5 ways your to-do list might be hurting your productivity

While its form may differ, most people use a documented list to keep track of their daily tasks. According to a study from the online course platform Acuity Training, 33% use a to-do list, 24% run their day from their email inbox, and 12% schedule tasks on their calendar. The rest just deal with whatever seems most important in the moment.

While written to-do lists can provide a blueprint for the day, they can also hurt your productivity if you’re not using them in the right way, says Eduardo Briceño, author of The Performance Paradox: Turning the Power of Mindset Into Action.

“To-do lists are a great self-management tool,” he says. “Where they can get us into trouble is if we get lost in them—if we don’t see in the periphery.”

We’re often nearsighted, says Lisa McCarthy, coauthor of Fast Forward: 5 Power Principles to Create the Life You Want in Just One Year. “Most human beings are focused on what they need to accomplish by Friday, versus zooming out to the future and really gaining clarity on what’s important and then investing their time and energy on that in the present,” she says.

To make better use of your time—and create a more effective to-do list—avoid these five mistakes:

1. Focusing on Execution

It’s satisfying to cross something off a to-do list, but not all tasks move your career or goals forward. Briceño says focusing only on performing and not on learning and improving can be a mistake.

“If you run into a problem, you might troubleshoot that fire drill without going back to the to-do list and changing it so that it doesn’t recur in the future,” he says. “The to-do list becomes about getting things done and not [about] getting better over time.”

2. Feeling Time Deficient

Most people have too many things on their to-do list, and they’re not bound by time. This can lead to feeling overwhelmed, especially if you’re reinforcing it with your self-talk, McCarthy says.

“Most people relate to time, as if there aren’t enough hours in the day,” she says. “Your language creates your reality, and you’ll constantly collect evidence to support it.”

You have a choice over what you say. Instead of being reactive, be intentional. For example, McCarthy suggests saying, “I have enough time. I have enough energy to invest in what’s important to me, both professionally and personally.”

When building your to-do list with this mindset, determine the most important things you want to accomplish for your job and your personal well-being. Start with the finish, and then plan your week.

3. Lumping Tasks

When writing a to-do list, it’s also common to lump low-level, midlevel, and high-level tasks together. This approach makes it difficult to get traction on the things that are important.

“You might forget why you’re pursuing those things,” Briceño says. “Instead, you need to know what your strategic priorities and high-level goals are.”

The importance level of tasks can change over time. Routinely reevaluate your priorities. Briceño suggests asking yourself, “What are my most important goals? And is what is on my to-do list right now the right way to approach that?”

4. Sticking to Routines

Another risk is that you’ll stick to what Briceño calls “bulldozing”: doing one thing all the time, such as working all the time or sticking to one kind of task.

“You miss out on the value of alternating mental and emotional states,” he says. “Nobel Prize winners are about 20 times more likely than the general population to engage in a hobby, like the performance arts. Great violinists sleep more than other people do. Our brain needs to recharge and rest. It needs to explore new things. When we discover new things, we make connections, and that leads to innovation.”

Getting into the habit of doing different things throughout the day, rather than one thing, leads to learning and productivity.

5. Ignoring Your Energy

How effective you are at executing tasks can depend on your energy level. McCarthy says a to-do list should be created with this in mind. For example, if you’re a morning person, tackle your high-energy tasks early in the day. If you get revved up in the afternoon, save important tasks for later.

“You have to know yourself,” she says. “Be reflective of what you need to do to keep your physical and mental energy at its peak. When you can get in front of it, you’ll get the most important stuff done instead of just reacting.”

Whether it’s on a weekly, monthly, or semiannual basis, Briceño recommends reflecting on the habits and tools you’re using and determining whether they need to be improved.

“Clarify what is most important to you,” he says. “What are your performance goals and what are learning goals? How are you doing in pursuit of these goals? The to-do list is a wonderful place to capture the tasks that we want to do. Make sure you’re using it the right way.”