What To Do When Your Task List Doesn’t Work


How to use to-do lists to actually increase productivity and accomplish your goals

Have you ever found yourself creating to-do lists where the check marks get lost on the way to meeting each task? Those check marks just fail to reach their destination.

Creating a to-do list might seem like a great way to keep yourself on track. For many, writing out daily tasks and long-term goals in a list is the first step to organization and productivity. 

However, you might find yourself writing the same task on your to-do lists day after day, week after week. There’s a sense of discouragement that your list has failed you. The task list has become a reminder of the things you haven’t accomplished.

To-do lists seem like a great idea, but the truth is they tend to fall short when it comes to becoming more productive and achieving your goals. A list is a great place to start but without organization and thoughtful planning, they become a mere list of words and don’t work as you intend.

While not all task lists are created equal, there is, in fact, a psychology behind making lists.

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Why We Create Lists

A study at Wake Forest University showed that just by making a list of things that need to get done, our brains become less anxious and overwhelmed. 

It feels good to our brains to see tasks laid out rather than scrambling within and racking our brains to recall.

A well-created list helps us get to the bottom of what we need and want to do. They simplify our lives and take us from chaos to order. 

In an age of overstimulation where everything moves lightning-fast 24-hours a day, lists simplify each day into the most important tasks.

What’s more, task lists can help us feel less overwhelmed by breaking down large tasks into multiple steps. Those larger tasks look more manageable, encouraging action and increasing productivity.

A 2009 NPR article listed a number of reasons why we love to make lists:

  • Lists bring order to chaos
  • Lists help us remember things
  • Lists can be meaningful
  • Lists are flexible
  • Lists can relieve stress and focus the mind
  • Lists can help us to stop procrastinating

To-do lists are also great because they have the ability to hold us accountable. When you make a task list, it’s harder for things to fall through the cracks. There’s no need to worry about forgetting a task because you’ve written them all down and can refer to them in a moment.

Still, lists don’t work for everyone. If you’re sitting there discouraged because none of the above applies to you and lists have failed you, don’t worry. You are not alone.

Why Lists Don’t Work

Inherently, lists aren’t set up to work. Of course, to-do lists don’t actually do any work at all. Sure they hold you accountable but, come on. It’s just a list. It isn’t a life coach checking in to make sure you’re working your way through.

There’s also the fact that some tasks on your to-do list are just easier than others. Generally, people pick the easiest ones to knock off and forget about the rest for, possibly, ever.

If you think back to a few lists you’ve made in the past few years, how many have you tossed out upon completion? Have you read all those books? Fixed up everything in your home? How many things have you checked off your “bucket list”?

While, psychologically, lists might be great for our brains, they tend to fall short and don’t work out when it comes to actual productivity and long-term goal achievement. 

To-do lists might be too vague. A task list is a great place to start but without breaking large tasks down into smaller tasks, task lists become brain-dumps of our thoughts and goals without much organization if any. Prioritizing the important ones over the easy ones gives your task list more meaning.

Take this list for example:

  • Catch up on emails
  • Clean the house
  • Pick up dinner
  • Prepare for job interview
  • Queue 25 blog posts
  • Pick kids up from soccer practice

Some items on this list will be impossible to ignore. You will pick your kids up from soccer practice and more than likely, you’ll grab dinner on the way home.

However, the rest of the items are goals that you need to accomplish or tasks that you need to remember. Tasks that you’ll get to … eventually

Bottom line: lists aren’t specific enough.

Creating an Effective To-Do List

Your need is to transition from a to-do list that doesn’t work to one that can help you be productive. Here are the steps to take.

Breaking Down Your List

Here’s a model for creating a well-defined list:


      • Create a master list – this will be your good, old-fashioned brain dump. The one that you’ve had hanging on your fridge for six months. And the one in your planner. And the one on your phone.
        • Your master list will be a compilation of everything you want to get done in, say, the next six months.
        • Any task that is on your mind belongs on this list.
      • Break your master list down – divide up your list and categorize your tasks. There are various ways you can do this. You can categorize your lists by areas of life or by priority. A few examples are:
        • Family
        • Home
        • Business
        • Fitness

        If you don’t categorize your lists by priority, do so once you’ve placed each goal or task in the appropriate list.

