Are To-Do Lists Doing You In?

A guest post by Dr. Neil Fiore, author of the just-released The Now Habit at Work: Perform Optimally, Maintain Focus, and Ignite Motivation in Yourself and Others:

Neil Fiore, Ph.D. Any business owner or manager needs some kind of system to keep track of the many tasks, distractions, and low priority minutia necessary for maintaining a successful enterprise. But do we need an impossibly long To-Do List of tasks that overwhelms us and causes us to feel guilty for not completing them?

Problem: Thinking, “I have to get it done.” creates anxiety.

To-Do Lists lead us to think “You have to finish.” But “finished,” “accomplished,” “done,” or “delivered” and goals are all in some non-existent future place that your body can’t get to. Trying to get to an imaginary time zone causes stuck energy which you experience anxiety.

Solution: Instead of thinking finish/done focus on when can I start?

  • Don’t worry about finishing. Keep Starting. The last time you start is when you’ll finish.
  • Your new deadline is seeing what you can get started in 30 minutes.
  • Deadlines in the future will keep you anxious and don’t tell your mind and body when to start. Back-time from the deadline to create a 3-dimensional path back to When, Where, and on What you can start. Think of your mind and body as your workers who need to know when to start.

Problem: Making To Do Lists can be a way to procrastinate.

Making elaborate and complex To-Do Lists serves as an excuse to procrastinate instead of facing and starting on your projects.

Try using your calendar instead of a separate To Do List.

  • Put activities, meetings, and projects in your schedule and you’re more likely to see your tasks and commitments more realistically given the limited time available in any day or week.
  • Schedule times when you can start on important, long-term projects for 15 to 30 minutes of uninterrupted, focused time.
  • Follow that with the small chores that take only a few minutes to complete. Write in when you need to leave for meetings, not just the deadline for the meeting.

Conclusion: To-Do Lists are only for unimportant, low priority activities that can serve as a break from the top-priorities that will really make a difference in your life.


Neil Fiore, Ph.D., guides managers, executives, and their employees to new levels of peak performance. Neil learned his leadership skills – literally, "in the trenches" – as a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne, as a manager for Johnson & Johnson, an Economic Analyst for Shell Oil, and as a Licensed Psychologist.

Dr. Fiore is a founding member of the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship and a recipient of the University of California, Berkeley's Award for Distinguished Achievement.

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