• Jon Saft

Why to-do lists kill productivity

To-do lists sit at the core of most productivity tools, but counter to common belief, they are productivity killers.

You might be thinking to yourself, "isn't Quatro a to-do list?" Yes, in some ways, we offer the same checklist features as many other productivity tools. Like many in our space, we subscribe to the idea that the first step to productivity is getting your brilliant idea out of your head so you can clear headspace for the creativity and thought required to get it done.

But by itself, the to-do list causes more harm than good. Inevitably, the list grows from a couple errands to an endless mountain of work. Over time, what should be a list of great ideas and opportunities becomes a graveyard of failed dreams and disappointments.

But there is a simple answer, one that is already a part of your daily routine. From Elon Musk to Jeff Bezos, many of the world's most productive people rely on time blocking their calendar to stay on track throughout the day.

What is time blocking?

Time blocking is the process of scheduling your time according to what you plan on getting done.

You might be thinking to yourself, "my schedule is just too random to schedule everything I need to do in a day. I can try to plan every day, but inevitably, one call from a prospect or Slack from my boss could change everything."

Of course, sometimes we need to deviate from the plan. In the famous words of Mike Tyson, everyone has a plan until they get smacked in the face.

But if you are honest with yourself, you'll see that you very rarely get smacked in the face by Mike Tyson.

Reflection will give you the edge

Instead of dealing with heavyweight champs, typically, we deal with two types of work in the office: reflective and reactive. Most people spend most of their time doing reactive work - immediately jumping on that call or Slack. If you want a competitive advantage, don't be like most people. Make time for reflective work, because no one else is doing it.

It’s very easy to answer calls and Slacks and emails, running a million miles an hour to close a deal. But without proper planning and reflection, how do you know if you’re running in the right direction?

This is where the calendar comes in. When you start your day, take a look at your most impactful tasks, and slot them into the openings in your calendar. This could be something as specific as, "write the time blocking blog post," or something as vague as, "respond to emails." As long as you have a realistic plan, you'll be well ahead of everyone else.

Constraints are your friend

Your calendar will help ensure you are running in the right direction because its constraints force you to think critically.

Whether you're Elon Musk or Joey Donuts, we are all working with the same 24 hours in a day. This constraint make us better, which is a bit counterintuitive. People tend to think impediments make them less successful, but if you ask any author or painter what’s the hardest part of their job, it’s the blank page or canvas.

This is what’s wrong with the to-do list methodology - it’s endless. You can keep completing tasks forever, which inevitably leads to recycling the same tasks day after day that don’t get done. Staring at these unfinished tasks every day builds a toxic self-image, increases anxiety, and reduces productivity (leading to more unfinished tasks, more anxiety, and a self-fulfilling death spiral of negativity).

The calendar, on the other hand, has a clearly defined beginning and end. It forces you to create a thoughtful plan to accomplish a goal within the time available.

And when you complete everything you set out to complete in a given day? That creates the opposite effect: instead of a toxic self-image, you now feel great about yourself, increase your self-confidence, and enhance your ability to produce moving forward.

To-do list + Calendar = Success

The calendar alone won't give you this positive feeling of accomplishment. Which is why you were right to remind us that Quatro does offer many of the same features as some of the productivity killing apps you'll find in the Productivity category of the app store. We know that the to-do list is a necessary tool, but alone, it will lead to a dangerous negativity spiral.

But by bringing your to-do list into your calendar, combining the two will transform you into an unstoppable force. And when the day is done, you can shut down feeling great that everything in your calendar has been checked off the list.

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We love the number 4 so much we named our company after it. For us, the number 4 carries so much power because of its ability to keep us sane. We were sick of being afraid of our daunting to-do lists,