Why You Should Stop Using To-Do Lists

I’m changing a conviction I’ve held for over 40 years.

How so, and exactly what am I changing?

It’s simple: I’m not using to-do lists anymore.

This will come as a surprise to many AWAI friends. They know I live by my to-do lists. The truth is, up until two weeks ago, I’d written a to-do list every day including on weekends.

Over the years, I’ve religiously preached the importance of to-do lists to anyone who would listen. But, it all changed when I asked AWAI staff member Cameron Irish a casual question right before a recent Circle of Success Targeted Learning Program session.

“Denise (Ford) has so much to do. How’s she able to get so much done and so well?” I asked Cam.

Cam’s two-word response: “Covey Quadrants.”

Now, I have a confession to make. Until then, I had Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People on my “to read” list. But, I hadn’t read it yet. (Error corrected.) Since I’ve admired Denise’s ability to accomplish so much with grace and ease for so long, I looked up Covey Quadrants and was led to the Covey Time Management Grid.

And, I immediately replaced my to-do list passion with it.

Breaking your day into 4 sectors …

Let’s start by looking at the Covey Time Management Grid with nothing filled in. As shown by the name, Covey’s to-do list replacement is divided into four parts, or quadrants:

Quadrant 1:
Urgent & Important

Quadrant 2:
Not Urgent & Important

Quadrant 3:
Urgent & Not Important

Quadrant 4:
Not Urgent & Not Important

Before I adopted the Covey Time Management Grid, I would fill in my to-do list first thing in the morning. I filled in items from the day before and added new items. I’d then prioritize the items.

This system worked. But, as new items inevitability appeared in the middle of the day, I had to reshuffle priorities. And, there was no ready visual separation among the various priorities.

I embraced the Covey system before even using it, because it made priorities visually obvious immediately. This becomes clear when you see it filled in with real items. This is my partial Covey Grid for one day a couple of weeks ago:

Quadrant 1:
Urgent & Important

  • Write COS blog
  • Revise Peer Review Report
  • Power to Persuade session 2 – noon
  • Contact Rotary student volunteers

Quadrant 2:
Not Urgent & Important

  • Special reports for Offer/Close Targeted Learning Program
  • Timeline for remaining TLP projects
  • Arrange with Maggie for Christmas

Quadrant 3:
Urgent & Not Important

  • Shop for Pancakes with Santa à Fran
  • Get photos to Susan for Facebook

Quadrant 4:
Not Urgent & Not Important

  • Find how to watch Warriors online

Finding the right slot for your to-do’s …

Looking at my Covey Grid doesn’t really reveal which to-do items go where. That’s because I’m the person who has to decide that. If you adopt this strategy, you have to decide what’s urgent, what’s important, and so on.

Doing that was difficult when I first started using this system. I was inclined to make everything urgent and important. So, I forced myself to follow guidelines I’ve adapted for my use from Covey’s guidelines.

Quadrant 1 is for the immediate and important deadlines.

These deadlines aren’t necessarily due on that day. For instance, I generally take two days for the COS blog, one for writing and one for editing. So, this entry into Quadrant 1 was really a two-day deadline. On the other hand, the Peer Review special report was due at the end of the day. (I’d been working on it several days.)

Quadrant 2 has two purposes for me. (This differs somewhat from Covey’s strategy.)

I use it for projects or activities with due dates several days in the future, like the Targeted Learning Program special reports. I also use this quadrant for long-term strategizing and development, such as “[Develop] timeline for remaining Targeted Learning Program projects.”

Quadrant 3 is for time-pressured items that don’t relate directly to work or high-priority community activities, such as Rotary or volunteer services. These are often items someone has asked me to do, but that I can hand off to someone I trust.

Quadrant 4 is for those activities that yield little value. These are activities that are often used for taking a break from time-pressured and important activities. Linda and I don’t have satellite or cable TV, and I want to be able to watch the Warriors. So, I slip investigating how to watch some other way into this quadrant.

