Are TODO Applications a Waste of Time?

Written By: Jake Bauer | Posted: 2020-07-07 | Last Updated: 2020-07-07

A few days ago, the following video by Derek Taylor popped up on my feed and got me thinking about TODO applications: Are TODO Applications Hindering Your Productivity? (invidio.us link). Some points that he mentioned resonated with me, though I think he is slightly wrong in his conclusion.

He basically said: TODO applications hinder your productivity because you spend more time organizing your tasks instead of just doing them, they trick you into thinking you’re getting things done when, in reality, you’re just giving yourself little boosts of dopamine by checking off trivial things, and it sets you up for failure since humans typically over-estimate how much can be done in a day. On the whole, I agree with what he says, but I don’t think TODO applications are useless or hinder your productivity and there are ways, when applied correctly, that they can be helpful.

I have seen in other people and experienced myself the draw to get organized before beginning a task and then spending more time coming up with or setting up this “perfect” organization system that will prepare me to accomplish tasks effectively than actually doing the task itself. However, this hypothetical “perfect” system I was creating was really just a way to procrastinate on the task at hand by making myself feel like I was being productive. In reality, if I just wrote down a list of things to do and got working, the task would have been done a lot sooner.

I have also experienced the urge to write down every little thing I need to do in a day and religiously check it off as, essentially, a way to feel productive. This I have a less strong opinion about because it can be a big help on days where motivation levels are low and distractions are high. I’ve found completing small tasks and getting those boosts of dopamine to be a good way to kick-start my brain into tackling the larger tasks of the day. It’s like starting a car engine on a cold day: turn the engine over a few times and eventually it’ll spring to life and become self-sustaining. The problem here arises when one stops at just doing the small tasks, is “satisfied” by those tiny boosts of dopamine, and doesn’t do anything else from there. At that point, the TODO list ceases to be useful and just becomes a source of anxiety and a way to put off the bigger tasks.

Overestimation is a big human problem. We frequently overestimate how much we can accomplish in an hour, let alone a day. This frequently leads to situations where we expect to get a lot done so we create a huge list of things to do and then feel bad when we couldn’t accomplish what we thought we could. This isn’t a problem with TODO lists; it’s a trapping that one has to be aware of and avoid when planning their days or getting organized.

Essentially, TODO lists or TODO applications are not the problem here, it’s people using them as a procrastinative and as a way to feel productive instead of actually doing the things that need to be done which is the problem. In reality, a well-curated, disorganized, simple checklist can be as or more effective than a well-organized, pretty TODO system that has had a lot of thought and work put into it. TODO lists and applications aren’t useless, they just enable productivity anti-patterns and one has to be aware of those anti-patterns to make effective use of TODO lists and applications.

Don’t let the illusion of productivity that TODO lists and applications invite become a procrastinative outlet or a substitute for doing the actual tasks.

Note: Procrastinative isn’t a real word. Except it is now cause I just made it up:

Procrastinative, n. or adj. /prəˈkrastənatɪv/

1 : (n.) A thing someone uses to procrastinate.

2 : (adj.) Used to describe an object which is frequently used to procrastinate.

3 : (adj.) A feeling that describes one’s desire to procrastinate.

This is my sixty-third post for the #100DaysToOffload challenge. You can learn more about this challenge over at https://100daystooffload.com.