Todo Lists Delegate Work Away From Your Conscious Mind

Critical Fallibilism advocates delegating work from your conscious mind to your subconscious. This takes mental load off your conscious mind, which frees up attention for other things, including creating more advanced knowledge.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

I think that using todo lists is bad and that you should stop doing it. I think a better idea is to book time in your calendar to complete your tasks. I got this idea from Wolfgang Reck when I took his workshop (provided through my employer):

The goal of the todo list is for you to complete your tasks. Tasks need to be completed using your time. A task without a time allocation is in an unnecessarily incomplete state. There’s no possible way for it to get done without allocating some of your time. There’s no reason to procrastinate the task of allocating time by putting it on a todo list. Book time in your calendar to complete the task once you decide it’s something that needs to get done.

Having an item on a todo list leaves questions unanswered. Will I get the task done tomorrow? This week? Before a relevant deadline? Which task on the list should I do first? If someone asks me to take on an additional task, will I have time? All of these unanswered questions can nag at you and cause unnecessary stress. Booking tasks into your calendar forces you to have an answer to those questions upfront. Delegate the mental load of time allocation to your calendar.

Todo list helps with the error of failing a task because you forgot about it. It doesn’t help with the error of failing a task because you remembered it, but didn’t prepare properly.

Another related problem with todo lists is when people put vague items on the list, without fully considering how much time will go into that item. For example, imagine I have an exam that I have to pass for my career. Putting “study for exam” on a todo list is a lazy, bad approach to solving the problem. It’s ignoring a big component of the problem (time allocation) and hoping it will work itself out.

The first step in booking “study for exam” into my calendar is breaking the task into components. For example, I might have three one-hour chapters to read. And one hour of practice questions for each chapter. I can book six one-hour (or three two-hour) sessions in my calendar to tackle the chapters+questions. I could also book a review session, if necessary.

Even if I study and take the exam, I might still fail. If I fail, how much time will I need to study again and retake the exam? If I want 14 days to “re-study” after a failure, I need to make sure to book my original exam at least 14 days out from the deadline. And to have time booked in my calendar after my exam date for studying (those sessions can be canceled if I pass on my first attempt).

I can even schedule a safety factor into my schedule. If I think each chapter will take one hour to read, I can book two hours. Or I can have a block of time in my calendar reserved for “emergency study”. Activities that take longer than their expected time can “spillover” into the emergency session.

One problem with scheduling tasks is that it takes time. I can’t book sessions into my calendar while meeting with a client. Or walking home from the store. Keeping a short term list of items that need to be scheduled is okay, as long as you schedule them asap. And then throw out the todo list.

Besides a general todo list for things you want to do, you can have more specific todo lists. You might have a todo list for work tasks, which you only check while at work. You might have a todo list for sub-tasks within one task, which you only check while working on that task.

I think this is still ignoring the problem of time allocation.

Also, I don’t think sorting tasks by if you want to do them is a good idea. I think a task either has to be completed (in my opinion) or it doesn’t. If it has to be completed, then I have to do it now or put it in my calendar. If it doesn’t have to be completed, then I ask if I would ever want to do it during my spare time. If yes, then I put the item on my “later” list. I do items from my “later” list when my schedule isn’t booked.

I think that covers things I want to do, but don’t consider necessary. Stuff like trying a new video game, going for a hike in a specific park, reading a particular book, learning a new work related skill, etc.

Why did you personalize this? If you believe that everyone should stop using to do lists, in all cases, then you could say that. Instead you gave specific (and pushy) advice about what you think another person should do, even though they didn’t say anything about a problem they had or were trying to solve. (Or anything personal about their own life, activities, problem situation, etc.)

This post isn’t engaging with the point of Elliot’s article. Instead you are writing an essay about your own ideas (that you got from Wolfgang Reck).

You posted in another thread that you want unbounded criticism. If you want unbounded criticism on your ideas, it would be clearer if you posted them in your own threads in unbounded. It makes sense to respond to other people and engage with them in their threads. But if you are going to write tangential essays about your own ideas, and you want unbounded criticism on them, it would be better to post them in their own thread in unbounded.

I do have a lot of criticism about your ideas in this post, but I don’t know how welcome they are, so I am going to limit what I say.

Calendars are a type of to do list. Using a calendar is using a to do list, just in a more specific format.

Ummm, that sounds like a standard to do list? I’m confused.

You give some reasons calendars are better than to do lists (in your opinion), but then in the end you still seem to be advocating the use of to do lists. I am guessing that you were assuming a specific context without naming it, and you think people shouldn’t use to do lists in that context. That’s really hard to respond to because I don’t know what context you are talking about. So any counter-examples I give could just be met with the response that to do lists are fine in that context, but you are talking about some other context.

I think that the standard to do list vs calendar debate is misguided. It depends on the individual and their context. There isn’t one type of to do list or calendar system that works well for everybody. That is why there are so many courses, blog posts, apps, and self help books addressing this problem: because the solutions that people propose don’t actually work for everyone.

