Are todo lists ruining our lives?

I’ve recently come across two articles on productivity. Bear in mind they’re both 2015 articles. One claimed that todo lists are ruining our lives and the other goes further and says that todo lists are evil. Are these claims true?

Another thought that caught my attention was about digital todo lists being never ending and a greater cognitive load than analogue ones. Should we be writing our tasks on paper?

We talk a lot on this forum about digital task managers. Are these task managers making us less productive and more stressed?

Here are the articles. I would be interested in your thoughts and comments.


I never used paper for to-do lists, but I do use digital ones. A little.

If I was to try using paper lists, I would need an AirTag for them.


I think if I took the advice “to-do lists are evil. Schedule everything.” I would soon be looking for the nearest window to make a fast exit.

Frankly, the advice is … stupid. Scheduling everything is a good way to never enjoy composure and peace of mind because you would forever be blowing the schedule. Talk about evil; that’s evil.



One could write many books on the subject (or record 162 podcast episodes). But if I were going to boil it down:

  • Tasks lists are useful because they can help us get stuff that’s bothering us out of our working memory and record them in an external medium (the human mind is a great processor, but a lousy hard drive).
  • Tasks lists (especially electronic ones) are dangerous because they can grow infinitely, while our time and attention are finite.

The best solutions seem to be:

  • Review and curation: weeding out things that seemed like a good idea but we are making a deliberate decision not to do (at least not right now).
  • Filtering them and metering tasks at a reasonable rate, whether it’s block scheduling, picking a few as our Most Important Tasks each day, etc.

I like to-do lists for short term problems. Basically, if my planning and scheduling has broken down, a to-do list is great to help me out of the mess.
But, once I’ve solved the immediate problem, I ditch the to-do list and get back to scheduling.
Well, that’s for work.

For personal life, I still have a to-do list that simply serves as a reminder of what I might want to get done. But, nothing on this is urgent or time-sensitive, so it really is a reminders list of things to do, sometime.

I like both of those articles. It’s hard to argue with points 1-5 in the Guardian article. There’s also a case to be made for points 6-7 but focus modes and widgets have reduced the friction and distraction risk in checking lists on a phone. Digital task/goal management is always going to have risks.

Funny, I feel the opposite about todo lists; they enable me to “spend less time on the mundane, and more on the inspiring, comforting and rewarding things in life” (like deep work). Well, after I learned about “Getting Things Done” (GTD)…


If I didn’t have todo lists I’d either be mentally exhausted, unemployed or both.

Feedback I get from peers and managers is that I have a capacity to manage very large workloads. I put this down to my productivity system which is underpinned by Omnifocus (to do lists)

My templates (checklists loaded into Omnifocus) for performing repetitive tasks in a quality way (Audits, Document reviews, Supplier due diligence…) mean that I rarely forget a step.


There is only one thing on my to-do list — don’t make any todo lists. Matched by my annual New Year’s resolution — don’t make any New Year resolutions. It’s serendipity all the way for me.

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Could be translated as they (the managers anyway) are deliberately exploiting you because they see you as cheap labour.

Perhaps for those that don’t have tasks given them there’s a possibility that todo lists become wish lists which grow infinitely?

I do like the idea of 3x5 cards. One task or project per card.

I prefer paper to as it’s more focused and distraction free.

My experience has taught me that to-do lists have a place, but they’re not the be-all and end-all of productivity. I no longer add everything to mine (good old Reminders), just the important things, and the majority of those are typed in manually instead of auto-generated or attached from other apps. If I have a lot of tasks assigned to a given day, then the discretionary and non-urgent ones get postponed to the following day — if I get through everything else then I may look at those.

I’ve stopped using my email inbox as a reminders systems, the only things that stay in there are those that I need to refer back to in a day or so, such as tracking for deliveries or payments — anything important gets archived into DEVONthink, the rest gets deleted once I’ve dealt with it.

Another overlooked tool which I’ve found invaluable is writing down ideas and plans in my journal — it helps me clarify them in my head and I’m much more likely to follow through on them.

