Todo Lists Work: Change My Mind.

People love to hate on todo lists. Why? What are all the ways writing down a list of tasks can go wrong?

Say I’m a die-hard fan of todo lists and your mission is to convince me writing these things is a dead end. What’s the best case you can make?

Don’t go easy on me, now. :wink:

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One reason is that focussing on process instead of product is beneficial to fight procrastination. It’s much easier to work for 20 minutes on project x instead of finishing project x. So training habits instead of producing products makes it easier, mentally.

That means that a task list which mostly consists of product-related tasks (and most to do lists are like that) are overwhelming to us. On the other hand having a list of habits aligns nicely with our subconscious mind, since here the goal is to automate the process and get it out of our working memory system which can hold about 4 items at the same time.

Other reasons I can think of: todo lists grow stale quite quickly, project oriented todo lists don’t give context (e. g. where a task can actually be completed), a good todo list generally involves a lot of “metawork” to review it, keep it up to date, useful, effective, available, etc. Most (all?) ToDo-Lists are actually a terrible trusted system, because they are not meant to store and retrieve notes in a serendipitous fashion: todo lists are mostly meant to be worked through sequentially, whereas a good notes system helps being more intuitive/holistic. Structured text (basically all todo lists are trees/outlines) can make intuitive insights harder to discover: You tend to fit everything into a given project outline, rather than finding a new way to display the complexity of life.

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I’ve successfully used lists based on a variety of Mark Forster’s Autofocus systems for nearly 10 years. I’ve pretty much settled on his Final Version with some slight adjustments.

I’m sure others will disagree, but I still think Autofocus 1 is the best place to start so you can understand how he thinks about lists in general. This post includes an actual video of how it works that’s insightful.

His entire web site is an awsome discussion about anything regarding lists as time management tools. The Forums are where all the best info is.


The failure pattern I have fallen into a lot with todo lists is where I write something vague and amorphous that’s not a specific physical action. Then I don’t know how to actually “do” it or how to get started, so I just procrastinate. The solution is to take time to transform each item into an actual physical next action by asking yourself, “if this were all I had to do, what would I actually do to start?” Often the first step is to write down a bunch of ideas or think about the outcome you want.

For more on this, check out David Allen’s “Getting Things Done.”


For the TODO camp - what’s your app of choice (if you have one at all - nothing wrong with paper)?

Marvin. 100%.

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In the past I’ve used Things, Do It (Tomorrow), Todoist, and a Moleskine notebook. Currently I use TaskWarrior.

One of Mark Forster’s books prior to going down the AutoFocus path was titled Do It Tomorrow. I don’t think it’s readily available outside the uK anymore. I may have read it, but maybe it was just a description of the process it documents.

So it’s interesting that there is now an App called To It (Tomorrow). I wonder if it uses the same philosophy or process and whether or not Mark gets anything out of it.

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The whole idea around Do It (Tomorrow) is that you can postpone tasks to tomorrow. It has a very limited feature set on purpose.

I used a Moleskine pocket day planner for a long time because it allowed me to do the same thing, except that I could copy a task to any day in the future instead of being limited to today or tomorrow.

From what I remember, the concept of the book is that almost nothing is really urgent and needs to be dealt the moment something comes in. Instead, you should focus on your predetermined to-do list for the day. Otherwise you swamped by the insignificant over the important.

The book should be available on Kindle (where I got it)