‘To-do lists are evil’

by Grace

Since I am a slave to my to-do lists, the first item on this list of tips to help you “be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m” made me stop and think.

  1. To-do lists are evil. Schedule everything.
  2. Assume you’re going home at 5:30, then plan your day backwards.
  3. Make a plan for the entire week.
  4. Do very few things, but be awesome at them.
  5. Do less shallow work — focus on the deep stuff.

Here’s more on the evil of to-do lists.

To-do lists by themselves are useless. They’re just the first step. You have to assign them time on your schedule. Why?

It makes you be realistic about what you can get done. It allows you to do tasks when it’s efficient, not just because it’s #4.

Until it’s on your calendar and assigned an hour, it’s just a list of wishful thinking.

Instead of making a list, schedule your tasks.

Scheduling forces you to confront the reality of how much time you actually have and how long things will take. Now that you look at the whole picture you’re able to get something productive out of every free hour you have in your workday. You not only squeeze more work in but you’re able to put work into places where you can do it best.

Yes, this makes sense!  But it means I would have to put more thought into my planning.  Instead of thoughtlessly listing the things I want to accomplish, I would have to think about how many hours are available that day.  It’s a little more work, but if it became a habit it would be easy.

All these tips come from “insanely productive” Cal Newport:

  1. He has a full-time job as a professor at Georgetown University, teaching classes and meeting with students.
  2. He writes six (or more) peer-reviewed academic journal papers per year.
  3. He’s the author of four books including the wonderful So Good They Can’t Ignore You. And he’s at work on a fifth.
  4. He’s married with a young child and handles all the responsibilities that come with being a husband and dad.
  5. He blogs regularly about productivity and expert performance.

And yet he finishes work at 5:30 p.m. every day and rarely works weekends.

He must be doing something right!


Eric Barker, “How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.”, The Week, September 18, 2014.


10 Comments to “‘To-do lists are evil’”

  1. The guy only teaches one course a semester, and I bet he has an army of TA’s to keep all the students away from him. It is easy to schedule all your activities for the day when you don’t have constant “hey prof I need to see u now” emails! I have no doubt he works hard, but a research focused professor has a lot of luxury in determining his or her schedule. In industry, you have to respond quickly to requests from bosses and users, which means you can never schedule anything. And in teaching oriented academia, you have no buffer from the students. His advice is not realistic.


  2. Sure I schedule my day, but the e-mail requests from staff (deadline tomorrow) and students who have to speak to me about something they should have done 2 years ago eat up a lot of time. Grading is also a big time sink (I bet Cal Newport outsources that to TAs—I don’t have any TAs).

    My to-do lists aren’t a daily item: they’re the things I need to get done in the next 3 months, that might get forgotten in the pressure of all the daily “urgent” things.


  3. From the original article:

    “I can hear what some of you are thinking: But I get interrupted. Things get thrown at me last minute.

    Great — build that into your schedule. It doesn’t need to be perfect. Things will change. But you need to have a plan, otherwise you’ll waste time.”

    I agree interruptions can be a killer for this system, but most people CAN schedule at least some of their day. If you schedule a meeting with your boss, then you’ll make sure nothing but a natural disaster interrupts it. You can treat at least part of your day the same way, and just say no to possible interruptions. Of course it comes down to priorities, which are implicitly addressed in his article.

    Some people have told me they routinely erase lots of their business emails without looking at them carefully. They say that’s what they have to do in order to accomplish their important goals, and if it’s that important the sender will resend or call, even repeatedly. When I heard this I was aghast, but I do tend to get caught up in details that ultimately don’t matter much. Granted, the higher on the totem pole you are the easier it is to blow off emails and phone calls, but the general idea has merit.


  4. When I worked in industry, meetings with the boss got interrupted all the time. In companies where your users are internal, a common evaluation rubric is speed of response to user problems. When an important user sends email or calls, you leave the meeting and handle it.

    I took on a new role this year administering our main CS major. All student problems get directed to me now. During advising, it was unbelievable. One day, I started reading my email at 8am, and when I finally got to the bottom of the new messages, it was 1pm. Every email meant that I had to get on the phone to try to untangle some mess or another.


  5. I’m undergrad director and the main adviser for about 300 students. Although very few of them have problems, those problems can soak up a lot of time. Coupled with all the administrative BS thrown at me as program chair and vice chair of the department (all with do-it-now urgency), the half of the day that isn’t already scheduled with classes and meetings is soon gone.


  6. Okay, this advice is fantasy for what you all are describing, and probably for many other workers. Do you have any tactics that seem to help you be more efficient? Or is it just a matter of plowing through the work, with some attempt at prioritizing and dropping non-essential tasks?


  7. ” Or is it just a matter of plowing through the work, with some attempt at prioritizing and dropping non-essential tasks?” Plowing through the work, prioritizing, moving things up from the to-do list as they get close to deadlines, working at 3 in the morning, …

    The “non-essential tasks” are the ones that get pushed on me by high-level administrators, so I can’t drop them, though I sure wish I could.


  8. gasstation, so, so true! I am stuck trying to churn out a program review report, following a template imposed by administrators who didn’t even bother to check if their categories make sense, or if the data they are requesting is actually available. I have been working on it for weeks. It is sucking up all of my time. And I guarantee no one will read it.


  9. In industry, you can always go to your manager and ask “what is my highest priority?”. But there are no managers in academia. We have administrators, which are very different. Because there is no chain of command, any of them are free to dump work on people at any turn, without considering priorities or workloads. This is one of the reasons that people spend way too much time on their jobs in academia.


  10. With flatter organizational structures, private industry also often lacks a clear chain of command. But IMO the more immediate importance of making a profit makes it easier to cut through the burden of non-essential tasks. Of course, not always. Office politics is a problem everywhere.


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