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Is the To-Do List Doing You In?

When the to-do list brings black clouds—and anxiety. Here's how to make the list work for you.

Many days seem to bring an endless barrage of tasks and responsibilities, all of which apparently must be tackled right away. You spend the day putting out fires, but by the end of the day you haven't accomplished any of the really important things you set out to do.

In desperation, you draft a to-do list—but most days, you can make little progress with it. When you look at the list each morning, a big fat cloud of doom is right at the top—those difficult, complex, important tasks that are so crucial to get done—and so easy to avoid.

Plenty of us create a to-do list to address feelings of being overwhelmed, but we rarely use these tools to their best effect. They wind up being guilt-provoking reminders of the fact that we're overcommitted and losing control of our priorities.

Is there a better way to use the to-do list? Experts on procrastination and efficiency say yes.

There's a right way and a wrong way to do a "to-do." According to procrastination researcher Timothy Pychyl, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, people often draw up a to-do list—and then rest on their laurels. The list itself becomes the day's achievement, allowing us to feel we've done something useful without taking on any real work.

In fact, drawing up the list becomes a way of avoiding the work itself! "Too often, the list is seen as the 'accomplishment' for the day, reducing the immediate guilt of not working on the tasks at hand by investing energy in the list," says Pychyl. "When a list is used like this, it is simply another way in which we 'lie' to ourselves."

It's an example of what's been called the "procrastination field"—we're preparing ourselves to work, we're getting all set to take it on, but we never actually start doing it. Instead, we waste time and make ourselves feel terrible by circling around it.

For many people, that takes the form of attending to a barrage of tiny details and immediate requests. Burying yourself in busywork is an effective way to avoid more important—and more challenging—tasks. Pychyl says that procrastinators typically "binge" on low-priority activities, bustling about with stuff that's second- or third-level priority, rather than tackling the things they really need to do.

If this is your pattern, a to-do list can be a big help—if you use it the right way. If there's one dreaded chore that stays on the top of your list for a while, says Pychyl, that's a signal that you should either tackle it right away or admit you're never going to do it and strike it off the list altogether.

Break it down. In order to make it easier to begin working on big, intimidating tasks, efficiency experts suggest breaking it down into much smaller parts composed of specific, tangible activities. Research has shown that tasks that don't have an obvious action plan or structure are the hardest ones to face.

Make it easier on yourself by listing specific actions and subgoals. Your to-do list will get much longer but, paradoxically, will be a much more helpful tool.

Make a flow chart. This type of list "becomes a 'flow chart' that tells you when to start and when you'll be finished," says psychologist and life coach Neil Fiore, author of The Now Habit. "You create an overview and act like a project manager who is less likely to be overwhelmed or distracted by low priority or urgent tasks."

Each item on the list should have a priority assigned to it, he says. Another way to motivate yourself is to schedule alternating tasks: spend one hour on a number-one priority item, and then "reward" yourself by doing something easier and lower-priority for the next 30 minutes.

Maintain focus. Lists help you maintain momentum. If you're working on an important but difficult task, and a concern or thought bubbles up regarding a different responsibility, jot it down and return to it in a half hour or so when you're done with the project you were working on.

Get real! Fiore says that a strength of to-do lists is that they force you to be realistic about the amount of time you have and to make some hard decisions about priorities. "Realistically, you can't do it all," he says. "But you can focus on the best use of your time now, in alignment with your higher priorities and with the reality of human limits, humbly accepted."