Why don’t we get stuff done? That’s the question Clive Thompson asks in his article on productivity. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of productivity apps that can help us prioritize our to-do lists and jot down what we need to get done. You may have used some of them like Trello, ToDoist, Evernote, Microsoft To-Do, or any of the myriad others. 

Do your productivity apps make you more productive or does your list keep expanding day after day? Something like 40% of most people’s to-do lists never get finished. 

Why don’t our productivity apps make us more productive? Thompson suggests that it might just be too easy to push a new task to our to-do list. The apps are all designed to make entering a new item as simple as possible. You can just ask Siri or send an email, and there’s just one more item on the list. 

That creates a problem. When the list keeps expanding, we continually have to push off the task to the next day and the next. Eventually, the list gets so long it’s overwhelming. Our frazzled brains just can’t handle the pressure, so we end up declaring a kind of to-do bankruptcy. You swipe it all away and start over again. 

Some of this is because we simply try to do too much. He writes, “we regard our future self as a stranger, someone onto whose lap we can dump tons of work. On some weird level, we don’t get that it’ll be us doing it.” For some reason, scheduling a ton of work next week is terrifying, but scheduling a ton of work in a year is no problem. What we need to do is end our relationship with the ever-expanding to do list.

After discussing various methods of dealing with this (sometimes you just have to say “no”), Thompson recommends an old, tried-and-true method: Paper. Paper solves a problem: Productivity apps are too easy to use. 

Paper requires that you take a moment to write down, by hand, what you plan to do.  If you wrote out a list from the day before, anything you didn’t finish needs to be written again. You can’t simply import last week’s to-do list. It forces you to make choices about how you want to spend your day. You have to ask yourself, after a while, “Why are you keeping things on your list?” Every time you add a new item to the list, it takes just a little bit of time and effort to write it out. You’re forced to make a decision each time about what is a priority.


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