And I’ve stopped trying to overthink things as much as I possibly can. Not an easy task for me, but the above techniques have helped. I’ve probably mentioned this here before, but I realised that meaningful changes starts within your head, not by trying new widgets and hoping they’ll solve your problems for you.


I use a Walmart heavy-duty 3 x 5 index card. Typically .99 for 100. You can find really nice ones, with high-end paper, dates, dot-grid, or checklists, (see Ugmonk’s Analog) but these work even with a fine nibbed fountain pen.

I make a vertical list of 3 to 5 items. I use the other side for notes, or items to do later. Items are pulled from thin air, or my calendar for appointments, or based on what needs to be done for a specific project as the “next task”. Unfinished items go on the next day’s card

I also have repeated tasks for each day in Notes. These are 3 to 5 things per day I do every week, like laundry or watering house plants. Each day has a few, though I’m trying to leave Saturday and Sunday mostly free.

Index cards fit in my pocket. I started doing this when I worked as an R.A in grad school, and this persisted as a habit even after I started bullet journaling, or using Write Note Pads Weekly Planner.

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Cal Newport isn’t anti-to-do lists. He talks at length about his Trello boards. But yes, the point is rather that you schedule time to address what’s on those lists, rather than react to them unthinkingly, in panic mode, or without careful deliberation of your workload in light of your values, priorities, and so on.

Personally I love my ToDoist – keeps me sane and operating in a pressured academic job working mostly 9-5 workweeks (but I am nowhere as productive as Prof Newport, let that be clear!). The issue comes often when it’s time to switch off – living my weekends and family-life off a to-do list can be a lot more constricting and demotivating! The ticking boxes mindset I can do without on a Sunday with my young child, but here they are, these 7 tasks looking up at me from my little glass rectangle, nagging me to be completed! So personally – it may be the case that to-do list inveigle themselves into situations where they are best left untouched. Cue Cal’s famous ‘shut-down routine’, which I have yet to master effectively.

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and I would need a digital reminder to go get the paper and look at it.

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Nicely put. It’s very difficult, but really helpful to work on the how and why.

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You need a place to keep track of all the commitments you made, either to yourself or others. A calendar is not a good place to store all of your commitments. It is a good place to put your meetings and doctor appointments, etc. But I do use it to do time block planning. Making sure I spend time on the most important commitments I have. But those commitments live on a Task list in Things. I also plan out the week ahead, making sure I write down the 2-3 things that are most important to work on each day, keeping in mind how many meetings, etc I have on those days.

Cal Newport often says that the idea of full capture that David Allen preaches is important. If I had a meeting with my boss and said I’d finish the project in Q1 of 2023, I’m going to write that down and make sure I review it every week and keep making progress on it.

Saying a to-do list is evil is bad advice. Saying you will do something and forgetting to do it because you think writing a to-do list is evil is a good way to harm your career. People who make and keep commitments are the ones who will have a thriving career. And it’s not just work, you’ll have a better relationship with friends and family if they know you can be counted on.

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Sounds like you have an implicit Balance work and life task at the top of your To Do list … something we could all stand to have. :slightly_smiling_face:


Oh believe you/me. I’m not cheap.

By what they said, I take it as a recognition of my value to the company and my team. If I ever felt I was being undervalued or exploited I’d find somewhere that valued me.


I agree. I never had a job that would allow me to “schedule everything” with the exception of my first. When I was a 16 year old part time grocery clerk I knew what days and hours I would be working each week (union rules)

In all the others, retail, manufacturing, transportation, and a few more, most days changed depending on suppliers, customers, employers, equipment, and/or external forces. No two were ever the same.

IMO the difference between 3x5 cards and “While you were out” notes is convenience. Years ago that required paper notes, Rolodex cards, hanging file folders, land lines, and pagers. People have always had to deal with the planned and unplanned events of their day. If I can’t manage that with the excellent tools we have available today that’s my fault.

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