Everything You Know About Getting Things Done Is Wrong

UPDATED: September 12, 2016
PUBLISHED: September 12, 2016

Early in life, I learned there are two kinds of people in the world: list-makers and not. I was always in the not group because I could not understand why people needed a list to remember what to do for the day. Don’t you know you need a haircut just by looking in the mirror? But I brushed aside the thought and moved on.

Then I became a psychologist and a performance consultant and started seeing things from an entirely new perspective. First, I found there are actually four types of people, not two:

  • Those who make lists and get things done
  • Those who make lists and don’t accomplish much
  • Those who don’t make lists and get things done
  • Those who don’t make list and don’t accomplish much

Related: 11 Tricks to Actually Get Things Done on Your To-Do List

This led me to take a renewed interest in the world of to-do lists and what they actually do for us, or not do for us. Turns out, the list-makers were right and not right at the same time. Lists can help, or they can hurt. It has to do with both your brain and personality type.

Basically, to-do lists provide an external tool to help your brain do what it needs in order to get things done. To accomplish anything, your brain uses something called “executive functions.” Similar to a business executive, your brain sets a goal, brings together the resources needed to get it done, executes a plan, measures how you are doing along the way to hold you accountable (are we doing this efficiently?) and adapts to mistakes along the way. That basic flow gets you from here to there in any task. But in order to do that, the big categories of executive functions must be present—what the brain does to make all of those things happen so you don’t get lost. To get anything done, your brain must:

  1.  Attend to what is relevant
  2.  Inhibit what is not relevant
  3. Keep it in front of your attention until it is done

So you can see why lists are helpful to some people. They do exactly these three things, unless they don’t. And that brings us to the problem of when lists don’t work. Why do some people who don’t make lists actually accomplish a lot without them when others don’t? The accomplisher brain is able to do those three things without lists, and the list-maker is able to do them in part because of the help the list provides. What is important is not whether you use a list, but whether you are able to accomplish the three tasks listed above.

But some to-do list makers are working against themselves and their brains, and that explains why they can’t seem to get things done. A list can do two really bad things: Contain so many items that your brain is overwhelmed just by looking at it, or fail to help you prioritize what is really important and should be garnering all of your brain’s focus and attention.

That also explains some non-list maker’s successes. They are able to just keep what is important front-of-mind, and not get distracted by less important things. Some people who “wing it” actually can accomplish a lot. The non-list makers who do not do well are probably distractible by nature, and actually would perform better with a system, such as a to-do list to stay on track.

So, let’s get practical. What do you do?

I have become a to-do list convert, in a way, so here is my advice: Make a list, but create one that aligns with how your brain works and what it needs. Remember, it needs attention on what is relevant, protection from what is not, and the ability to keep that in front of you in your working memory. Here are a few ways to help that process:

Related: Organize Your To-Do List into These 4 Categories

1. Plan your day the night before if possible, or at least early in the day.

The very act of planning is an executive function. It does the three things mentioned above: attending, inhibiting and remembering. The act of prioritization (read planning) is one of the biggest brain energy drains there is. You do not want to plan and execute at the same time because you lose brain energy for focus, creativity and getting things done.

2. Make it short.

Short. Really short. Try this: What is the one most important thing you have to get done to move you toward your most important priority? Put that on the list. Which brings us to a question: Why would you have more than that on there? If there are more than the most important thing you also have to get done, then put it on, but if you have to then it is now competing for what is really going to get you moving forward. Are you really sure it has to be done today?

The more you put on there, the more you interfere with your brain. You must ask yourself, Will I really, really do this? If you are not sure don’t put it on the list. Maybes are just distractions.

3. Assign a time on your calendar for the few main things that have made it on the list.

Give them the time they need. Make an appointment with yourself to make sure they get done. No exceptions.

Now if you are saying, But what about the other stuff I have to do tomorrow that is not that vital to my highest priorities, but must get done (pay the light bill, pick up your child from school, etc.)? Put those in a calendar item with a time assigned to them and keep that appointment. That way, they will not be floating around in your head distracting you from your real, important priorities, and you will be forced to really look at whether you have time to do all that you think you have to do that day.

The rest of the stuff that you do not want to forget, but does not have to be done today, put it on a wish list for a future to-do list.  A to-do list should be exactly that: to do. Not a I might if I have time list or I hope I get around to these things list.

The biggest difference between those who accomplish their goals and those who don’t is that accomplishers prioritize what is most important to getting those goals accomplished by prioritizing the actual tasks and activities that drive those goals to completion.

If you are going to go on a road trip and make it to Chicago, you are going to do a lot of things, like get fuel, map a route, push the accelerator, listen to the radio, get lunch, etc. But if you do not get fuel and hit the accelerator, you are not going to get there. If music and lunch are on the list on par with fuel and driving, you are not going to get there, at least when you want to.

Do not let minor things compete with main things. That is the problem with lists that are too long. They do not give the proper weight to the main things, nor do they assign an absolute personal demand to get a certain activity done that day that will move the ball forward. Do not confuse your brain with other activities you might do, or are not of the highest priority.

Try this and see what happens. Your brain and your results will thank you.

Related: How to Eliminate Distractions

Dr. Henry Cloud is a psychologist, leadership consultant and New York Times best-selling author. His newest book is called The Power of the Other: The Startling Effect Other People Have on You, From the Boardroom to the Bedroom and Beyond—and What to Do About It.