Why Productive Writers Don't Make To-Do Lists

For a while, I was keeping my things-to-do list in a tiny Moleskine notebook, only 2.25-by-4 inches, with about twenty ruled lines per page. The pages themselves were perforated, and as I worked my way through them, I envisioned myself finishing up a list and tearing out each page, one by one.

Just yesterday I was cleaning out a desk in my house and I found one of these notebooks, and it offered me a chance for an anthropologist’s view of my life — a chance to analyze those tasks I deemed significant enough to commit to paper, and those tasks I finished, versus those I did not.

Surprise, Surprise

What I found was that few or no pages were ever torn out; always, at least one task held me back — something so big I didn’t conquer it, or something so small that I skipped it entirely.

The most shocking thing about finding a year-old task list was all of the items I still haven’t gotten to, ones that I still eventually should. To offer just one example, I’ve needed to update and revamp my resume for a couple of years now, and there the unfinished task sits, both on that old things-to-do list and on my current mental list as well.

Why Didn’t My Novel-Length To-Do List Work?

Writing things down didn’t prove all that motivational for me, as it happens. And although scratching out a small list at the start of each day helps me to plan my limited time well, an ongoing list feels too daunting. That little Moleskin was a heavy albatross around my neck, and even now, it’s oppressive to see it.

The truth is, there will always be a million things we could be doing. As writers, we may be even more compelled to jot these down and immortalize them so they don’t slip away. But to-do lists can be exactly like our thoughts: wild, random, and definitely not equal in weight or value.

Giving every possible “to-do” item a coveted spot on a list makes it seem like everything must get done at once -- and if it doesn’t, there is a feeling that everything will fall apart.

Clearly, this is a stressful and counterproductive way to work.

A Different Approach to Productivity

This year, I’ve been trying a different strategy. Instead of maintaining a things-to-do list, I spend a little time at the end of each day jotting down a things-I-did list.

The list serves a few purposes. First, and most obviously, it helps me recognize my accomplishments, my productivity, and the ways I used my time. On those days when I accomplish a lot, I can think about how I did everything, and perhaps find keys to doing more of the same in the future. On my less productive days, I can see that I still accomplished some things (we all do, after all, every single day, even if the thing we do is rest and recoup). And I can assess ways to improve and do more the next day.

But it also ends the day with a sense of where I am in terms of my work life, and then my night-time brain can go to work while I sleep. In the morning I find that I have obtained a sense of order and purpose, and I have a good sense of where to put my attention.

It feels good to see a record of each day’s accomplishments. And as a writer, I'm inclined to observe my life, rather than just letting each day pass unremarked upon. Noting the day's highlights is a perfect way to do exactly that.