Learning & Development

‘To-Do List Bankruptcy’

A to-do list can be a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, a to-do list helps people get and stay organized and avoid neglecting important tasks. Additionally, being able to cross an item off your to-do list can be quite fulfilling.

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On the other hand, a to-do list can be a significant source of stress when items don’t get crossed off or when they aren’t crossed off quickly enough and the list continues to grow. That growth often occurs because low-level items on the list are placed on the backburner in favor of higher-priority concerns.

Lists of Shame

In an article for Forge, Clive Thompson argues that these perpetual to-do lists can grow into “lists of shame” and do more harm than good. “I learned that evocative phrase last year while reporting a story for Wired on the eternal horror of to-do lists,” says Thompson.

Those who build and offer to-do apps online have noticed that users often get themselves into the common bind of putting too many things on their lists, Thompson continues.

“We do this for a perfectly understandable reason: We’re trying to get those tasks out of our heads, so we won’t be haunted by them anymore,” he says. “It feels awesome! Each task we set down in an app (or on paper) temporarily clears our head: Whew, I’m getting organized!

The problem is that people tend to overload their to-do lists and create a new “do” for virtually everything that comes across their desks. They’re craving that “momentary burst of relief again and again,” he says.

Seeking ‘To-Do List Bankruptcy

In attempting to manage absolutely everything, those who overdo their to-do lists overload their apps, rendering them ineffective in helping them manage their work.

They also tend to avoid their apps because they know what awaits them when they take a look. “We no longer want to open it, because we’re terrified of the tentacled mess that’ll spill out,” Thompson says. There’s irony to this phenomenon, but there’s also a potential solution. 

Thompson says he’s used a strategy he calls “to-do list bankruptcy” to help him get out from under a mountain of to-do debt. This solution requires you to delete, destroy, or throw away your original to-do list and start over from scratch. This way, items that really didn’t matter are deemed lost causes, allowing you to reset and focus on the real key priorities.

Throwing up your hands and saying “I quit” isn’t a solution to most problems, but when your to-do list becomes so unwieldy that it creates more stress than organization, it may be time to consider to-do list bankruptcy in favor of a fresh start.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.