How to Beat Your “To-Do” List From Hell

How to Beat Your “To-Do” List From Hell

At first, your to-do list helps you get things done. Then slowly but surely, it takes on a sinister form of obsessive precrastination.

Precrast–wait, hold on a second here…it’s supposed to be procrastination, right?

No, no, it is precrastination.

A lot has been written about procrastination because we already know that procrastination is kind of an asshole and makes us want to read about how baby pandas are born for two hours when we probably should’ve finished a Powerpoint three hours ago.

Remember college? Precrastination is the exact opposite of that.

What Is Precrastination?

I have a to-do list template for every day of the week on my Evernote, and I check it religiously and every day, without fail.

Stay with me, I swear this is relevant.

My days live and die by my to-do list because it keeps my crap organized, gives my days structure, and prevents my brain from becoming a sticky Jell-O pile of mess. I was first clued in to this idea of precrastination when I realized that I craved to get things done, no matter what. Each checkbox I tick off on my to-do list is like a little squirt of dopamine that fills me with a smug satisfaction. If something is easy like “Pay the bills” or “Yell at the neighbor’s cat,” I’ll race to get it done just so it’s out of my hair–and hark, productivity, bitches!

The legitimate term that describes this behavior to hastily get things out of the way long before it’s supposed to be done is precrastination, or if we want to be scientific here, “cognitive closure.” It’s this bizarre need to feel like we’ve finished something because we can’t stand the idea that it’s been left hanging. Unlike procrastinators, precrastinators are really good at completing things way before the last minute. Not a day or two before, but like a week, if possible. In fact, the earlier, the better. Otherwise it feels late.

It’s not just me: A study published in 2014 first documented this psychological phenomenon. In the study, subjects were instructed to choose between a couple of buckets and carry it a certain distance. You’d think that people would try to save time and be more efficient with the “path of least resistance,” right? Wrong.

The researchers observed that many went for the bucket that was closer to them but farther from where they needed to drop it. So these bucket-carriers were okay with doing more work, repeatedly.


The researchers guessed that maybe these precrastinators wanted to ease the burden on “working memory,” a part of short-term memory that’s like the Google Maps of the brain to help people immediately think or act. They sidestepped speed and efficiency in favor of accomplishing the first goal of picking up the bucket–a tick off their mental to-do list, even if it cost them more time and effort in the end.

How to Tell If You’re a Precrastinator

Precrastination isn’t as extensively studied as procrastination is, but this Psychology Today article noted something interesting: If you tend to think a lot about the future, the more likely you will take actions to prepare for it. Oh man, that’s me!

Additionally, these are supposedly the qualities precrastinators identify most with:

  • Prefers to get something unpleasant out of the way.
  • Plans ahead, perhaps too far into the future.
  • Does things immediately so they don’t forget what they need to do.
  • Does their share of the work so the other person doesn’t have to do all of it.
  • Takes responsibilities for their actions.
  • Avoids impulsive actions and decisions (most of the time).
  • Honesty.

All of that just makes precrastinators seem like overachieving goody two-shoes. In some way, that’s true. I’m a bona fide precrastinator, and I think there’s simply a virtue in preparing things ahead of time or going to an appointment early instead of late. It makes me appear reliable and allows me to be proactive in the things I do.

But as the wise Admiral Ackbar once said, “IT’S A TRAP!” Sometimes.

The weird thing is, I often catch myself only wanting to feel productive to get that rush of crossing something off my to-do list. It makes me wonder: Is the to-do list working for me, or am I actually working for the to-do list?

You can’t fault someone for working on things ahead of time. That’s like getting mad at someone for doing the dishes after they’ve cooked you dinner. By being a precrastinator, though, I could (and actually have) end up spending too much time on things that don’t matter, losing focus, and–oh god, the irony–procrastinating on the thing that actually does need to be worked on.

Or because I don’t actually have all of the information necessary to get something done properly I have to spend extra time to add or correct things. In my occasional haste to just get it done and kill it off my to-do list, maybe I don’t do as good of a job as I could.

Then when I do finish something and I see that I can get started on something else, I immediately jump on that thing and then this whole Fast & Furious hamster wheel of work just goes on and on and on. Does this sound familiar? Welcome to the club, except you don’t get a cool shirt or bumper sticker or anything.

When I first began my nomad life, I didn’t know better and worked for hours on end, sometimes pulling 12- to 14-hour days. The thought was that if I could just finish this thing now I could “get ahead” and have more time to play later.

Dumb move because overachieving precrastinator me filled the free time I had with more work and more things to do. I just kept thinking about the future, planning for it, and acting on it…like a sucker for her to-do list would. As an aside, this was yet another springboard to my Fuck Yes! Saturday mentality.

Breaking the To-Do List Rollercoaster Ride From Hell

Procrastination often stems from knowing you might be bad at something and failing at it, and also, a lack of knowing your priorities. Much of precrastination is a bit of those, but I believe it also comes from the inability to distinguish important work and urgent work and then compounded by this impulsive nature to act on things quickly.

It’s like needing to scratch the worst itch of your life, and you do it because you don’t want to forget to or want to free up your mind for other things. For me, this leads to getting easily sidetracked and focused on the “wrong” things, while putting off something else.

In the end, getting a handle on these impulses and actually focusing on the appropriate things is kind of like a ping-pong battle between precrastination and procrastination: You have to precrastinate to get a jumpstart on big projects you know you shouldn’t put off until the last minute, and then actually let yourself procrastinate on things you know could wait.

