Why I Don’t Make “To-Do” Lists

to-do list

NOTE FROM BOB: If you have been around the site for a while you know that we have many writers with differing opinions and approaches to things. I personally prefer this and love hearing opposing views as they help me consider new things that I may not have and help me to continue to grow. Today’s post is no different. I am actually a huge fan of to-do lists and can’t imagine my life without Todoist.com, but I think Carol brings up some really good points in this article that will definitely be helpful to a lot of readers. Enjoy!


Previously I shared with you how I keep my goals for the New Year in front of my face. I want you to know that it’s working out great. But in the day-to-day workings of a writing business, that visual only shows goals. How am I supposed to turn that into a daily task list?

My Problem with To-Do Lists

First, I have a problem with to-do lists. I am an overachiever. When I make a to-do list, it will have a bazillion things on it. I will put everything on that list from “write a new blog post” to “trim my fingernails.” I will put on that list absolutely everything I want to do, ever, for everything. Then, that evening when I’m looking over my list to see how I did, I end up discouraged because only two things were crossed off.

“Good grief, Carol. You only did two things on your list today. What did you waste your time on?” That’s how I think. And then I go to bed feeling defeated, like I didn’t accomplish anything.

It doesn’t matter that the plumbing backed up and that I had a flat on the way to the hardware store.

It doesn’t matter that when my son put the spare on that we discovered it was also flat.

It doesn’t matter that when I finally returned home I realized I had left the stove on because smoke was coming out the kitchen window when I pulled in the driveway and I had a melted pan on the stovetop.

It doesn’t matter that I splashed drain-opener on myself while fixing the pipe and ended up in the doctor’s office to treat the subsequent burns.

What matters is that I only did two things on my to-do list!

I cannot give myself a break.

My “Not To-Do” Graphics

The first step I’ve taken to overcome feeling defeated on a daily basis is to create a “not-to-do list.” This isn’t really a list; it’s another graphic. It could look like this:

Not to do list 001

Take each section of your Goal Graphic and paste it in the center of a piece of paper. Then write down ideas for accomplishing each goal, in pencil, as much as you can fit on the paper. (Do not use a pen, use a pencil. I’ll explain later.) On this example, I have lists of blog post ideas, people to call, and websites to look at – everything I can think of to do. Do this for each section of your Goal Graphic and when you are done, you will have five of these brainstorming sheets. I call them my not-to-do graphics. You can call them whatever you want.

Each day, when I can get to my desk, I look at these sheets and pick one thing to do and get busy. Ideally, I will do one thing from each sheet. (Remember the “five actionable steps” from the last post?) But if I get interrupted and don’t get that far, that’s okay. I just work on one thing at a time. When I get that one thing done, I erase it from my not-to-do graphic. I do not cross it off. I do not want the temptation of going back to see how many things I’ve crossed off; I just want it to disappear.

My “What I Did Today” List

After I erase something from my not-to-do graphic, I write it on my “what-I-did-today list.” I do not keep this list on a piece of paper because, like my Goal Graphic, I don’t want to lose it. I keep this list in Evernote. You could keep it as a Word document, or on a phone app. It doesn’t matter where you keep it, as long as you keep it in a prominent location. This picture is what my what-I-did-today list looks like:

what i did today

Did you notice that I also put everything else I did on there, too? I work from home. I am a mom and a homemaker. I attempt to work part-time hours on my business but sometimes life gets in the way. Plumbing backs up, tires go flat, kids get sick. But because I attend to these minor emergencies, that doesn’t mean I was non-productive. And I don’t want to look at my “list” and be lied to. This method might seem backwards, but it gives me a truthful picture of my productivity and keeps me from going to bed each night feeling defeated.

Don’t let your to-do list get you down. Be encouraged by looking at the full picture. Start a not-to-do and a what-I-did-today list. You will be surprised about how much you actually get done.

What are your thoughts on to-do lists? Do you find them helpful or do you regularly get discouraged by your to-do list like Carol? Leave a comment! What other productivity tips do you like?

