To-do lists are simple to create, offer useful reminders and are used by everyone. What issue could there possibly be?

First and foremost, I would argue that it is essential that we question everything we do and every tool and technique we use. As a shopping list, the to-do list format probably works pretty well. And yet, even here it has its limitations. Ever find yourself having to go back to the same supermarket aisle because the last items on the list are in the same aisle as some of the first items on the list? Maybe it is just me.

Beyond that, the 2D nature of to-do lists certainly affects me. The amount of time or urgency of a particular item isn’t necessarily clear. It certainly wasn’t in the way I initially used to-do lists.

I also used to write tasks to be done rather than outcomes to be accomplished. And yet, even here, a particular outcome might require a whole series of steps, so it often makes sense to break them down into a series of discreet outcomes although the order isn’t always immediately obvious.

To-do lists also tell you nothing about where you are focusing your efforts and what parts of your life or work may be overlooked. They therefore tell us little about how tactical or strategic we are being or indeed how important a particular item is for you now. As the poet David Whyte said: “The great tragedy of the to-do list is that it was put together by the person you were yesterday.”

To get around these issues, I found myself having to use different pieces of software and to spend a significant amount of time managing the whole process. It was adding a layer of stress to my life that added little value.

I therefore started wondering how I might design a system that worked for me. A system that allowed me to get a sense for what was truly urgent, what was important both today and in the long-term and to see how everything I was doing fitted into my life overall. Was I seeing friends enough? Was I setting aside enough time for my volunteering activities? Was some aspect of my life taking up too much space? Where was the me time? Time to exercise?

I would invite you to take up the same! To find a system that allows you to focus on what is truly essential to you and that helps you accomplish what matters most. There are a number of resources below that may help.

Questions in the Image:

  • How are my to-do lists stressing me?
  • How much time do I spend on my to-do lists?
  • What is the appeal of to-do lists for me?
  • What is it they truly help me accomplish?

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Nurturing Curiosity – Daily Practice: This is part of the Nurturing Curiosity series of tools, insights and questions designed to help nurture curiosity as part of our daily practice. In point of fact, every interaction we have is an opportunity to question what we are observing and how we and others are seeing the world. Also remember that questions come in many forms throughout our day. The question of What is Essential Now? has been following me around of late – I simply see it everywhere I turn. It has really helped me clarify what is core and what is superfluous in each moment.

About Tom O’Leary

My mission is to help others think differently – meaning more broadly and deeply – and thereby make better decisions. The key to thinking differently lies in our curiosity.

The more we question, the more possible answers we uncover, and the more we expand what we thought possible. Life has taught me that possibility lies not so much in seeking answers but in learning to ask better questions – the ones that help prioritise what is truly essential.

And yet, in a culture obsessed with efficiency and productivity, the paradox is that much energy and resources are wasted by a bias towards action over contemplation. If you are answering the wrong question, it doesn’t matter how ‘hard’ you work, you are still answering the wrong question.

That is why I am a big advocate of nurturing curiosity and innovative thinking at all ages, particularly amongst leaders because of the impact they have on us all. In my vision, leaders aren’t boxed in by traditional thinking or established playbooks. They are curious, open to fresh ideas and diverse perspectives, fostering a culture of exploration and learning.

What Thoughts Would You Like to Share?

I welcome your thoughts, feedback, or personal experiences related to these questions or any insights they may have sparked.