Making this system work for you …

The most common way to use this system is to take your current “to-do” list and sort all the activities into the appropriate quadrant. Then, figure out the amount of time you have to accomplish the lists and, if necessary, switch activities. For instance, if you don’t have time to complete all your Quadrant 1 items, move the one with the least urgency into Quadrant 2.

I’ve also adapted this system for week-long planning on Monday morning. This makes my week’s work seem more manageable and less daunting.

It’s still too early to tell if I’m more productive using the Covey Time Management Grid system. But I feel I am. Plus, I love being able to see more clearly how my to-do’s are neatly laid out according to urgency ad importance.

Any productivity system is worthless if it doesn’t help you get more done with less effort. The trick to making this system work is to take it at its most basic and adapt it to how you prioritize. Look at how I’ve done that … and then change it to meet your needs.

One thing to remember when using this system – or any to-do list system – do important things first!

Do you already use Covey’s system for planning your time? Or, do you use another system that works well for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Published: December 14, 2015

10 Responses to “Why You Should Stop Using To-Do Lists”

  1. Hi Will,

    Thanks for reminding me about the Covey Quadrants. I used to use them religiously but have slipped away from them lately. And found myself wondering how I used to accomplish all the stuff I did!

    So I'm grateful for your refresher and jumping right back in.

    Susie Kuse

    Susie KuseDecember 14, 2015 at 11:18 am

  2. Hi Will.

    I've been using Joshua Boswell's "list of 6" items -- items I must commit to for the following day. Then there's that other list of "everything else." Sometimes the latter list gets way too long, so dividing all those into Covey quadrants would help.

    Maybe I can adapt this system, where "Quadrant 1" always contains my "List of 6" items. Then I can always pull from the other quadrants when time allows.

    - Les

    Les WorleyDecember 14, 2015 at 12:36 pm

  3. Hi Will,

    I have developed a habit of focusing first on those things that will take "just a minute" and that seem too insignificant to put on the list at all. This includes returning a phone call, putting a load of clothes in the washer, feeding kitty, etc... Before you know it, the morning is gone.

    Guest (Noa)December 14, 2015 at 1:35 pm

  4. My day's arranged in thirds: Life; Liberty; and Pursuits of Happiness. From Aristotle leans, my Lyceum beginning third descriptively addresses "logically HOW?" my metaphysics can come out of the closet. Then, as a Platonic Academician, my next third prescriptively conjures "ethically WHY?" I need to do this. And finally, in my Gymnasium third, I endeavor to slam-dunk that which is otherwise mired in "preformed WHEN?" indifference.

    Guest (Chris Morris)December 14, 2015 at 1:50 pm

  5. I use the highly fallible post-it note method...which means I'm terrible at to-do lists(slip-shod) would more accurately describe my miserable attempts to manage to-do's in the past. I believe your article gave me a "Eureka" moment accompanied with a right hand forehead slap. Thank you, thank you...I'm going to print out a blank form copy of the Covey Quadrants and print out many copies as soon as I can find my sticky notes to write it down as a reminder...

    Guest (Paul D Bryant)December 14, 2015 at 5:45 pm

  6. I have used every time management tool in the book.

    A few years ago I retired and became a full-time RVer. Now my quadrants look like this:
    Quadrant 1: Empty Quadrant 2: Be in New Mexico by May Quadrant 3: Empty Quadrant 4: Everything else

    Guest (Bob)December 15, 2015 at 12:52 pm

  7. Been using several of Covey's books over the years. Certainly Covey Quadrants is a process I have used for several years. Keep me well organized and out of trouble. Great stuff. Thanks for the post

    Guest (john moroz)December 17, 2015 at 9:48 am

  8. Hi, Will,

    Hope it isn't too late to comment on this.
    I'm doing the same thing you are-starting to use Covey's method. I use a "Planner Pad" organizer. The top sections of the weekly view are activities by category. I use those by assigning them into the four quadrants, and that's my week, all laid out. I'm finding I'm getting more things done that way.

    Paul BlackDecember 24, 2015 at 5:10 pm


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