To-Do lists are one of the most commonly-touted productivity tools in the world. And there is a good reason for it.

The simple explanation is that you will always have a number of things to be done. To avoid forgetting, it is best to list them down then strike them off once done.

But how come the expected effectiveness never materializes?

Although several answers may be given to this question, e.g. it’s a matter of discipline, there is really something about this tool that facilitates the disappointment.

One survey by LinkedIn showed that only 11% of professionals finish all the tasks in their To-Do lists.

The truth is, there is something about To-Do lists that people are generally yet to understand. Sure enough, it is a productivity tool but for it to be useful, something somewhere must change in the way it is being used.

In this article, we will show you what the shortcomings of the To-Do list are and how to overcome them. You will be glad to know that there are just a few considerations which need to be taken into account. After that, a few changes and you will be good to go.

You can then end your day with joy having struck off all those tasks because you finished them.


Very many people have been disappointed by this great tool. Some have even said that To-Do lists can’t work. Although there are arguably good arguments given, it still remains to be one of the most popular time management tools.

But why would it be popular yet a majority of those using it never benefit from it? Below are some reasons for this.

1. Distractions

This will remain to be the biggest problem of all, and the reason is pretty simple. Life never happens exactly the way you plan. Something will always come up. And although that thing was never expected, it still has to be taken care of. Some common distractions are:

Impromptu meetings which were never in your schedule and were not communicated beforehand. If there was any communication, probably just five minutes before the meeting. This may be necessitated by an emergency or the boss saw the need to address an issue.

Social media is one of the most enjoyable distractions around. Being social beings, nothing feels as good as having a chat with a friend. Or just updating yourself on their current status. You also get to broadcast your thoughts as well as see who your secret admirers are.

Too much office chatting has an effect that is similar to that of social media, only that this chatting is with people in the same place you are in. From office gossip to the weekend adventures, the topics can be as many as they can be interesting.

2. Wrong planning

This is another major reason for the failing of To-Do lists. Planning is key in everything you do and when you don’t plan, things tend to go wrong rather quickly. This is inescapable and it’s a guarantee you will feel frustrated at the end of the day.

Wrong planning can occur in various ways:

Having ambiguous tasks which make your mind start working to understand the nature of the work even before the work begins. When you have tasks like “Researching” or “Working” on your list, you will easily lose the grip on the list.

This is because you do not know where to start. In some instances, you may not even remember what you meant to do when you wrote “working.” Despite the amount of work in your in-tray, it can always be organized into specific tasks.

For example, you could have tasks like “File last weeks invoices,” or “Draft departmental budget” or even “Source for stationary suppliers.” All these tasks can be part of your day’s work but being ambiguous is similar to not having the list at all.

Writing your list at the wrong time is yet another problem. There is just no way you can wait till today to plan for today. Yes, you can do it but for better results, this is not the way to go. If you are planning for tomorrow, do it today.

The idea is to ensure that once you wake up, you immediately know what you are to do. This is very crucial because the first hours of the day are important since your brain is fresh. If you therefore waste that time, you will feel lazy and unmotivated before it’s noon.

3. Wrong priorities

This is so much a problem that it affects not only your work but your life in general. If you can’t prioritize well, then your life will generally bear the brunt of the busy life you live.

You will spend time everyday living and before you know it, the year is over and you have no achievements to brag about.

If you cannot decide what is important, then you will strive to do everything. Unfortunately, you will do nothing meaningful to propel you towards your life’s goals. You may start many tasks but finish none. This is regardless of how skilled you are.

One word that gets thrown around often when discussing priorities is multitasking. To some, this is the one most essential skill if you are seeking success. The argument goes like this: “Since there are so many things to be done, if I juggle them well enough, I will finish them all.”

Science, a reasonably reliable adviser, points out that the mind cannot function like a computer. Whereas computers can multitask, you can’t. The nature of your working memory operates significantly differently from that of computers.

Although computers can handle multitasking well, your brain will easily get tired at the constant shuffling of ideas and operations in and out of your concentration. If you cannot prioritize your tasks, you will not be able to utilize your resources (mind, time etc) well.

Prioritizing your work

Setting priorities is certainly a challenging tasks in itself. You are not sure whether a task is urgent or important. Or both. This can lead to confusion yet as you are thinking about the differences, time is moving.

