Why To-Dos Don’t Get To-Done

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Making lists of what we want to accomplish is a great first step, but it’s easy to stall there. What blocks us from following through?

A Good Tool Gone Wrong

Putting an action on a to-do list seems as though it ought to be definitive. Either it gets on the list or it doesn’t, so either we do it or we don’t. How nice it would be if our minds would cooperate and reflect this black-and-white, all-or-nothing perspective. In real life, very few tasks hold true, unshakable must-do status.

Any item that lacks “must be done now” gravitas is vulnerable to becoming stuck in our lists. We look at it, think about maybe doing it, and move our eyes down the list to something else. Certainly I’ve had my share of stuck items. It feels a bit like a self-betrayal to commit to an action enough to write it down and yet not get it done. In the remainder of this article I’ll make an attempt to describe some of the reasons why to-do items get stuck, and how to un-stick them.

To Do or Should Do?

The motivation to put something on a list, and by extension to commit to completing it, can come from many directions, and not all of them wholesome or good. Sometimes we commit (or try to) because of what others want from us, or what we imagine they expect. While meeting commitments to others is clearly a virtue, sometimes we say we’ll do something not from real duty, but perhaps simply to avoid a conflict or otherwise keep the peace.

Agreeing to do something, then letting it linger is a classic way to get around the feeling of being pushed into something. Unfortunately this kind of stuck to-do invites not only nagging from the interested party, but also conflicted emotions in ourselves if we’re not crystal clear about our true feelings and intentions surrounding the task.

Changing with the Times

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Psychologists have become fond of speaking of ourselves as different people at different points in time. Right now we can contemplate ourselves as we were in the past or how we expect to react and behave in the future. Journaling and list-making are in some sense ourselves at one moment sending a message to ourselves at another, later date.

Implicit in the idea of past selves and future selves is that idea that we are not fixed quantities. At a different time and a different context, we will behave differently. What’s more, we nearly always discount these differences. In fact when we think about our future selves, we tend to imagine ourselves at our absolute best as opposed to some realistic average. In doing so, we put our future selves in way over our heads. For example, we often assume that we’ll be more motivated to work or study later, and so feel justified in putting off tasks. Then tomorrow comes and we’re actually no better off, but closer to deadline.

Assigning ourselves tasks through a to-do list makes the assumption that we know what our future self wants. I find that many tasks that seem important to me on Monday become marginal or worthless by Friday. Yet there they are, staring at me from the to-do list.

The High Cost of Getting Things Done

To do anything is to abandon (at least for now) all the other alternatives. Sometimes there is a perfectly valid item on a to-do list, but the situation has changed and there are more pressing matters at hand. Some people actually welcome crisis because it allows them to legitimately drop everything and focus on the crisis.

Sometimes tasks have hidden costs. Upgrading your career may bring prestige and money, but it may also cost you in terms of stress and free time. Sometimes our minds seem to be doing this accounting all on their own and when the hidden cost of completing is too great, a task gets stuck and stays stuck. If you can spot the conflict, you at least have a clue why you’re stuck.

Unstick the List

So far I’ve described some of the ways that a to-do item can linger. But what to do about all those stuck items? Hopefully what’s been said so far gives some guides as to identifying why an item might be stuck. The intention is to help you have compassion for yourself when you find yourself with a list set in concrete. You could have been smart, had the best intentions and at some earlier time put something on your list that now does not belong there. Hopefully you can see your way to outright deleting items that no longer belong. The willingness to delete requires that you overcome a very natural tendency to be self-consistent. If the task was important before, it should be important now. But for all the reasons we listed above, it just isn’t. Time to let it go.

If deletion seems too extreme, there is another way. Productivity guru David Allen proposes the “someday/maybe” list. This is a parking place for ideas that aren’t important enough to stay as active tasks, but may someday rise to that level. Having a second list provides a “parking lot” where we can store tasks without abandoning them fully. Whether you decide to delete or sideline your stuck to-do’s the emotional effect is likely to be the same: a sense of lightness and greater clarity for the relatively few actions that truly matter each day.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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