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Ultra-Successful People Don’t Use To-Do Lists

I have two favors to ask of you. First, don’t shoot the messenger. Second, suspend disbelief to keep an open mind.

I’ve long believed in the power of productivity and have been fascinated by time – our most important, non-renewable asset. So I decided I would interview hundreds of highly successful people. I interviewed several self-made billionaires, over a dozen Olympians, over two dozen straight-A students and over 200 entrepreneurs, most of who were self-made millionaires.

Initially I asked just a single open ended question.

“Mark Cuban, what is your #1 secret to productivity?”

“Hey, Shannon Miller, what is your #1 secret to time management?”

“Hey Dustin Moskovitz (co-founder of Facebook), if you could give just one piece of advice related to productivity, what would it be?”

I was about half way through the interviews, looking for patterns and repeats of advice, when I noticed what wasn’t being talked about. Something was missing.

Nobody was talking about their to-do list.

This was strange. After all, I kept a great massive task list for my whole adult life. Every time management course and book I ever read instructed on the use of the to-do list. The most popular time management book and program in the world, Getting Things Done, teaches a to-do list methodology.

I began to ask follow-up questions to understand what was going on. It turns out…

Legend has it that the to-do list was invented by Ivy Lee over a hundred years ago. It was a simpler time: fewer tasks, less information, more support staff, a consistent 8-hour day, no globalization, no instant communication 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

In today’s dynamic world the to-do list method just doesn’t hold up. Research suggests that 41% of to-do lists are never completed, and half the items that are completed are done on the very same day they are put on the list. (source: idonethis). Task lists can also contribute to our stress levels due to the Zeigarnik effect: unfinished goals cause intrusive, uncontrolled thoughts.

The to-do list has become the graveyard of important, but not urgent, tasks.

I began to ask follow-up questions: Why don’t you use a to-do list? What do you use instead?

Highly successful people don’t use to-do lists, they use their calendar for everything. The secret: schedule, don’t list.

We’ve all been trained that our calendar is for meetings and for phone calls. Put everything else on the to-do list and then prioritize and re-prioritize.

What the most successful people are doing is they schedule everything – and usually in 15-minute chunks of time. Every work task has a specific date, time and duration on the calendar. Need to write a strategic plan? It’s scheduled. Fill out the monthly expense report? Already on the calendar. Time to think? Scheduled. Daily workouts? Of course, on the calendar.

Living from your calendar has the added benefit of forcing you to slow down and think about the best time to schedule things. Are you cognitively sharper in the morning or mid-afternoon? Good, so you should schedule all your creative work, decision making and deep work in the mornings; use your afternoons for phone calls, meetings, email and paperwork.

When you live exclusively from your calendar you can quickly see if you are living your values. Do you value your health? How many hours do you have budgeted for it this week? Do you value your marriage? How many date nights are scheduled this month?

Remember, I asked for you to not shoot the messenger and to suspend disbelief.

Will throwing out your to-do list and living from your calendar work for you?

Well you won’t know until you try it, but I can tell you each day I receive several emails from strangers like these:

  • Chrissy Y. said, “…a life changer for my ADHD mind.”
  • PJ said, “it has literally changed my life, I am more productive than I have ever been. After studying your book and implementing some changes in my life I now get a whole days work done before lunch.”
  • Laura T. said, “…it has changed my life!”
  • Anita S. said, “I’m no longer stressed about getting important stuff done because I know that I’ve allocated time to take care of it. IT’S CHANGED MY LIFE!”

If you choose to take the plunge, you’ll do a horrible job of estimating how long things really take, and you’ll be frustrated by all the interruptions, fires to put out and emergencies. My suggestion is to initially over-estimate how long everything will take, and literally schedule two or three “BUFFER TIMES” onto your calendar. If surprises happen, the buffer times will help you to catch up, and if you don’t need them, you can just rest, think strategically, or get a jump on tomorrow’s items.

Read it on getAbstract

Will you try to schedule everything for a month and let me and getAbstract know how it works for you?

Download the Extreme Productivty Quick Start Action Plan.

Check out 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management for more information on extreme productivity with less guilt and stress.


About Kevin Kruse

Kevin Kruse is the founder and CEO of, an edutech company that offers free leadership training and professional development to anyone, anywhere, at any time.

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