Why “MIT” To-Do Lists Don’t Work For Me

Posted on 20 March, 2015 in Productivity / 9 Comments

MIT to-do lists

I like to conduct little experiments with my workflows, tools, and productivity tips. I decided I was being selfish to keep the results to myself, so I’m sharing some with you!

Any productivity enthusiast knows that there’s a lot of bad advice out there.

Not because anyone’s trying to dupe you, or because the person is flat-out wrong.

Just because everyone has a unique working style. Unique enough that you should always take productivity with a grain of salt.

And there is nothing more important to your productivity than knowing yourself. How you work, what motivates you, what distracts you, and other strengths and weaknesses.

Yet, there are also tips that are widely considered “too legit to quit.” (Oh hey, MC Hammer!) For example, breaking down big projects into smaller tasks. That also happens to be one of my favorite tips, and it’s probably singlehandedly helped my own productivity more than anything else I’ve tried.

Breaking Down Your Tasks

I think it’s extremely important that a to-do list consists of tasks. Specific, actionable things to do. Keeping track of your goals and projects is important, of course, but not on your daily to-do list.

For example, I talk about the setup of my Erin Condren life planner in this post. I put my to-do list for the day in the daily boxes. Then in the sidebar (or in the weekend slots, since I don’t really use those), I list out three projects that need to be finished that week. Throughout the daily to-do lists, you’d find smaller tasks that help me accomplish the larger projects.

“Most Important Tasks” Lists Lack Focus

I tried planning my schedule with “MIT” to-do lists for a while. If you write them like you’re “supposed” to, there are only three items on the list. So my list for the day would look something like:

  1. Blog post for Friday
  2. March external newsletter
  3. Checklist drip campaign

There are just so many things I dislike about this list. First of all, it’s so vague. What needs to be done for the blog posts? And the newsletter?

Secondly, I would not be able to complete a blog post, newsletter, and drip campaign start to finish in one day. They would each take a few hours each. There are other things I need to do daily, like checking email, taking a look at different metrics in the platforms we use, and editing. I can’t devote my whole day to the three most important tasks.

How I “To-Do” Instead

My to-do list started out with 27 items today. It’s long, I know. But it’s in Todoist, so it’s easily sortable and I can scroll and rearrange things to my heart’s desire. But instead of tasks like those listed above, they things like:

  • Outline blog post about _________
  • Complete first round edits for the ________ blog post
  • Collect company news for external newsletter
  • Select blog posts for external newsletter
  • Reply to Eli’s email about audio headsets
  • Finalize first three emails in drip campaign

No single item should take that long. I try to keep it at 30 minutes. Sometimes, if I do need to knock out a big project in one day, I’ll add the whole thing in one task. This is also helpful for tasks that are difficult to break down. If it’s hard to break down, but spread over a few days, I’ll add something like, “Work on Spreadsheet A for 30 minutes,” set a timer, and cross it off my list when I hear the buzzer go off.

At first, it frustrated me. All these productivity experts said the MIT method was great! Why couldn’t it work for me? Why didn’t it make me more productive?

After awhile, after performing other “experiments” to varying levels of success, I let it go. Not every tip works for every person. I know this, in my brain. But that didn’t make it less frustrating at first.

Are there any productivity “tips” that didn’t work for you?

Why M.I.T. To-Do Lists Don't Work for Me (and What I Do Instead)

  • I’m not familiar with the MIT style, or really any productivity style. I just write a bulleted list of what needs to be done, and cross them off when done. I haven’t thought about timelines and such, but I think working on something for 30 minutes is a great idea.

    • Thanks! I’ve read that tasks tend to stretch to the amount of time you give them. So if you don’t give them a timeframe, they just keep stretching. That interested me so I decided to start paying attention to times more!

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  • Kassiah

    I tend to just put everything on a piece of paper (or in evernote) with no organization. I’m getting better about using Trello to keep up with the status of my work, thanks to you, but I’m going to check out Todoist since so much of what I do is recurring. Great advice, as usual, pretty!

    • Haha thanks! Since upgrading to Todoist’s premium plan, I’ve mostly been using Trello to track larger projects, instead of my small day-to-day tasks. I love it!

      • Kassiah

        I might upgrade, too. I took the recurring tasks off of my google calendar and already feel less overwhelmed 🙂

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