1. Once You Know the Difference Between Important and Urgent Work, You Win

I spoke about “knowing your priorities” and what not, but that in itself is a skill. Knowing the right priorities requires a brutal, honest look (with a bit of background knowledge) at what is truly important and what is just urgent. They sound similar, but it takes time to realize that they’re very, very different. The distinction isn’t easy to see at first because everything seems important.

My attempt to draw the line on important work is like this: Important work is something that you know must be done; it will make a huge impact on your personal or professional life, but it may not necessarily nag at you in the moment. It pops up now and again as a little reminder while you’re in the shower, waiting in line for Chipotle, or stuck in traffic. Once you’re reminded, you think to yourself, “Man, I’d really love to do that, but I just have no time right now.”

And so important work gets the boot when deadlines, meetings, emails, Tweets, or lunch come up. But urgent stuff is really the crap that only gets you through the day. It doesn’t necessarily make a big dent in what you want to achieve. You’re just playing defense the entire time.

Truly important work is the stuff that makes you feel happy that you took the initiative to work on it and tick that off your to-do list. Of course, that’s easy to say, but not so easy to catch, let alone act on. I didn’t realize what exactly was important work myself until I started ruthlessly prioritizing and differentiating what would actually further my goals from that which lets me cruise and maintain inertia.

In my experience with making this distinction, I’ve found that urgent matters seem to manifest like this:

  • Someone else is depending on you and you feel guilty for letting the person down so you drop everything to “answer the call.”
  • You let yourself be distracted by everything because starting the important work is hard, daunting, and may not let you tick something off your to-do list for that day. (We recognize this as also procrastination.)

There’s little guilt involved for putting off your own important shit, whether that’s wanting to read books to learn more because you want a career change or finally launching a blog. You have no one else to let down but yourself.

2. No Matter What, “Pay” Yourself First

I recently finished reading from Rich Dad, Poor Dad and found this particular piece of financial advice exceptionally liberating and applicable toward sorting your priorities: Always pay yourself first.

The advice goes, squirrel money away in your savings as soon as you get paid, and then address your financial obligations. Usually, the opposite is the more “financially responsible” thing to do: give away most of our money to bills and other necessities first, then use what’s left of that for ourselves. Only after all of that do we put the rest into savings.

The book taught me that it should be the other way around: Pay yourself first, then pay everyone else. It sounds crazy because what if you’re just scraping by..? Ultimately, it’s about the mindset here: When you focus on yourself first, you position yourself better for later. And if you’re short on money or time? You force yourself to tap into your own creativity and resourcefulness to take more action that help you get what you want.

I’ve taken this idea to mean that when it comes to juggling the stuff I want to work on toward, I’d focus on that before all else (usually in the morning time)–I’m paying myself first. I still get things done for others. This idea just lets me balance the go get ’em attitude of precrastination with the creativity and hype from procrastination.

Otherwise, it’s a vicious cycle of running from one urgent matter to another, but never making the dent I hope to make.

3. You Can’t Do Everything On Your To-Do List

For precrastinators, a to-do list is pretty much a string of “HOW DO I STOP TIME?!” panic attacks. The elegant solution to stop panic attacks?

Cut your to-do list by at least 75 percent.

Simply, you can’t do as much as you think you can, and if you try, it’s a good way to drive yourself to drink. Focus on today. Figure out the one or two things that will make you a happy camper if you got them done today.

It sounds like I’m telling you to do less–and I am– but you’ll thank me later. It’s actually a great way to get more focused work done. Things will always, always get pushed back. You don’t have super powers to blow up time, space, and traffic to finish everything. And above all, not everything is going to be as important as you think it is for that day. Trust me.

4. Take a Breath and Just Stop Working

I know, I’m just full of bright ideas.

Here I’m proposing that you start imposing mini-deadlines within deadlines. As an example, let’s say my major to-do task is a marathon writing session of multiple articles for Lifehacker (check out my concept of batch work in this article). I know it takes me approximately 30 minutes or so per article, but I set aside two hours to write three articles because I know there’s a bit of initial dicking around and research involved, the words won’t miracle beam out of my fingers, and the extra time cushion just lets me breathe easier.

But once time is up, I’ll stop working on that that task, even if I haven’t quite finished it. This was a necessary rule to stop myself from either dawdling way too long on something that might not be that important but is still sort of important, but also keep myself from moving on to a similar thing for “momentum” and “to get ahead.” Unless there’s the looming threat of a deadline, I’d call it a day to keep me off of that hamster wheel.

5. Ask the Buffer Question

The buffer question is necessary to help you get a grip on your anxiety and panic attacks about all of the things you have yet to do. Whenever I start to get anxious I may not be “doing enough,” I get into a mental yoga pose and ask myself:

“If I do not get this thing done today, what can I do in the next couple of days to make sure I get it done at an appropriate time?”


“Will not getting this done right now affect me professionally?”

The thought of putting things off to the very last minute stresses me out about the stress that hasn’t happened yet, and it’s that fear of possibly feeling that stress later on that often drives me to work on something ahead of time, even if I can instead spend it on something non-work related. This question lets me think of more solutions, rather than just throw my hands up in the air and cry, “WELP!” And when the answer to the second question is no, it’s just confirmation that I am being too hard on myself.

I’m still a sucker for my to-do list at times, but if something truly can wait, then it would be a good time to procrastinate.

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