What I am about to say may sound like heresy to those who are looking to be more productive, but bear with me. I am a little ADD, so I have used to-do lists to stay on track since I was a teenager. But recently, I’ve set the to-do list aside in order to be even more productive.
As I’ve read about productivity this summer, I kept stumbling over a powerful argument to stop doing what I was doing and try something new. I keep reading that the most productive people do not work from a to-do list. Instead, they use one of the two methods I will describe below.
A pile of my To-Do Lists
I have tried both methods and they have made me more productive. I am not suggesting you try anything I have not tried myself.
Alternatives to the To-Do List
The first is the calendar. I use a calendar for big events, and I share a family calendar with my wife in order to coordinate family activities (e.g., doctors appointments, soccer games, etc.). But my use of the calendar has been limited.
However, I have learned that some of the most productive people use their calendar in place of the to-do list. That is, they schedule the most important things immediately on their calendar, and if it is not on the calendar, they simply don’t do it.
I didn’t like this idea at first, but I tried it and I now understand the elegance of this method. It disciplines you to keep the main thing the main thing.
Rory Vaden wrote, “While only 8 percent of all people consistently use a written detailed schedule of how to spend their time in a week, we estimate that about 85 percent of the [super-productive] we surveyed use one.” That statistic alone should be enough evidence to test the calendar method.
An alternative to the calendar method is the priority list. James clear, the author of Atomic Habits wrote about Warren Buffett’s advice to his pilot Mike Flint.
If you don’t know who Warren Buffett is, he is currently the third wealthiest person in the world according to Forbes Magazine, right behind Jeff Bezos (#1) and Bill Gates (#2). Apparently, Flint asked Buffett for career advice and Buffett provided a simple three-step formula.
- Write down your top 25 career goals.
- Circle the top 5 and create a second list containing only these 5 items
- Here the story gets interesting. I will let James clear explain in his own words:
At this point, Flint had two lists. The 5 items he had circled were List A and the 20 items he had not circled were List B.
Flint confirmed that he would start working on his top 5 goals right away. And that’s when Buffett asked him about the second list, “And what about the ones you didn’t circle?”
Flint replied, “Well, the top 5 are my primary focus, but the other 20 come in a close second. They are still important so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit. They are not as urgent, but I still plan to give them a dedicated effort.”
To which Buffett replied, “No. You’ve got it wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”
I was a bit shocked when I read that, but it makes sense. It is focus that leads to productivity. It is not about doing more things; it is about doing the right things.
For me, the calendar method is more challenging than the priority method. I still keep a to-do list for small tasks that I can’t forget about (e.g., picking up medicine, creating a grocery list, etc.), but focused prioritization has been helpful for me, and I hope that it will help you too.
What About You?
How do you make sure that you achieve your highest priorities? Would the calendar or priority method help? What should you do right now to make this a reality?
 Vaden, R. (2015). Procrastinate on purpose: 5 permissions to multiply your time. New York: Perigee Books. (p. 188).