But that isn’t what Elliot’s article was about. He wasn’t talking about exactly what type of to do list system people should use. He was just talking about the general idea of writing down your tasks, and offloading that from your own brain, instead of not writing them down at all. Some people don’t use any kind of written system to remember things. Instead of engaging with that idea, you seem to be implicitly agreeing with it, while framing it as a disagreement because you are going into details that were beyond the scope of his article.

I think that part sounds best in the second person. I want to address the reader (someone interested in getting tasks done) and tell them why I think todo lists are a bad habit.

I thought the point of Elliot’s article was that offloading work from your mind is good. A common way to do this is todo lists, which I think are a bad idea. I’m trying to provide a better alternative to achieve the desired outcome.

I would be interested to hear more about why you think my post isn’t on topic. I don’t want to create unnecessary moderation work for Elliot. But I thought a criticism of todo lists and providing an alternative would be a good thing to post.

Your criticism would be very appreciated.

I’m not sure if this is a good analogy, apologies in advance. But I think of it like scalars and vectors. They can both have magnitudes, but vectors have an added direction component. Calendars are like todo lists but with an added time allocation component.

That’s fair. I think in a standard todo list there’s some implication that you want to get the tasks done. Whereas with the “later” list the implication is that the tasks don’t need to get done at all, and you should expect most of them to not get done. So it’s more like a list of things you should not actively work on. If you need the task to get done, do not put it on the later list.

I did give one example of when I would use a “todo” list over a calendar. I think that in general, you should book tasks in your calendar instead of using todo lists. I would be interested to hear your counter-examples.

I think the article was partly about how to use todo lists and the benefits they can give. There are a lot of tips specifically for using todo lists:

I did reference Elliot’s concept of offloading things from your brain in my post:

I agree that offloading things from your mind is good. I think that todo lists are an incomplete solution to the problem of offloading your tasks.

Thanks for your response.

Your post was a reply to someone, not a stand alone article. So in that case, “you” is read as referring to the person you are replying to, not some general reader.

If you were trying to write a stand-alone article and address things to “the reader”, you should have written a stand-alone article and put it on a blog or posted it in its own thread.

Because of what you just said. The point of Elliot’s article was about offloading work from your mind. It wasn’t an article about whether to do lists are better than calendars, or what different types of to do list apps or systems are best.

You are trying to write out your own ideas about what you think is best. You weren’t engaging with or arguing with the actual point of the article. The article wasn’t about the specifics of using to do lists vs using calendars.

You were agreeing with the main point of the article, but you wrote your post as if it were a disagreement. And most of your post was a tangent about your own ideas, not actually engaging with anything that the article said.

The point I wanted to make was that if you do, in fact, want unbounded criticism on your ideas, you should be posting them as stand-alone articles in their own threads in the unbounded section. Posting your ideas in the unbounded section as their own posts signals that you actually want unbounded criticism on them. Also, unbounded criticism can lead to long threads, which is a bit awkward to do in someone else’s topic. Posting your ideas as responses in someone else’s topic is a way to discourage other people from giving you very much criticism because people might be reluctant to derail someone else’s thread over some tangential issues that a different person posted.

If you are using your calendar to write down tasks that you want to do, that is a type of to do list. To do lists can have time allocation and still be to do lists. Adding time allocation doesn’t make it a different type of thing. You can even write specific times on to do tasks in a standard to do list app.

That is very different than your original opening sentence:

You said that todo lists are bad, and that Elliot should stop using them. I assumed that you meant he should stop using them at all, ever, for anything. Otherwise, why would you even say that? You don’t know anything about his problem situation, what he uses to do lists for, how often he uses them, or whether he uses a calendar. So why would you specifically tell him to stop using to do lists and that they are bad unless you meant that he should never use them?

I might write another post about that later.

Every one of those tips also applies to calendars used as task lists or to do lists. Do you think those points don’t apply to calendars? You have to remember to check your calendar at the right times and check it regularly. You should check your calendar in the morning and in the evening and several times in between, if you are regularly using it to keep track of things you have to do. It is good habit to check your calendar after you finish a task, before you decide what to do next, if you are regularly writing tasks or appointments on it.

If you don’t regularly use a calendar, and have very few appointments, then it makes sense to just check your calendar in the morning (to see if you have any appointments that day or coming up soon that you need to prepare for) and in the evening (to check if you have any appointments tomorrow), but not to regularly check it in between those times or after tasks if it is a day when you have nothing on it. But if you are using your calendar as a task list, then you should be checking it in the ways that Elliot talked about in the article.

The points in the article seemed to be about offloading the mental work of keeping track of everything that you have to do. Putting that onto paper, so that you don’t have to remember it all in your brain all the time, and keep track of it all mentally. That applies to using standard to do lists or to using calendars as to do lists.

They are. So are calendars. Neither one of those things alone is a complete solution to offloading tasks.

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