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18 Comments
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  1. My approach is a combination of both. Yes, I write a To Do list (I wish it was daily but I am not that disciplined), and the very 1st item on it is “write To Do list”. That way I feel a sense of accomplishment once it is written and I can cross off something right away. I even go so far (too far?) and put on the list “brush teeth”, “get dressed”, and other normal activities. I find on days when I don’t make up a list I am flitting from one thing to another, never really accomplishing much. Like today…. Hmmm. OK, I am off to write today’s lust, even though it is 2:00 p.m. At least it will force me to focus.

  2. Vicki V.

    Carol,
    I, too, get discouraged after I write a to-do list and only cross off one or two things, and after a while I have to rewrite my list because it’s such a mess. Much easier to do the pencil thing, like you suggest. And I like the what-I-did-today idea. I’ve been writing that on a wall calendar that I have, but I tend to run out of room, and it will look a lot nicer and more legible as, say, a Word doc. Thanks for the ideas!

  3. Yes, I use to-do lists and find them enormously helpful. When I complete a task, striking through that task gives me a sens of accomplishment and helps keep me on track and focused. Devotions aren’t listed because that’s how I begin each day; nothing moves forward until devotions are finished. Piddly things like sweeping the floor aren’t on my list; those things always have to be done and are simply worked into and around the things that actually move me forward or make money. I have a few large headers then broken down into smaller pieces.
    When Dave, my husband, died, I made the decision I’d do nothing unless it was directly related to moving me forward or making money to keep farm, home, me going. Charity work is knitted hats for folks, no outside volunteer work. Been there, done that, it’s time to let others pick up the slack.
    It was difficult to make the decision to focus on me and my needs but, for this season in life, it’s necessary. There is no one else to pick up the slack; it all depends on God and me so my focus has been, intentionally, narrowed.
    I’ve kept high standards but lowered my expectations; life is a bit easier because of that decision.

  4. I actually do find To-Do lists helpful, I’m a rabbit trail person and get very distracted by just about anything, as well as sometimes forgetful. I sit down at the computer to write an e-mail to someone and three hours later… So for me To-Do lists help me focus, and when I get distracted I only glance at it and it helps me get back on track. I use a sticky-note app for my computer desktop as it’s where I get the most easily distracted.

    I do like your idea for the What I did list (I might start that) I also like how you erase rather than cross it out. My computer desktop sticky-notes just get erased as I finish them.

  5. apologies for mistakes, the gray font is most difficult for me to see.

  6. Well put. I agree with the fact that at times we don’t take into account daily life when trying to accomplish some larger goal. We need to reinforce our self worth by taking a step back and considering our lives hollistically.

  7. Thanks Carol for starting the conversation and to Sandra for sharing your story, I applied the principles you shared (Sandra) to my current situation/moving jobs, as I have been searching for inspiration to help me decide, and I think I found it…so Thankyou to the both of you….

  8. Have written to do list but never followed them. I figured it out that there’s a time for everything. Ecl 3: 1-8.

  9. It’s exactly the same for me! I also write super long to-do lists and feel defeated when I only cross off two things! This is a really good idea, Carol.

    I once spent an entire month documenting everything I did and the time frame while I did each thing. I realized I do so much. I ended up doing a lot less the next month because I realized how hard I had been on myself. I need to stop over-achieving and just start regular-achieving ;)

  10. Carol, I feel exactly the same way – discouraged at the end of the night because my to-do list is still full. On Saturday, I made a long list for Sunday – a day or rest, right? – and the only thing I crossed off was something that my daughter actually completed for me. I felt even worse because I didn’t do a thing. However, all the things I did do like cleaning, organizing and laundry never made it to the list. I have been looking at this the wrong way.

    I am going to take your advice and make a “what I did” list. I like the idea of crossing things off, but the erasing idea on your “not to do” list is a better way of looking at it. I want the item off my list and when I scratch it off, it is technically still there. Erasing it means it is gone.

    Thanks for this post. It made me feel a lot better about myself. :)

  11. Sue LeBreton

    Great advice Carol. I too tend to put too many things on my to-do list. Going to try this approach. Thanks.

  12. Honestly, I can’t live a weekday without creating a to-do list. I often forget things easily so a to-do list a must-have for me. A to-do list also saved me a fortune! I remember placing in my to-do list to review my loan documents because I’ve been hearing some buzz about PPI mis-selling. Right then and there I reviewed my docs and found I got a payment protection insurance and not aware about it. I spoke to a PPI Claim Back Company and resolved the issue.

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