There is however a very simple and helpful way of setting priorities. This method is mainly known as a way of beating procrastination. It’s called the Eisenhower Box method. You may recognize the name resembling that of a former US president, Dwight Eisenhower (October 14, 1890 – March 28, 1969).

He is the man credited with this method of prioritizing tasks. With a very successful career in the army and a highly productive life, he ended up becoming the 34th president of the United States.

This method breaks tasks into four categories:

  1. Urgent and important tasks (to be done immediately)
  2. Important, but not urgent (to be scheduled for later)
  3. Urgent, but not important (to be delegated to someone else)
  4. Neither urgent nor important (tasks to be eliminated)

Use this method to categorize the tasks you have and deal with them accordingly. Commit to it and though you may struggle categorizing everything at first, you will soon see the benefits.

Having unreasonable lists

As though having distractions and wrong planning aren’t enough problems, you could also be having very long lists. These lists could be long due to the inclusion of some unnecessary activities like having breakfast or taking a shower.

Primarily, there is nothing wrong with such activities. However, they will make your list be too long for your brain’s comfort. When you look at that list in the morning, you will quickly get tired instead of being motivated to strike off the completed tasks.

Purpose to shrink your list to the minimum. Tasks which are a no-brainer should be avoided. For example, the possibilities are low that your body won’t remind you of the need to take breakfast. An empty stomach will faithfully kick-start the communication.

With a trimmed list, you look at it in the morning and immediately see the possibility of finishing all the tasks. You will see the possibility since you only have a few things to accomplish. This early morning motivation will get you ready to go through the day.


It can be disappointing to be unable to make use of a tool which is supposed to help you stay on top of your own game. But as always, there is a way out. Below we look at the measures you can take to change the situation.

Use only one list

In an effort to achieve maximum productivity, you may have heard and followed the advice of separating work from life. This is a good advice, though not very practical. What is meant is that what happens at home stays at home and what happens at work stays at work.

When it comes to your To-Do lists, there is some logic in this. However, your mind will fall short of following this logic after some time. With a list for home, work, while on the road etc, you will have too many lists which require your attention.

What happens is that you may not be able to finish all you were to do before leaving for work. You get to work already with some level of pressure that you have to compensate for the time lost.

This stress will obviously affect your work and together with the reasons stated above for your list failing, you won’t be able to complete your work list.

You will probably get home quite frustrated and not happy with yourself. You pick your home list and try getting through it and all you have is more stress. You will really have little success and possibly more stress. Unfinished tasks are a sure source of stress.

When you use one list for all your tasks, you benefit from having a central point of reference. Whether you are at home or at work, everything is on one list. Put your attention on that one list and you will be just fine.

This helps you have a more peaceful time at work. You do not have to worry about other things awaiting your precious attention elsewhere. If those things are not on this particular list, then they are irrelevant.

This will also help you keep things in perspective. You see, when you have several lists, each one may have five tasks on it. If you have only two lists, then you have ten tasks to perform on that day.

As you handle one list, you may think to yourself that five things are not many yet in reality, you have ten items to cross off.

If you were to have one list and put all the ten items on it, you will realize that there are many tasks to be worked on. You will then be prompted to either remove some tasks or reschedule them. Or delegate some. This increases your chances of finishing the day’s tasks.

Use the 1-3-5 rule

This rule advises that for every day, you should have one big task, three medium-sized ones and five small ones. It builds on the fact that you will find it easier doing smaller tasks. Once these are done, several medium-size ones won’t be a big problem.

And of course, you will only be able to successfully tackle one big problem on any given day.

This rule makes things easier especially because it is the bigger tasks that provide the biggest challenges. Used right, this rule can offer you the much-needed relief and joy of finishing your tasks at work.

Whatever your position, you can easily categorize your tasks accordingly. The small ones, for example, replying to emails and proof-reading a report, can be handled in probably one hour.

The medium-sized ones could be tasks like having a small meeting with your staff, interviewing an intern, getting some reports from the system etc. These are tasks which will typically take around twenty to thirty minutes each. When you put them together, you may need two hours to complete them.

Lets say you spend eight hours at work everyday, including lunch. You have spent three hours already, now you remain with around four hours. If you commit this time to your big task, you will likely finish it before the end of the day.

The beauty of this rule is that you can still break the big tasks into smaller sub-tasks and apply the same rule to them. However, it is important at this point to remember that you are handling one big task.

