Recently, there has been a lot of debate over the value of to-do lists. Critics are calling for an end to productivity's most fundamental tool, suggesting that "ultra-productive" people just use their calendars, that the Eisenhower Matrix (a version of Stephen Covey's important/urgent two-by-two) is better than a traditional list, and that it's more important to make a list of what you're not going to do than what you have to do.

Despite these critiques, many of us use to-do lists, and new to-do list apps keep emerging even though there were already so many a decade ago. The large number of apps supports some critics' arguments, suggesting there still isn't one or even a few that people think work very well. If there was, people wouldn't keep creating new ones.

Based on my experience coaching professionals, the main reason to-do lists aren't successful is that people stop using them. They are like wearable devices, which half of all buyers return within six months.

Why don't people keep using to-do lists?

Busy people will not repeatedly do things that don't offer value or pleasure. To-do lists often end up doing neither.

In reality, it's not that to-do lists don't add value, it's that they don't add enough value to meet people's expectations. People expect their to-do lists to ensure they'll accomplish their priorities. Yet, this is not reasonable. If you struggle to finish your work, it's not the fault of your to-do list.

To-do lists are good at two things:

  • capturing in one place everything you have to do
  • sorting and organizing tasks in ways that make it easy to determine what to do next

To-do lists are not good at carving out sufficient time to complete your priorities, or at making you do what you said you would do. If you ask to-do lists to do what they have not been designed to do, you will continue to find them lacking.

However, where to-do lists are weak, calendars are strong. This is why some recommend abandoning to-do lists in preference of calendars. Yet that approach makes no more sense than only using a to-do list. Your calendar is slow and ineffective in the areas to-do lists are strong.

Rather than pick one, use your to-do list and calendar together. In tandem, they can do what neither can do alone: just about guarantee that you'll accomplish your priorities.

Here's how to use them together:

  1. Enter all tasks into your list as soon as you learn of them, assigning them a relative priority level.
  2. Keep your to-do list sorted by priority level.
  3. Before beginning each day, sit down with your to-do list and schedule out the full day, populating it with your high- and medium-priority items.
  4. Identify your top three priorities for the day.
  5. Review your schedule to determine if you'll be able to accomplish your top priorities. (In steps one through three, we can lose the forest for the trees.) Make adjustments as needed.

These steps only work if you create a realistic schedule. If you don't, you'll ignore your calendar for the same reason many quit using to-do lists: it no longer adds value. Be realistic-- even conservative-- in the amount of time you allot to tasks. Schedule time to take breaks, check your email, handle unexpected requests, and grab something to eat.

If your calendar is realistic, you can let it guide you through the day, which is 13 percent more efficient than deciding what to do every time you switch tasks.

In a world with millions of productivity apps, all-in-one solutions are appealing because of their simplicity. Yet, don't let your desire for simplicity undermine your efficacy. Use a to-do list and calendar together to give yourself the best chance of accomplishing your priorities.