Why To-Do Lists Rot Your Brain (or, How To Be Productive Without Bullet Points) | Dr. Isaiah Hankel | Focus, Create and Grow Your Way To Intelligent Achievement Why To-Do Lists Rot Your Brain (or, How To Be Productive Without Bullet Points) | Dr. Isaiah Hankel | Focus, Create and Grow Your Way To Intelligent Achievement

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Why To-Do Lists Rot Your Brain (or, How To Be Productive Without Bullet Points)

“Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort.”

Paul Meyer (Founder; Success Motivation Institute)

“You may delay, but time will not.”

Benjamin Franklin (Inventor and Author; Poor Richard’s Almanac)

“Pursue meaningful adventures.”

Chris Guillebeau (Author; The $100 Startup)


You have two choices: organize your life once or organize your to-do list once a day. Choose wisely.

It’s funny how writing out a to-do list can make you feel productive. You’re writing, so you feel like you’re taking action, you’re organizing your thoughts, so you feel like you’re focusing your mind, and you’re producing a finished product so you feel effective. The problem is the action you’re taking is meaningless (writing down a task does not complete a task), the thoughts you’re focusing lack context (you don’t consider which tasks are more important, how long each task will take, or how much time you have available), and the finished product produces nothing  (you’re to-do list will end up in the garbage can). The process of writing down chores, errands, and action items may feel satisfying, but it’s exceedingly shortsighted. What happens when you finish today’s to-do list? You make another one. And another. And another. But you’re not building anything (other than a pile of paper). A better strategy is to arrange your day so that you will never have to make another to-do list again.

Three Scientific Reasons Why To-Do Lists Suck

To-do lists are distractions. More than anything else, your to-do list is keeping you from achieving your goal and fulfilling your purpose in life. Understand that bullet points kill dreams. Writing down an endless list of action items encourages tactical over strategic thinking and prevents forward progress. There are three scientific reasons why to-do lists limit success. The first reason is because the average to-do list exhibits heterogeneous complexity. In other words, the list contains some tasks that will take 10 seconds to complete, some that will take 10 minutes to complete, and some that will take 10 hours to complete. The average person will automatically focus on crossing off the 10 second tasks so he can receive the psychological payoff and dopamine release that comes with it as soon as possible.  This means that tedious, yet important tasks (like writing a business proposal or completing the first chapter of your book) will stay on the list for a very long time. The second reason is because the average to-do list displays heterogeneous priority. Most to-do lists lack both context and a hierarchy. This means the tasks that are most important to you “right now” will take top priority, even if they are a low priority overall. Simultaneously, the tasks themselves do not provide any information about the best time to complete the task or how long each task will take.

Action items are rarely actionable. The third reason why to-do lists prevent success is because they offer too many options. In The Art of Choosing, Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia University, discusses a study she conducted in a California supermarket. Professor Iyengar and her team set up a sample booth offering little cups of Wilkin & Sons jam. Every hour or two, the team switched from offering a selection of 6 jams to offering a selection of 24 jams. Regardless of the size of the assortment, the average customer tasted only two jams. However, 30% of the people who had sampled from the small assortment decided to buy jam while only 3% of the people who had sampled from the large assortment decided to buy. Offering 4 times as many choices reduced sales 10 fold. In other words, the greater the options, the fewer the decisions (and actions). The same holds true for your to-do list. The more action items you write on a piece of paper, the less likely you are to decide on any one of them. And the less likely you are to take action.

To-do lists dismantle productivity. In Graduate school, I loved creating lists. I would write and rewrite lists of journal articles to read, experiments to do, people to network with, and workout routines to complete at night. Every time I created a new list, I felt really productive, like I had just created something concrete, something that moved me one step closer to accomplishing my goals. Of course, I never read any of the articles on the list, I only did the experiments I was told to do, and, once I actually showed up to the gym, did the same workout routine I had been doing for years. Every Sunday, I would spend an hour writing a list of 50 tasks to complete during the week. Then, I would stare blankly at the monster I just created, put the list aside, and continue checking my email and playing on Facebook. Eventually, I realized that these to-do lists were disrupting my initiative. In the first place, creating these massive lists was wasting large amounts of my mental energy (and time). In the second place, the infinite number of tasks on each list was inhibiting my brain from making a decision on which tasks to complete.

