create formal, informal/random, and mental to-do lists, showed that those who create formal lists procrastinate less than any other group, and additionally were more conscientious than those who used random or mental to-do lists. That is, they were more inclined towards wanting to do their work well, and were more self-disciplined, dutiful, and organized.2

In practice, this study indicates that by taking your mental to-do lists and simply writing them out on paper or digitally in a system of some kind will minimize procrastination. This doesn’t mean random sticky notes that will get lost, or bits of paper strewn about your desk, but a system that makes sense to you! By laying your tasks out in a visual list, they no longer need to rattle around in your head, and you are not using up mental energy trying to remember what else needed to be done. That mental energy can then be put towards action and how those tasks can be done to their fullest and most efficient.

To-do lists also allow you to see what’s coming, and plan accordingly. When juggling multiple projects, having a to-do list that tells you when each project’s deadline is and what needs to be done in the meantime is essential. These lists can help you organize your time effectively, especially when you break larger projects down into smaller, bite-sized pieces.

For example: If three projects have deadlines set for 4 weeks from today, and each project has 10 smaller milestones to hit in order to get everything done in time, how can you organize your time at the office to get everything completed? Whether this means scheduling yourself to complete each project by a certain date and using your to-do list to keep track of that, or getting to certain milestones on one project before switching and doing the same with the next, and so on until everything is completed around the same time, your to-do list is fundamental to keeping these projects organized and keeping yourself (and your colleagues) on-task.

Here are 3 essential to-do list tips to help you get the most out of the lists you make:

To-Do Tips

Schedule Your Time – Whether this means blocking out time in your calendar, or just writing down next to each item an approximation of how long it will take to complete, scheduling the time each task will take will make it easier to organize the time in your day to use it most effectively.

Prioritize – When you prioritize what’s on your list, you ensure that the most important items are done first. This does not mean that low-priority items are never done, but rather that they are not important right now. If you think some items will be left undone, then it’s time to either delete them from your list, or delegate them to someone else who can give them the priority they need.

Take Charge – To-do lists are a tool, and like any tool, they only work if you put in the time and effort to make them work for you. Writing out a to-do list and then not actively engaging with it will not change anything when it comes to your productivity.

While the Carleton University study indicated that those who were conscientious also tended to make the most use out of their to-do lists, this does not mean that personality will make or break you! Everyone has control over their own activity, and if you prioritize productivity and let the to-do list guide your efforts, you will see tremendous results!

As you can see, when intention is behind your to-do list, it can streamline your workday into an efficient, rewarding system wherein procrastination is a thing of the past! However, not every list is made equal, and not every list will work for every person. Keep following this series, in which we will discuss some of the most popular forms of to-do or task lists (some of which are not lists at all!), and how to implement them into your work life.

In Part 2, we will explore the Pomodoro Method, which integrates time-keeping into your to-do list for maximum efficiency!

1 “The Enterprise Guide to Closing the Skills Gap.” IBM Institute for Business Value. https://www.ibm.com/downloads/cas/EPYMNBJA

2 Pychyl, Timothy. “Do To-Do Lists Work?” Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/dont-delay/202002/do-do-lists-work

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