The Case Against To-Do Lists—Plus, What to Try Instead

Read why guest blogger Adam Costa is firmly against to-do lists and how he stays organized instead. 

QDT Editor
August 26, 2016

When it comes to productivity, I'm firmly against to-do lists. I believe that to-do lists are distracting at best—and downright detrimental to your productivity at worst.

To-Do Lists: The Good

The wonderful thing about to-do lists is that they allow you to empty your mind. By getting all those ideas floating around your head into one place, to-do lists make it easy for you to prioritize your goals and figure out what you should be working on now.

But to-do lists have several shortcomings, too.

To-Do Lists: The Bad (and The Ugly)

In my opinion, to-do lists have three serious shortcomings:

  1. They do not provide context.  A to-do list is nothing more than a glorified shopping list; there's no simple way to see how each item ties into each other and the bigger picture. Because of this, it's easy for your to-do lists to become highly tactical, which means you may not be working on what matters most.

  2. They do not allow you to visualize your work. To-do lists are usually nothing more than a vertical list of text with checkboxes. Because of this layout, you're unable to visualize the flow of your work and see the bottlenecks.

  3. They do not let you retroactively look at your projects. Once you’ve marked a task as complete, it disappears into the nether regions, never to be seen again. True, some to-do lists give you the option to view completed items, but honestly, who ever use that feature?

Ever since I’ve ditched the to-do list, I’ve become much, much more productive.

For example, I have:

  • Increased my income eleven-fold

  • Run a 50K (31 miles)

  • Lived in over 15 countries over the past 8 years

I don't believe any of these goals would have been completed with a to-do list. In order to achieve my biggest goals, I needed a system that provided context (“Is this the most important thing I should be working on right now?”) and helped me understand the tradeoffs of choosing one task over another. This system is called kanban.

Kanban: 10x More Productive

Kanban (pronounced “Kahn-Bahn”) is Japanese for “a card you can see and touch.” Using a kanban system, you move cards through a board to help you visualize your workflow through different stages.

You can create a kanban using Trello, which is free. Here’s a screenshot of a kanban in Trello:

Note there are four columns:

  • Backlog (items you may or may not ever do);

  • To-Do (items you will do in the future);

  • Doing (what you’re doing today); and

  • Done (what you’ve completed).

Each column makes it easy for you to visualize how your work flows from the backlog to completion. By visualizing our work, we instantly see what we're working on, what’s up next, and where the bottlenecks are.

Kanban also helps you minimize your work-in-progress. (These are the items in your “Doing” column.) For example, you could limit your work-in-progress to only three items in your “Doing” column at any one time; that way, you never feel overwhelmed.

But what if another item in your “To-Do” column needs immediate attention? Simple. You move that task to the “Doing” column—but only if you move one of the three current items in the “Doing” column back to the “To-Do” column. The ability to view the tradeoffs between tasks is perhaps the greatest advantage of kanban over a traditional To-Do list; it forces you to focus and not get distracted.

What's the Trick to Actually Using Kanban?

Kanban will change your life—if you use it. And the easiest way to use your kanban is simple: keep it in front of you.

For example, set your kanban as your homepage. (Or post it on your wall if you’re using Post-It notes.)

Leave that tab open, always, and review it throughout the day.

Pro tip: You can also set your kanban to be your new tab in Chrome.

Here's how to do that:

  • Install the New Tab Redirect Chrome extension.

  • Type chrome://extensions/ into your browser bar (where you type in URLs).

  • Scroll down to the “New Tab Redirect” and click “Options.”

  • Enter the URL of your kanban board.

Now every time that you open a new tab in your browser, your kanban will be the first thing you see.

Give the kanban a shot—and let me know here in the comments how it’s working out for you!


Adam Costa runs KeepInspiring.me, a blog dedicated to inspiration and motivation, and 10xToday.com, where you can access free e-courses on how to become 10 times better at life. Adam is also the author of 10x Life: A breakthrough system to improve focus, develop productive habits, and maximize willpower-in 5 minutes a day.

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