How To Organize Your Life To Maximize Productivity

You can’t hack productivity. There’s no way to trick your body into taking in information or outputting productive action better or faster. Things like to-do lists and the Pomodoro technique are tactical gimmicks. They are things you can do to feel more productive in the short-term. But to be productive in a way that will lead you to greatness – in a way that will help you fulfill your purpose in life – you have to think strategically. This means, instead of organizing a list and increasing the impact of the next 20 minutes, you have to organize your life and increase the impact of each day. Once I stopped making to-do lists, I was able to arrange my life in a way that increased my effectiveness and put my productivity on autopilot. I did this by obeying the 5-hour rule, putting first things first, not breaking the chain (or, following the Jerry Seinfeld law), separating my mission and management time (or, my creation versus connection time), and by building a Ben Franklin-day.

5 hours a day is all you have to fulfill your dreams. From elite athletes to musicians, top performers can only spend about 5 hours daily in intensely focused practice. Due to biological constraints on concentration and mental performance, any time spent practicing beyond 5 hours is not worth the investment. Two recently published books, Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, discuss this 5-hour rule in detail. Both conclude that mastering any domain comes down to one thing and one thing only – the number of hours you spend in deliberate practice. These books also conclude that this time is best spent in the morning. You’ve probably heard the idiom first things first. Putting first things first means doing important things as early in the day as possible. This is because your focus and performance peak early in the day compared to later in the afternoon or evening.

Don’t break the chain. When Jerry Seinfeld was still touring as a comic, a guy named Brad Isaac walked back stage and asked Seinfeld for the best advice he could give a young comic. Seinfeld said the best way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the best way to create better jokes was to write every day and the best way to get better at anything was to do it a little bit each day. Seinfeld revealed his system for pressuring himself to write every day. The system, later known as the “don’t break the chain” technique, involves a large wall calendar and a big red marker. The key to the system is marking a big red “X” on the calendar for each day that you write, or work on your skill. As the number of red “X’s” increases, the pressure to not break the chain also increases. You can use this technique to ensure that you spend the first few hours of each day in deliberate practice, getting better and better at your purpose in life. Mark a big red “X” on the calendar for every day that you succeed in sharpening your skill, or in putting first things first.

Mission Versus Management; Create OR Connect

Separate your mission from your management time. The time that you spend in deliberate practice is your mission time. Your mission time is the time that you spend creating something new, developing a new skill set, or getting better at something you’re already good at. You must learn to keep this separate from your management time. Your management time is the time you spend on emails, calls, social media, administrative work and other routine tasks. The key is that the things you do during your management time do not require extremely high levels of concentration and mental performance, which is why this time comes after your mission time. Your mission time requires a creative state, while your management time requires a connected state. Do not mix your mission and your management time. Create or connect, don’t try to do both at once. It’s critical that, during your mission time, you isolate yourself from your management activities. Switching from back and forth between mission and management related activities will plummet your productivity. In fact, one study found that failing to separate these activities drops your IQ more than when you’re stoned.

Build a Ben Franklin-day. Ben Franklin was one of the most productive people in human history. Ben Franklin invented the lightning rod, bifocal glasses, the glass harmonica, the Franklin stove, and the flexible urinary catheter. He wrote the Poor Richard’s Almanac as well as his now famous autobiography. He established the first subscription library and founded the American Philosophical Society. He also served as a postmaster, councilman, recruiter of the Pennsylvania militia, Speaker of the Pennsylvania State House, delegate to the Second Continental Congress, ambassador to France, President of Pennsylvania, and Founding Father. Franklin produced his incredible life by arranging his days in the most productive way possible. He would wake up early, prepare for the day, work for four hours (mission time; under 5 hours), take a break, work for four more hours (management time), and go to bed early. It sounds simple until you consider the fact that he followed this schedule for decades. Being productive for one day is easy. Being productive day after day, unwavering, for years and years, requires commitment, diligence, and determination. 

Altogether, you have (at most) 5 hours per day to get better at whatever skill you’re trying to master and those hours are best spent in the morning. Understand that you must protect these hours. These hours are the only thing separating you from your biggest dreams. Don’t give them to other people. If you have a family or a day job, do whatever you can to get up earlier and spend these hours towards your purpose in life. If you don’t have 5 hours, find 2 or 3 hours each day. Then, each time you use these hours to fulfill your purpose, mark a calendar with a big red “X”. Finally, spend your afternoons connecting and managing your pursuits.

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