Why I got rid of to-do lists

Aug 4, 2023

To-do lists. Everyone knows what they are, yet no one seems to figure out the best way to use them.

Over the years, I’ve tried countless to-do apps, including Todoist, Reminders, Things, Google Tasks, Fantastical, Wunderlist, TickTick, Amie, etc. I’ve tried creating daily routines to organize my to-do lists, using shortcuts and AI to optimize the process. 1-3-5 rule, the 3 list method, the one thing, agile methodology—you name it. I’ve tried them all.

The problem with to-do lists is not the workflow or the product, but more the philosophy of task management. Growing up, we were taught in school that there was a finite set of things we needed to do. We were given student planners, so we knew how to manage our time and finish our homework. That system works well for education but breaks down upon entering adulthood.

Suddenly our list of things to do goes from finite to infinite. There’s always another work task or an errand to run. Managing to-do lists turns from a productive activity into a chore itself. You write down a task, delay it, push it to “backlog” or “someday,” only to pull it out again and never finish it. The dopamine hits of checking off an item are replaced by cortisol spikes from looking at the massive list you're somehow supposed to stay on top of.

Earlier this year, during a very stressful time of my job, I decided to delete my to-do apps. I replaced them with a pen and paper. Every morning I sit down and spend 5 minutes writing down what I need to work on. Some might still call this a to-do list, but I view it as a priority list.

There are no backlogs or reminders. I start each day with a new piece of paper and write down what matters. If it’s not important enough to remember, it’s not worth doing. In a way, it’s survival of the fittest for tasks.

Here are my takeaways:

  1. When stressed, limiting yourself to five minutes to write tasks helps immensely. You'll be surprised how hard it is to come up with truly important tasks. Most days, my list is less than three things.

  2. It's difficult to let go of old systems. At first, I worried I'd forget important tasks like following up with someone. But I didn't forget anything critical. If I forgot, it probably wasn't that important.

  3. I'm much happier and more productive having switched from an “I need to complete all these tasks" mindset to a “I’ll only complete the important ones." There are only 24 hours in a day, and responsibilities increase with age. It's impossible to do everything, so do what matters.

Lastly, this system works for me, but it might not work for you. If you've made it this far, you're likely unhappy with your productivity. So go ahead, throw out your to-do list, or try something new in pursuit of a more productive, peaceful life.