The Procrastinator’s To-Do List

I’ve devised a special test that can quickly distinguish a procrastinator from the general population – don’t worry, you won’t feel a thing. But, I am sorry to say, your test has come back positive.

People who get things done – or, ‘organized freaks,’ as I call them – don’t read articles about procrastination. The subject simply doesn’t apply to them. In fact, these people don’t read self-help blogs at all. They’re too busy out doing stuff like color coding their calendar or drawing a map of the contents of their luggage (seriously).

As a procrastinator, the likelihood that you will follow a system is inversely proportional to the system’s complexity. In layman’s terms: keep it simple or you’re going to fall off the wagon.

I’ve implemented such a system and it has changed my life – a life previously plagued by missed deadlines, overlooked opportunities, and general stress. Sound familiar? I’ll show you how it’s done below the jump.

Let’s start with the fundamental logic behind the system: “your mind is for having ideas, not holding them” – an axiom I first learned from productivity guru David Allen. The human mind is an incredible machine – it acts as an incubator for creative ideas and as a storage device for an endless pool of data. Your mind, however, is wired to recall data at your command. It performs miserably when expected to serve up that data automatically.

I’m sure you could tell me what day your mom’s birthday is, what her favorite flower is (yellow roses – man, I’m a good son), and the fact that you’re supposed to get your mom a present on her birthday. But despite knowing all of that information, your brain doesn’t instinctively know to send you a reminder a week before her birthday, does it? It sends you a series of random reminders at its leisure.

Ever seen a lottery drawing? There’s a big swirling machine with dozens of balls flying around, and every few seconds a ball pops up and we get to see the number. That’s a lot like how your brain works – you have a constant swirl of ideas, commitments, obligations, wants, and desires floating around. From time to time, those ideas pop up – not necessarily at the optimal time or in any particular order. It’s frustrating.

When a certain piece of data is no longer needed on a day-to-day basis, it finds a permanent home and parks itself. When you were in grade school, you had the names of different types of clouds floating around in your head (pun intended, I guess). You had to remember it for a test, but now that you’re an adult and you know that information is utterly useless, you’ve parked discarded that data and it no longer stresses you out.

The point is that your brain will continue to juggle – and thus stress – about any piece of data that does not have a permanent home. Your brain will not let go of something until it knows that the task will be carried out.

Enter the To-Do List.

Let’s get one thing straight – I hate to-do lists. Well, I used to, at least. I hated them as much as I hated the people who wrote them (and almost as much as the people who suggested that I write them).

For a procrastinator, writing a to-do list is incredibly painful. It serves as a reminder of all of the lingering, unresolved issues that haunt us. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that the stress doesn’t exist if the to-do list isn’t written – in fact, your brain is constantly stressing on autopilot (your brain is great at that). This baselines stress affects your mood, your sleep, your performance, and, most importantly, your ability to rationally digest tasks and get them done.

The truth is that the to-do list is the single most powerful tool you have for combating procrastination and joining the productive minority of society. I believe most to-do lists fail from one of two causes:

1. The to-do list is not comprehensive enough or,

2. the to-do list is part of a larger, more complicated system.

We’re going to tackle both of these issues – but the real secret of our To-Do list is its evil twin: the Undone List.

The Undone List

It’s a simple concept, really. We’re going to keep a running list of all of the things that you’ve consciously decided not to do. I’ve emphasized the word consciously because we need to get you out of the pattern of unconscious avoidance – the habit of letting nagging tasks slip through the cracks. The Undone List is written on the back of your To-Do list.

It’s perfectly fine to not return that rental movie, not call your best friend back, or not take out the garbage – as long as you’re actively making the decision to put it off. It isn’t OK to continue pretending that it slipped your mind.

Now, without further ado, here’s how the To-Do and Undone List work together.

Zack’s To-Do and Undone List Commandments

1. The List must take a physical form.

More specifically, The List is a 8.5 x 11.75″ yellow legal pad. Electronic lists have a way of hiding themselves – you simply forget to look at them. A legal pad stares at you. The color yellow grabs attention and the legal ruling gives you more room to write.

2. There is only one List.

Categorizing into separate lists is expressly forbidden. Work, home, personal – it doesn’t matter. It all goes on The List.

3. Nothing escapes The List. 

Everything – literally everything – that you have to do must be written on The List. No task is too great or too small to escape. To start your list, spend 15 minutes writing down every single thing you can think of that comes to mind. Seriously. Right now.

