Creating a better to-do list

What could be wrong with the humble to-do list?

It seems like nothing more than an elegant if low-tech solution to dumping the swirl of tasks in your brain onto paper, keeping track of progress and giving yourself a series of little post-check pats on the back. But according to Jim Benson, author of Personal Kanban, and inc, your to-do list may actually be stressing you out.

If your list contains more work than you can get done in a relatively short time horizon, Benson explained in a recent interview, you tend to get crazy, flail, and attend only to what’s most obviously urgent at the moment rather than larger underlying issues that might actually be more meaningful. In other words, things unfold much like the famous clip from I Love Lucy where she takes a shift on the production line of an overly speedy chocolate factory.

Instead of overburdening your mind with too many tasks, Benson suggests a technique adopted from Toyota’s manufacturing process, which is also the title of his book. He explains this “personal kanban” to Fast Company:

What we do is take a whiteboard and create three simple columns: Ready, Doing, and Done. In the Ready column, you populate that with Post-it notes of things you’re supposed to do. In the Doing column, you set a limit–we recommend three things, though it can be higher or lower. So now instead of having a theoretically unlimited capacity for work, you now have a very visible limited capacity for work.

When you complete something, you look at the Ready list, and you say, “Okay, I’ve got one slot out of three. What is it I can put here that’s of highest value?”… Each of those columns are vital, because the Ready column is showing you options–previously your to-do list was a death sentence, but now it’s turned into options. The Doing column says “Here’s the list of things I’m working on; I can’t start anything else until I complete one; finish it!” Then the Done column allows a growing real-time retrospective of your work.

Benson, of course, isn’t the only person peddling alternatives and improvements to the traditional to-do list. If his personal kanban approach doesn’t suit you, maybe advice on improving your list’s verbs, a suggestion to employ a NOT to-do list, a switch to a zen-like focus on your ‘One Thing,’ or a detailed explanation of how to move from working off a to-do list to working off a calendar will suit you better.

Image: To do list via Shutterstock