Your to-do list is not as important as you think

Productivity

Takeaway: If you’re not careful, your to-do list can make your work less enjoyable, while leading you to feel less in control of your time. When finishing tasks, reflect on the next most important project to work on—and treat your to-do list as a series of suggestions, not obligations. Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes, 26s.

One of the highest leverage things you can do to become more productive is simple: continually do what you consider to be the most important thing in each moment. This is way easier said than done, but isn’t as difficult as you may think.

To explain, let me tell you about one kind of list in my life: my travel packing list.

I travel a lot for work, especially to give talks about productivity. Because of this constant travel, I have a pretty great packing list (if you don’t mind me saying so). I programmed the list using a fantastic Mac app called Keyboard Maestro ($36). In simple terms, Keyboard Maestro lets you automate certain tasks on your Mac, which can save you time and streamline your day.

When I type a keyboard combination (⌘+⌃+⇧+⌥+P, if you’re curious), this window pops up:

After I fill out the information about my trip, the Keyboard Maestro script populates a customized packing list with everything I might need. Here’s the list generated for a two-day domestic work trip:

The list is precise, right down to how many pairs of socks and underwear I’ll need based on the time I’ll be away. I rarely need everything on the list—but I just delete the items I don’t and pack the rest. (If you’re looking to get started with Keyboard Maestro, I highly recommend David Sparks’ terrific field guide.)

Lately, I’ve found myself using this packing list less. I’ve started to think of it more as a checklist that I can refer to later, double-checking that I’ve packed everything.

There’s no doubt that this generated packing list makes me more efficient and saves me time. But I find that using it means I get far less enjoyment out of packing. It’s more fun to pack everything I feel I need in the moment and check the list after to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything.

This may sound like a meaningless change, but it’s made a surprising difference:

  • Packing feels like far less of a chore—and isn’t as draining as a result.
  • I no longer enter some robotic autopilot packing mode, as though I’m simply going through the motions to get it done.
  • It takes me amount the same amount of time to pack, so the extra enjoyment comes at essentially no cost.
  • My trips are better because I think of the novel things I may need in each destination—like my camera if I’m going somewhere scenic, a metro card if I’m heading to New York or another big city, or my preferred time tracking device if I’m going on a writing retreat.
  • And because I still check my generated list, I’m reminded if I’ve forgotten to pack a thing or two. In that way, the list serves as a great trip wire.

The observations I’ve made when reconsidering my packing process hold true for to-do lists. I used to live and die by my to-do list. But lately, as I switch from one thing to another, I’ve been asking myself: what’s the most important thing I could be doing in this moment?

I may glance at my to-do list for a dose of inspiration—or better yet, I might have some intuitive sense of what’s most important. As with the packing list, I’ll check my task list after deciding what to do, making sure I haven’t forgotten some better option—and to ensure I’m not only working on what’s latest and loudest.

Interestingly, a lot of the tasks I choose to do aren’t on my list in the first place. They’re more important tasks, I just hadn’t thought of adding them to the task list.

We don’t always use our intuition when choosing what to be productive on. As I write about in my most recent book, our “evaluating mind” is always considering the opportunity cost of our time.

But letting yourself be guided by intuition can stop this questioning and the corresponding guilt in its tracks. Deliberately choosing what important thing to work on makes me feel more in control—even when I’m churning away on something I have to get done or an obligation imposed by someone else.

We shouldn’t let our to-do list crowd out our intuitive sense of what’s important.

The next time you switch from one task to another—like after you read this article—identify your most important task. Cross-reference that intuitive response against your to-do list to make sure you didn’t forget anything more urgent.

This approach takes a few seconds and can quickly become a habit. It’s a great way of aligning yourself with what’s truly important throughout the day.

Treat your to-do list as a series of suggestions rather than obligations. You’ll find you enjoy your time more, while also considering tasks that are important but not obvious. You’ll feel more in control of your work to boot.

Keeping a to-do list often feels more like a psychological game than it does a helpful productivity strategy. To-do lists are really just a list of expectations for our future selves. When we don’t accomplish the things on that pre-determined list, we feel unproductive. When we accomplish more than what’s on the list, we feel proud. (Even though, in both instances, we may accomplish the exact same amount, only with different lists!) Similarly, when we accomplish something that wasn’t on our list, we feel as though it doesn’t count toward our daily productivity—like when we get physical activity without our fitness tracker.

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