8 To-Do List Mistakes You're Probably Making (And What To Do Instead)

These common blunders could be making you less efficient, productivity experts say.
These tips will help you organize your to-do list so you actually get more done.
Jamie Grill via Getty Images
These tips will help you organize your to-do list so you actually get more done.

Creating a to-do list can help you map out the day ahead and keep you focused on what needs to get done. But if you’re not intentional about it, a to-do list can turn into a mile-long brain dump that leaves you overwhelmed and scatterbrained.

We asked productivity experts to cite some of the most common to-do list blunders they see and offer advice on how to approach them.

Mistake No. 1: Not writing it down.

This may seem obvious, but it’s worth mentioning: When you try to manage your to-do list in your head, you’re likely to forget items. Jotting it down on paper (or digitally in your Notes or other mobile app, if you prefer) gives you something concrete to refer to when your brain feels like mush.

“Writing down what you need to do on your to-do list helps you commit to those tasks,” Jan Yager, a sociologist and time management coach, told HuffPost. “You don’t have a lot of things pulling you in a million directions because you have a plan right in front of you.”

Mistake No. 2: Treating it like a wish list.

Sure, you’d love to finally make some headway on that kitchen organization project you’ve been putting off for months, but are you really going to get to it today? Be honest with yourself: If you know it’s not happening, don’t put it on your daily list.

“There is no virtue gained by putting something on your to-do list and then not doing it,” said Laura Vanderkam, a time management expert and author of the forthcoming book “Tranquility by Tuesday: 9 Ways to Calm the Chaos and Make Time for What Matters.” “It’s just as not done as if you’d never put it on the list in the first place — only now you feel bad, too! That’s the worst of all possible outcomes.”

“There is no virtue gained by putting something on your to-do list and then not doing it.”

- Laura Vanderkam, author of "Tranquility by Tuesday"

Instead, keep a separate master list of those bigger tasks or projects you’re contemplating but might not have the bandwidth to handle right now — what productivity expert David Allen calls the “someday maybe” list. That way, you’ll have a record of these items to refer to when resources (time, money, energy) open up, but it won’t bog down your daily list.

“Remember that a to-do list should be a tool to making you more productive,” Yager said. “It should not be a visual representation of magical thinking about what you would like to accomplish.”

Mistake No. 3: Including too many tasks.

One of the biggest to-do list errors, according Vanderkam? Making it overly ambitious. It’s better to keep it short — just a few items! — and prioritize only what needs to be done in a given day.

“A to-do list should not be all the things in the universe that you need or want to do. It should be the three to five things you intend to do today,” she said. “Yes, you have more than that going on, but ideally your to-do list is a contract with yourself. You will get through those things no matter what comes up.”

Less pressing items can be spread across the rest of the week or month.

We often overestimate what we can do in a day and underestimate what we can do in longer time frames,” said Mike Vardy, founder of Productivityist and host of the podcast “A Productive Conversation.”

Mistake No. 4: Not breaking down bigger projects into smaller chunks.

A task is a single item. Too often, we have multistep projects masquerading as tasks on our lists, Vardy said.

“When we fail to break these projects down to the smallest particles we need them to be so we can make progress on them, we won’t be as productive as we can be,” he said. “So if you have tasks on your list that have multiple steps or feature conjunctions like ‘and,’ clarify what you need to do by breaking them down further.”

When your to-do list is a mix of big stuff (e.g., build a new website for your company) and smaller stuff (e.g., order more business cards), you’ll find that the bite-sized items get crossed off and the larger ones keep getting put off, productivity coach Grace Marshall said.

“That’s because when we’re in action mode, we want tangible actions we can actually complete — and get a dopamine hit that feels good!” Marshall, author of “How to be Really Productive,” told HuffPost. ”Think of it like an addictive computer game. You’re never asked to save the world in one fell swoop. That’s too big! Instead, you’re presented with one level at a time, one problem to solve at a time.”

Mistake No. 5: Not being specific and action-oriented.

Vardy’s advice: “Verbify” every task on your list. So instead of jotting down something vague like “Cameron email,” try, “pull sales numbers from last quarter for Cameron.” Being as specific as possible when making your to-do list will help the day run more smoothly.

“Think about this way: Imagine if you were to hand the task in question to someone else,” Vardy said. “When you put a verb at the beginning of it, you make it simpler for that person to understand what to do. Your future self is that person, so give yourself that gift of less confusion and more flow.”

Mistake No. 6: Treating your inbox like a to-do list.

If you let your email determine the course of your day, it’s far too easy to get stuck in reactive mode, putting out little fires all day long, Marshall said.

“Let’s face it: The emails never stop coming in, so no wonder you feel like you never have time for everything else!” she said.

“We often overestimate what we can do in a day and underestimate what we can do in longer time frames.”

- Mike Vardy, founder of Productivityist

It’s tough to move forward on your goals when you’re catering to other people’s whims all day.

“Think of your strategic objectives — the high-impact, proactive projects, your goals for the year or the development areas that come up on your performance review. How often do these things spontaneously appear in your inbox?” Marshall said.

Mistake No. 7: Not budgeting time for rest.

Factoring in time for mental breaks and activities that will help you recharge — such as a walk around the block with your dog or a five-minute breathing exercise — is just as important as crossing off the other items on your to-do list, environmental psychologist and well-being consultant Lee Chambers said.

“It’s often seen as counterintuitive to list something that is not seen as being productive on a to-do list, but having a short period to regenerate and disconnect from the previous task allows you the cognitive ability to connect more deeply and effectively to the next task,” he told HuffPost. “It’s also beneficial to make rest nonnegotiable, and helps you balance your energy, work more deeply, stay focused and prevent mistakes and even burnout.”

Mistake No. 8: Adding a bunch of little tasks just for the sake of crossing them off.

Checking things off may give you a temporary feeling of accomplishment, but that doesn’t mean you should fill your list with a ton of easy-to-complete tasks.

“While there is a tiny benefit of adding all the little things and habits to your list and then crossing them off, it is likely to be detrimental as it makes a list harder to prioritize, less simple, and can actually leave you thinking you’ve won the day when you’ve completed very little of the important aspects of your list,” Chambers said. “It can also fuel elements of toxic productivity, leaving no space for rest, and leave you procrastinating on the bigger projects.”

For the smaller day-to-day things (like flossing or taking your vitamins, for example), Chambers recommended using a habit tracker instead.

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