Living Without a To-Do List

Over the past year, I worked loosely within the Scrum model: choosing short sprints (one or two weeks) in which you can produce a meaningful goal. Anything unrelated to the sprint goes in the backlog until the next time you plan a sprint. It breaks things into chunks, it lets you focus, and it gives you rewarding results. I thought it was the perfect antidote to long to-do lists that weigh you down, and I loved it.

But recently I’ve discovered something that is even better: no list at all.

This experiment was inspired by Rework, the book by the 37Signals team that made BaseCamp. They write:

How should you keep track of what customers want? Don’t. Listen, but then forget what people said. Seriously.

There’s no need for a spreadsheet, database, or filing system. The requests that really matter are the ones you’ll hear over and over. After a while, you won’t be able to forget them. Your customers will be your memory. They’ll keep reminding you. They’ll show you which things you truly need to worry about.

If there’s a request that you keep forgetting, that’s a sign that it isn’t very important. The really important stuff doesn’t go away. [Emphasis mine.]

They also advocate the idea of “less mass”:

…the more massive an object, the more energy required to change its direction. It’s as true in the business world as it is in the physical world….Mass is increased by … Long-term contracts…Thick process…Long-term roadmaps…

…if you keep your mass low, you can quickly change anything: your entire business model, product, feature set, and/or marketing message. You can make mistakes and fix them quickly. You can change your priorities, product mix, or focus. And most important, you can change your mind.

I realized that for me, any to-do list is pointless mass.

I make beautiful lists. I usually end up ignoring them.

Six months later, I discover that I naturally did a quarter of the items just in the course of life, and most of the rest are meaningless or irrelevant now. So what was the point of writing them down? Or feeling guilty?

Lists like these seem entirely motivated by the fear of “forgetting something important”. But does that really happen? And do I want to live from that fear?

How much of what is on these lists is actually worth tracking? Does it matter if I remember them or not?

I don’t want to spend my energy tracking things that are mostly meaningless.

I want to work on what is most important right now, and I have a pretty good sense of that. I don’t need a list to tell me what I’m excited about today, or what the next big part of my project is. It’s kinda obvious.

I have never once been sitting around feeling like “Gosh, I don’t know what to do with myself, I wish I had a list to tell me.” That just doesn’t happen.

Lists start getting stale as soon as you write them. Soon my awesome and comprehensive power-list is yesterday’s or last week’s idea of what is important or relevant. I didn’t know last week what I know now. I’m in a new spot. I would need a new list every day–except I don’t want to shuffle lists all day long.

A few years ago, I read Getting Things Done, the productivity system that some people worship (and most people abandon). I’m sure it works beautifully for David Allen, but he must have a different kind of brain than I do. I just do not want to spend my life rearranging lists and making sure every single damn thing I could ever think of to do is on one of them. I’m an ideator–it would be a massive list. And there is absolutely no point in writing all my ideas down. Because the really important stuff doesn’t go away. 

David Allen’s thesis is that if you get it all out of your head into a system you trust, then you’ll have a calm clean mind that is ready for anything.

I agree on half of that. But for me, it’s far easier to get it out of my head by handing it over. I trust intuition, synchronicity, desire, or plain need to resurface what is truly important.

There are very few things that are actually mission-critical, and those I do have systems to track. I know when to pay my taxes. I have a helpdesk system to track customer service. I process all my email. I don’t miss appointments. But everything else? I don’t see any point to tracking it. It just makes my life about lists instead of living.

I also don’t need to write things down to chunk them into meaningful pieces of work. I can just check in with myself moment to moment, and if I am feeling like I really want a sense of accomplishment that day, I’ll pick something I can do right then, in an hour or two, and finish it. I meet my immediate need for completion and I feel good. I don’t need any system besides checking in with myself.

With lists, my focus was perpetually brought back to what I hadn’t yet done, and all the piddling tasks I never feel like doing. That’s the opposite of motivating.

Checking things off my list never felt all that great, because there were a thousand more items I could easily put on that list. That’s the opposite of the sense of accomplishment lists are suposed to give you. Sometimes I’d add something I had done, just so I could check it off, to prove my day wasn’t completely wasted. I mean, really. I was trying to game a piece of paper to feel good.

Without a list, I am more focused. I’m not worried about some external reference deciding about my productivity or whether I’ve accomplished something. I can just stay true to my internal reference point, which is so much easier. And without a list nagging at me about pretty inconsequential things, or, being a procrastination distraction–I actually spend big chunks of time working on the things that really matter, which is what all these productivity systems are trying to get you to do anyway.

I’m also more relaxed and flexible. Today I napped for half the day, because I was tired. Then I worked for half the day, because I was rested and felt like working. This is how we are supposed to live.

I reference animals a lot, because I think we are so removed from the way we are designed to function. Animals don’t have flow charts and lists. My cat doesn’t check off, “Take a nap. Eat some kibble”. She just lives. She doesn’t need a list, because she has a body to tell her when it’s the right time to eat and to sleep. We have bodies too. They also tell us things, like when to eat and sleep and what our needs are around accomplishment and productivity.

There are times lists matter. Checklists are great, they save lives. Procedures make routine tasks more efficient. Working on a team involves coordination and shared goals. But overall, I think we have far more lists than we need. I did, anyway.


  1. Emma,

    Good on ya’ for giving up lists! Your post resonated with me big time as it reminded me of a recent one of my own.

  2. I’ve recently gotten into the habit of lists and you have a great point! The important stuff doesn’t go away and the stuff that isn’t important just makes me feel guilty being there on the list. But honestly, I can’t live without lists entirely for my business, there are less important things that still need to get done and I forget them without writing them down somewhere.

Leave a Comment