4. Tasks must immediately be added to The List.

As soon as you think of a task, write it down on The List. If you don’t have It with you (shame on you), send yourself an email from your phone. The only exception is a task that can be completed in the following two minutes – these tasks should always be done immediately.

5. The List must be rewritten and prioritized daily.

Every morning, you must rewrite The List and order your tasks in order of descending difficulty. Start at the top and you’re always rewarded with an easier task. I learned this tip from Steve Pavlina’s book, Personal Development for Smart People.

6. The Undone List.

Last but not least, look at The List each morning and pick the top three items that you avoided doing the day prior. Flip The List over and write them down.

Then, say this out loud: “today, I am deciding not to complete ______ (task 1) because it is too difficult for me to do.”

If you find yourself feeling ridiculous saying something like, “today, I am deciding not to return Anchorman because it is too difficult for me to do,” then get off your ass and do it that very second.

If you decide to leave it on the Undone List, keep track of how many days it has been on there. Each day forward, you’ll read it like this:

“Today, I am deciding not to complete ______ (task 1) because it is too difficult for me to do. I have decided not to do it for X days.”

You’ll find that most of the tasks that you’ve been unconsciously avoiding are actually incredibly quick and easy to do once you consciously become aware of it.


Well, hope this method works as well for you as it did for me. And if you think this could help your friends, please share this post on Facebook or Twitter 🙂

Until the next time – un abrazo fuerte, my friends.


16 thoughts on “The Procrastinator’s To-Do List

  1. Pingback: Queen Procrastinator | Seasons of lust

  2. Pingback: My Wake Up Call «

  3. I enjoyed your analogy of a lotto ball machine; sometimes it really does feel like a lot of numbered balls juggling for attention in my head. However I’m not sure making and modifying a list every morning will help me get things done. It’s been documented that chronically organised and people prone to perfectionism are also prone to procrastination. The act of making lists and counter lists and having neat orderly desks and triple checking checks are procrastinatory measures in themselves – ever wondered how much else could have been achieved in the time it takes to line up all the pencils in the pencil tray in descending hues and colours or in having an alphabeticalised DVD collection? A true procrastinator could manage hours of avoidance in this way. I would have to colour code and organise my list. It would take even more time, and eventually the list itself would become one of those chores that I would put off. Maybe the lotto people have the right idea. If I write everything down in the list (once), cut the list up, put it in a revolving container and pull out a task at random, then something will get done.

    • Writing responses on blog posts about why to-do lists cause procrastination is, in itself, a form of procrastination 🙂

      The most important thing is to get stuff done. If you’re making forward progress, that’s all that counts.

      • Ha! 🙂
        You almost got me there, but the comment (on a stranger’s blog) was in fact something I was required to do as part of my Undergrad and I’d been putting it off for some time – If I had a list it would have been pretty close to the top.
        Then again, maybe you’re right after all, and I decided to do this task because I’m putting off the many readings I’m yet to start.- It’s interesting this procrastination stuff isn’t it?

        …..THIS response, however, is true procrastination 🙂

  4. While I enjoy your points about actively putting something off (versus passively avoiding it) and the prioritization/list suggestions, I think you’ve presented a false dichotomy of procrastinators/organized freaks. I, for instance, happen to absolutely love lists, and color-coding, and I can schedule the shit out of anything you give to me! But I can’t remember the last time I finished a paper early, and I frequently put off work/homework for a few hours in favor of some other entertainment. It’s worth noting that there are those of us out there who happen to fall solidly into both categories 🙂

  5. Nice post! The undone list sounds like a good idea. But as a procrastinator I have this annoying habit that when I need to do something I suddenly find the time to do all the other less important things I put off before. So I end up accomplishing a lot of small things then scrambling for that important thing. I think I need a list that literally screams and nags me, haha.

  6. Wow, I really like your last suggestion about prioritizing and putting into words why you’re putting something off. I think it’s an accountability system that will certainly make me realize why I’m putting off certain items, and that emotions are much more powerful in many cases than logic (some items logically take a few minutes, but because I’m worried, or not confident about how well I can do them, I choose not to). Great suggestion!

  7. Here is some famous advice on procrastination:
    1. Make a list
    2. Prioritize the list
    3. Do the task
    For most people, this works great until they get to #3.

    Personally, if it does not make the top 5 items for a couple of weeks, it needs to drop off the list permanently or go to someone else. I agree, you need to be honest…”I am never going to do this”.

    I don;t bother with the undone list. Undone tasks are like a nagging aunt…best not to spend any more time with them.

Comments, Questions, and General Nonsense

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s