      • Now that you’ve got your “sub” lists, break those down to even smaller tasks:
        • “Prepare for job interview” becomes
          • Research company
          • Research location and commute
          • Print resume
          • Practice interview skills
        • “Clean the house” becomes
          • Sweep and mop the floors
          • Dust
          • Scrub bathroom
          • Catch up on laundry

Suddenly, your list is longer, but your tasks are much more manageable because you fully understand what needs to be done.

Taking your task list from a vague conglomeration of stressful things you need to tackle and breaking them down into easily achievable goals will increase your productivity. You’ll start checking things off your to-do list in no time!

Use a System

Once you figure out your task list, build a system to help you stay productive. You can develop your own, but you probably wouldn’t be here if developing a system was easy. Or you can use one of the many that are out there. 

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of planners, apps and charts that exist. They help you set a target date to accomplish each task with milestones along the way. These are tools that you can employ in your productivity system to help you stay productive and accomplish your goals.

Remember, all the tools in the world won’t help if you don’t have the discipline to execute. 

What you really need is a system, routines built with better habits. 

Your productivity system might include a person or persons–a mentor, a trainer, a coach, or peers pursuing similar goals. It might be an external or internal trigger that tells you when your day job is done, it’s time to go to a specific location to clock in a session of activity. 

Maybe it’s a coffee shop or a library to work on that personal project. Maybe it’s the local track to improve strength.

This is what will make you productive.

Create a schedule

In order to hold yourself accountable to your task list and protect yourself from procrastinating, set reasonable goals with a schedule.

Use your master list and sublists to fill your daily, weekly and monthly schedule. Your master list items will likely be monthly goals while your sub-list items will likely be weekly or daily goals.

If your weekly task is to catch up on laundry, don’t wait until the last night to do every load. Pick a specific time in your schedule to do it. Set up a notification in your phone if you have to. One day, set yourself a realistic daily goal of, “Do one load on laundry.” 

Give yourself three to five daily goals that each work toward a larger goal on your master list. By getting specific with what you need to do to accomplish, you’ll find it easier to hold yourself accountable and cross off more items faster.

Be willing to adjust

As we change, our goals change. Sometimes life throws us curve balls just as we think we’ve got everything all figured out. The important thing to remember is to not be too hard on yourself.

Stay open-minded and flexible to adjusting your goals and substituting a new one for one that no longer fits into your master plan.

If you find yourself unable to complete daily and weekly goals, it might be a good idea to set aside one or two days a month just to catch up. Giving yourself one or two catch-up days can help prevent your low-priority list from becoming too long and unmanageable.

Lower priority goals tend to be pushed to the wayside and rolled over week after week. It can be really difficult to find time for certain things, especially ones that involve self-care.

Or maybe the goals that are constantly on the back burner shouldn’t even be goals anymore. 

The great thing about your task management system is that you can completely customize it to fit your lifestyle. The goal of your system is to decrease stress and increase productivity.

Remember that one person’s productivity system might not be the same as yours. Find a flow that works for you that keeps you looking back at all you’ve accomplished with pride and, ultimately, relaxation.

Speaking of relaxation, be sure to include a self-care task every now and again! It doesn’t matter how accomplished you are in your goals if you aren’t taking care of the most important thing: yourself.


There’s no doubt that to-do lists have the potential to increase productivity, decrease stress and help you manage your life. 

However, without proper structure and the knowledge of where to begin, it might feel like you’re paddling with a single oar, spinning ‘round and ‘round, beginning each day at the same place you started yesterday. 

Now that you’re armed with this new system, you’ve got another oar to get you to where you’re headed.

Create an Action Plan for Your Goals

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