Overwhelmed by Your To-Do List? Go With a ‘Will-Do’ List Instead.

Time Boxing

Creating task lists can give you an immediate sense of control and productivity.

However, if you have been using them for a while, you may also feel how stressful and overwhelming they can become: instead of shrinking, these lists usually only get longer and longer, no matter how fast you knock your tasks down. What to do?

Every now and then I think about abandoning my task lists altogether. I miss the feeling of freedom I once had when I didn’t use them. But then I must concede that they really help manage my life, and I end up deciding to keep using them.

Luckily, a while ago I came across the idea of ‘will-do’ lists. It’s a great concept from the book Do It Tomorrow by Mark Forster, and it was exactly what I needed to resolve my task management dilemma.

What’s Wrong With Task Lists?

Especially if you use a productivity system such as Getting Things Done (GTD), your task list is meant to be an inventory of all your current pending tasks. More often than not, that means that you’ll have many more tasks in it than you can possibly imagine doing in the foreseeable future.

Your master task list ends up working as a “task menu”: like candies in a delicatessen shelf, the tasks just sit there waiting to be picked as soon as you have the chance. This idea is seducing, and I guess that there’s nothing particularly wrong or stressful about it — if you keep the right frame of mind, that is…

As this master to-do list gets increasingly larger, something goes wrong: instead of that pleasant sight of the delicatessen, I start seeing the list as a giant blob of threatening commitments. There is just too much to do. External demands keep piling up in this list much faster than I can handle them, and I feel like I lost control.

Even knowing that the original purpose of the list was to serve just as an inventory, I feel burnt out. Using a ‘Someday/Maybe’ list helps, but the fact is that just the active tasks alone seem unbearably overwhelming.

Things only go downhill from there.

I get anxious to get rid of tasks: my ‘to-do list management’ suddenly becomes just a race between adding items and crossing off old ones. I subconsciously start tackling the easy items in an attempt to shrink the list. The most important and challenging tasks — exactly those that make us move forward in our lives — are left behind.

It’s the GTD busyness trap: despite the amount of items you cross off from your list, you never have that feeling of accomplishment at the end of the day.

Don’t get me wrong: the GTD-style task list is very useful — but mostly as an inventory of open loops. It gives you the reassurance that nothing has been left behind, but it is way too open to external factors to be used all the time — it seems that the more you do to cut the list down, the more it grows. How’s that for motivation?

Enter the Will-Do List

To overcome the shortcomings of the traditional task list, consider creating a will-do list instead.

Take your to-do list and pick a few tasks that you will do the next day: not tasks that you want to do, or tasks that you think you might do — but tasks that you wholeheartedly commit to do. Replace your long list of intentions with a short list of commitments.

There are two important principles to keep in mind about this new list:

1. It’s a list of commitments

Your goal should be to complete 100% of your daily will-do list, every day. Remember that these tasks are commitments: if you’re not serious about crossing off each and every item from your will-do list, there’s no point in creating one. Therefore, you need to be extremely careful in putting just a few items there: when in doubt, be conservative.

(I usually don’t book more than 2 hours’ worth of daily will-do tasks, or I am unable to sustain the 100% completion rate for too long. I also usually tackle my daily will-do list as soon as I can, using highly-focused time boxes.)

2. Once set, don’t add any more items to it

The will-do list is intended to be a closed list: once created, don’t add anything to it during the day.

That means that the only possible thing that can happen to your list is that it will get smaller. And that is the big trick: your list is not a moving target, but a finite and measurable workload that you can actually finish. That is much better for your motivation than the sight of endless to-do lists. Can you still remember the feeling of crossing off the very last item of your task list?

Of course, you should still add items to your master task list as usual. But unless the new items are extremely urgent (and they usually aren’t), you must avoid as much as possible adding them to today’s will-do list.

Extra Benefits

After using will-do lists for several months, I found them to be powerful in yet more ways than I initially expected:

  1. You do the things that really matter: By choosing beforehand what tasks you’ll definitely do in the coming day, you’re much more likely to choose tasks that matter. By leaving the decisions to be made in the heat of the moment, we end up tackling easy tasks, or those that seem urgent, but are not really important.
  2. You develop your estimation skills: Knowing that we need to finish 100% of our daily list — and nothing less — helps dampen our overly optimistic expectations. The fact is that we cram too much stuff in our lives: the will-do list puts us back in perspective in understanding what our limits are.
  3. You have an objective metric of accomplishment: Completing the will-do list is a great goal we can use on a daily basis. It’s a simple, easy to track metric; and it conveys a powerful message: that we are consistently keeping our promises to ourselves. I found that this feeling is essential for my inner peace. As a suggestion, try to keep track of how many days in a row you are able to keep up with your daily will-do lists, as in Jerry Seinfeld’s “task chain” tip.

Get the Full Scoop

Do It Tomorrow Book This article is intended to be a quick intro to will-do lists. Mark Forster does an excellent job presenting the concept much more thoroughly (as well as the much broader concept of closed lists) in his book Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Managementhighly recommended! What I really like about Mark is that he always makes it clear that he’s just one of us — someone exploring and learning from his own mistakes; and not a self-proclaimed ‘productivity guru’ that pretends to have all the answers.

Will-do lists, when used alone or on top of Getting Things Done, can give you back the sense of control you once had, without foregoing the benefits of regular task lists.

If you already use a similar concept to manage your tasks, or are just trying will-do lists for the first time, please share your experiences in the comments!