07/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Mar 17, 2015

Why To Do Lists Don't Work

Last week, we looked at Stress Free Ways To Get More Done. Evidently, that idea resonated with quite a few people. Part of the problem has to do with having multiple, competing priorities that all seem to be screaming at you for attention.

In February, I offered a few thoughts about how to keep track of all those incomplete items that take up at least some of your attention. That would seem to lead us toward using to do lists to keep track of what has your attention.

In a way, that is what I'm suggesting. However:

To Do Lists Don't Work - Unless, of Course, They Do!

Many of us have tried "to do" lists and, to be honest, a "to do" list works better than not having one at all. Or at least they kind of work. Sometimes.

If you have a "to do" list, where do you put it? Do you write out a "Things to do list for today" on a piece of paper? Perhaps you even have a pad pre-labeled "Things To Do Today." If so, what do you do with your to do list when you get to the end of the day?

If you're like most people, you probably wind up with several items that you didn't get done. Do you then create a brand new list the next day, copying over those items that you didn't get done the day before?

Sound familiar? If so, you may find that some of the same items keep getting transferred from one list to the next, over and over again. If you do that long enough, you may stop transferring those items, or, worse yet, you may abandon your "to do" list altogether. After all, who needs a list reminding them of all the things they keep putting off? Enough of the guilt thing already!

If you are more sophisticated, you might put your "to do" list directly on your calendar. Perhaps you even assign a time to each item. And then what happens? End of the day rolls around and somewhere between a handful and a bunch of items still aren't done. Now what?

Thank goodness for computers - all we have to do is select the item and assign it a new date and time. Again, and again, and again. And, after a while, it no longer gets transferred.

"To do" Lists Are the Buggy Whip of Productivity

It doesn't matter whether you use paper and pencil, a Word document, Outlook, or some fancy "to do" list manager - they all suffer from the same problem. The notion of "to do" list manager was dead way before we hit the 21st century. In fact, it was dead by the time we hit the '70's.

Back in the 1920's, Charles Schwab, the first president of US Steel and later founder of Bethlehem steel, found that he needed a way to get more done in the day. Legend has it that he issued a challenge offering to pay any amount within reason for ideas that would significantly improve his ability to get things done.

Ivy Lee, often cited as the creator of modern public relations, apparently got wind of the challenge and offered Mr. Schwab what was then an innovative idea. His suggestion was that Mr. Schwab and his executives begin each day by taking out a sheet of paper and writing down the ten most important tasks in front of them for that day. They were to then number them in terms of priority, and begin working on "job one." When, finished, they could move to #2 an so on until the list was done. Once the top ten were out of the way, they were free to do anything else.

Apparently, Mr. Schwab and his executives tried the idea for a month and received such incredible value from it in terms of accelerating their ability to be productive, that Mr. Schwab cut a check to Mr. Lee for a substantial amount of money. I have heard versions of the story ranging from a low of $10,000 to as much as $25-35,000. Even $10K is a significant amount of money, especially back then!

The "to do" list was a great idea for 1920-something. Back then, you could actually get 10 things done in a day without being interrupted all day long. Telephones were high tech and in low supply; email, texting, and cell phones hadn't been imagined.

In today's world, no sooner do you get started on something than the phone rings, the boss wants you, the customer has a problem, or any of a dozen different unplanned interruptions take place.

If you're trying to work the 1920's concept of a to do list executed in priority order, about the only way you can make that happen is by disappearing and unplugging from all things electronic.

The real world, however, requires a different work model.

Our next step is to get a real world list of all the things that have your attention, and get them into some kind of reliable system that will enable you to keep track of all your projects, goals, commitments, to do's, and next actions. (Cautionary note: if you haven't already compiled your "Incompletion Trigger List" then I strongly suggest you do so.)

Notice that I didn't say the system will help you get them all done - just keep track of them. Getting things done comes later. The first you need to do is get everything out of hiding and into a form where you can organize it and develop a system that will work for you.

In many respects, your list of incomplete items will become a 'to do' list that makes sense - you now have all the things you think you need to do in one place. From there, all you have to do is keep track of the list, check off the things you get done, add new ones, and keep the ball rolling.

However, that process can be a bit dulling and can lead to "why bother" thinking as the list never seems to end.

Next up, we need a 21st century way of managing all those "to do's."

Stay tuned!

I'd love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at)


If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at)