That means that you cannot leave any of the new small tasks hanging. They are all connected and are part of a bigger picture. The rule will in this case be an aid to help you complete the big task.

Have a ‘Done’ list

Talking about To-Do lists, you can also make use of a ‘Done’ list. This is essentially a list of the tasks you have completed. It is quite similar to simply crossing off the finished tasks.

This comes in to help you reflect on your success. If you had ten items on your To-Do, then you should ideally have ten on your ‘Done’ list. This is your trophy, the proof of your success.

If you only have seven items in your ‘Done’ list, then it means you fell short by three tasks. You can then look back to understand what brought about this result. You therefore get an opportunity to review your performance.

What you see as the reason for not finishing your tasks is what you will now strategize on dealing with. Efficiency is always an outcome of reviews and improvements.

To help you out on this, here is a great tool to use in this digital age. The To-Do Prime To-Do list software will help you in coming up with a ‘Done’ list by doing it for you. Since it can be hectic creating two different lists while working fast to achieve your goals, this app covers you.

It has categories on the left and what is pending is listed under the ‘Inbox’ category. Once a task has been completed, it is moved to a section labeled ‘Completed.’ Since all this information is available on the same window, it is easy to see your progress at the end of the day.

Use the timeboxing method

The timeboxing method is the greatest addition you can have to your To-Do list. In fact, if you’re not sure about what changes to make to your To-Do lists, go with this one. No matter what other change you do, this one will still be relevant and useful.

Timeboxing works by defining a period of time in which you will work on each specific task. If your list has five items, depending on how big the tasks are, you start by estimating the time it could take to finish each one.

With these estimations, block some time off so as to know that you will start working on a task at a certain time and finish by a certain time. An example of this is shown below:

Task No. Task Name Time Estimate Time Allocation
1 Bake bread (for b/fast) 1 hour 7:00 – 8:00 AM
2 Physiotherapy session 1.5 hours 9:00 – 10:30 AM
3 Reply to emails 1 hour 11:00 – 12:00 PM
4 Analyze weekly sales 1.5 hours 1:00 PM – 2:30 PM
5 Prepare report (presentation) 2 hours 3:00 PM – 5:00 PM

You will notice some margins in the time allocation. These will be discussed below. This is however a simple example of how timeboxing can be used.

When you set aside time for a specific task, your mind becomes aware of something that is coming up. And since it is not merely in your mind, the chances of remembering are increased. Also, anything that is written stays in memory longer than what is simply noted in the mind.

Technology comes in handy to help you remember what you should be working on. PC or Mac programs have To-Do softwares which include a reminder and a snooze button. After you set a task and its time allocation, the alarm will notify you when it’s time to work on it.

Of course you can also use the old computer alarm together with a handwritten To-Do list. When you hear the alarm, you know what you should be doing. If you don’t know, well, you check your list. The important thing is that you got notified about time.

Most of the To-Do list apps out there also feature a version for IOS and Android smartphones. This is helpful because it ensures that wherever you are, as long as you’re either at your desk or with your phone, you will get notified of what you should be doing.

Plan for the unexpected

Remember we mentioned earlier that one of the reasons you don’t complete the tasks in your To-Do lists is distractions?

It is very difficult, maybe even impossible, to completely get rid of distractions. To do this, you will probably need to live somewhere alone in a cave, away from all civilization. Yet you could still be distracted by the weather, a wild animal etc. There will always be distractions.

So how do you deal with them?

By planning for them. Yes, plan to be distracted.

When you set aside time for distractions, you are not planning to knowingly distract yourself. You are preparing a soft landing for yourself in case distractions come your way. You can see this in practice in the above timeboxing example.

For instance, most physiotherapy sessions last 1 hour. But just in case the therapist decides to ask some questions to find out how much progress has been achieved, then the conversation is covered. That way, there won’t be need to freak out and get anxious at the thought of getting to work late.

Still, emails don’t have to take 1 hour to reply. They could as well take 30 minutes. But just in case the boss calls for a meeting which will last half an hour, that time gets covered too.


The one thing to note in all this is that you should take charge of your time. Try as much as possible to have your work clarified to avoid confusion, which leads to time wastage.

Adopting these changes to your To-Do lists will bring you joy as you experience the success of using this productivity tool.

Why You Never Finish Your To-Do Lists at Work (And How to Change That)

Comments are closed.