Your To-Do List Is Making You Procrastinate: Here’s How to Fix It

To-do list and cup of coffee on desk

Photo by Andrew Neel

Having a to-do list doesn’t gaurantee your tasks will get done.

If that were true, procrastination wouldn’t exist. Everyone would just write to-do lists and be super productive. But in real life, important tasks gather dust on our to-do lists while we focus on the wrong things.

Fortunately, you can break the cycle of procrastination if you understand how to use to-do lists correctly.

The Mistake You’re Making with To-Do Lists

"The only difference between success and failure is the ability to take action."

— Alexander Graham Bell

I’ll bet the tasks you procrastinate on are the big scary ones.

Stuff like “develop the business strategy” or “create an employee incentive programme”. You know these are important, but the weeks fly past and you don’t make any progress. The tasks you tick off your to-do list are the wrong ones – the easy ones.

Eventually, the deadline arrives, and you go into panic mode. With frantic effort, you get the job done. But it’s hardly your best work at this point. Had you started weeks ago, as you originally hoped, you might be proud of what you made.

The cause of this problem is the type of task you’re writing down. Your big scary tasks are actually big scary projects. And projects don’t belong on your to-do list.

The Difference Between Tasks and Projects

A project is a desired outcome that requires more than one step to complete.

Consider the goal of updating your company product brochure. It may be tempting to write “Update the product brochure” on your to-do list as a task to complete. But this would be wrong because it’s a multi-stage project.

Think about all the steps involved in updating a brochure:

Many of these steps can be broken down further. If we take “Writing the copy” as an example, this could be broken into a series of sub-steps:

This is now a list of tasks. I define a task as a unit of work you can complete in less than two hours (and ideally in 30-60 mins). Tasks are not big and scary, by definition, because they’re only taking incremental steps towards your goal.

When you procrastinate, what you’re actually doing is focusing on the non-scary tasks on your to-do list and ignoring the projects. Next time you look at your to-do list, ask yourself: are these tasks or projects?

You’ll be surprised how few real tasks you’ve got listed.

Focus on the Next Step to Take

Your to-do list should have one task listed for each of your active projects.

Each time you start a project, the first task is to plan. You need to understand the 4-5 steps needed to get this project completed. If we continue the brochure example from earlier, your to-do list should have one item on it: “Make a plan for the product brochure”.

Look how approachable that task is. You can even timebox this – 30 minutes is enough. It’s something you can block in your calendar and commit to doing today. You’ve moved from procrastination to action, by planning to take one simple step forward.

Once you’ve completed your plan, you simply put the very next task on the to-do list: “Create the bullet point outline”. You shouldn’t put the remaining tasks on the to-do list because they can’t happen until we complete this next step. You don’t want to overload yourself and trigger another bout of procrastination.

Keep doing this all the way until the project is done.

Plan Just Enough to Get Started

If your project is big enough, you won’t be able to list all the tasks involved.

A project like “Launch a competitive new product to market” is highly complex and will evolve over time. If you try and plan this out entirely before you start, you will fail (and procrastinate). To avoid this, you just plan enough to get started.

In this example, step one is likely to be some kind of market research. Just focus on enumerating the tasks related to this first step and don’t worry about the rest. Our goal is to always know what the next step is, but we don’t need to know what every step is going to be.

As E.L Doctorow once said (admittedly about writing rather than working):

"Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

— E.L. Doctorow

This is our approach. If we patiently tackle what we see in our headlights, we’ll finish the trip soon enough.

Look at your task list today and start identifying projects masquerading as tasks. Break those projects down into meaningful next steps, and watch your procrastination fade away.

One step at a time, you can get anything done.