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UNSPLASH/ LUIS LLERENA
Throw out—or at least put aside—your to do list
TO DON'T

The overwhelming burden of to-do lists can destroy all meaningful activity

By Olivia Goldhill

My current to-do list is 2,644 words long. There’s a plan for each day of the upcoming next week, then a jumble of notes on administrative tasks I need to sort into order, sections for work and personal chores, followed by future important dates, lists of tidbits to remember, books to read, and movies to watch.

If you’re exhausted reading this, imagine how draining it is trying to live by it. 

Organizational lists, which usually start out as helpful reminders, can easily morph into time-consuming chores that restrict freedom. I first recognized the destructive potential of to do lists when I went to technology therapy, for a 2015 article for my former employer. When Richard Graham, a psychiatrist at Nightingale Hospital in London who specializes in technology addiction, asked how I use my phone, I realized that much of my screen time was spent curating to-do lists. I would pick up my phone several times an hour to add to and organize my master-planning Google doc; I couldn’t relax if I didn’t write down every chore and reminder.

These lists only increased my anxiety, rather than alleviating it, the doctor advised. “You’re simply creating more things that are separate from you, that you have to keep checking to make sure they’re there. You’re using that as an external brain to outsource what you need to remember, and your reliance is making you anxious,” he told me.

Graham’s point—that you should trust your brain—mirrors a strategy shared by Kate Lewis, chief content officer at Hearst magazines, in a recent interview with The Cut. “Once a week I write down everything on my to-do list. It’s a full page of items in eight-point font, and it’s a tremendously overwhelming thing,” she said. “Then I throw it out.” Lewis says the stuff she remembers is what she really has to do, and less important things can fall off. 

It’s an extreme approach, which may not work for everyone. Certainly, throwing away your to-do list suggests you have the luxury of not suffering serious consequences for failing to remember an important duty. And for many people, who have normal, non-obsessive organizational methods, a short to-do list can supplement a poor memory.

But lists become harmful rather than helpful when they supplant memory altogether and become the de facto way of governing your time and interests. An overly strict approach makes it difficult to trust yourself. Should you really spend the morning writing in a journal when you’re feeling inspired, if your to-do list demands that you do laundry and buy some spare batteries for the smoke alarm? 

Excessive planning also makes it difficult to enjoy unproductive time for its own sake. In Anne Helen Peterson’s epic article for Buzzfeed News about millennial burnout, she describes the chores that weigh on her mind: “getting knives sharpened, taking boots to the cobbler, registering my dog for a new license, sending someone a signed copy of my book, scheduling an appointment with the dermatologist, donating books to the library, vacuuming my car.” Any potential chances for leisure—afternoons spent reading in the sun or catching up with old friends—are far less enjoyable under the shade of such a lengthy list. 

Throwing away a to-do list suggests that, maybe, the car can go un-vacuumed and the knives remain dull. Of course, there are some things that really shouldn’t be forgotten. In 2013, the Stickies app I then used for my to-do list crashed. Though I did my best to replicate the important reminders, I forgot to apply for a visa for a trip to India, showing that I could safely rely on neither my stickies nor my own mind. 

This year, I’ve worked to be less obsessively perfectionist in organizing my time. Instead of constantly amending my master Google doc, I now carry small notebooks and jot down less important reminders. And I’ve pushed myself to relax how frequently I incorporate these notes into a grander plan. It turns out that when I review these scribblings a few weeks later, most of them seem inconsequential. 

Lists can be useful but, in any fulfilled life, there should be time to put the to-do list aside and trust your instincts. While it’s hard to go wrong with a moderate approach, sometimes you just need to do whatever you damn well please.