How do you respond to “to-do” lists?

When it comes to productivity advice, certainly one of the most common and most-discussed suggestions is, “Make a to-list, and check off the items as you go.” Is that good advice?

I enjoy making and using to-do lists, and this is great advice–for me. And for many people. But it’s not necessarily great advice for everyone.

If there’s one thing I’ve concluded from all my research and writing, it’s that there’s no single best way to make your life happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative. There’s no magic, one-size-fits-all tool that suits everyone.  (Well, actually, maybe the twin Strategies of Convenience and Inconvenience work for just about everyone. But that’s the exception.)

So how do people of the Four Tendencies profiles respond to the question, “Do you find it easy to complete your own to-do list? What about someone else’s to-do list?”

Upholders complete their own to-do lists as easily as they complete to-do lists that others gave them.

Questioners more easily complete a to-do list they wrote themselves.

Obligers more easily complete a to-do list that someone else gave them and is holding them accountable for.

Rebels usually ignore a to-do list, or they may put a Rebel spin on it.

People often ask me, “Okay, though, I’m a Rebel. So how do I put that Rebel spin on a to-do list? Or how else can I get things done?”

Good question.

It’s helpful to remember that the minute that Rebels see a list of things they are “supposed” to do, they feel that Rebel spirit of resistance. For them, making a to-do list may make them less likely to complete a task.

They might be better served by doing tasks spontaneously, whenever they feel like doing them. One Rebel told me, “I keep a running to-do list, and when I feel like tackling some chore, I’ll do it, but only when I’m in the mood.

Another Rebel turned the prospect of doing routine, scheduled tasks into a challenging game:

Instead of writing a to-do list, I write each task on a separate piece of paper. I fold up all the pieces and put them in a bowl, then select one folded paper and do whatever task is written on it. I don’t select another paper until that task is completed. This makes for a fun game of chance, and looking at the little folded papers feels less daunting then looking at a list of tasks.

Another Rebel was able to use a to-do list by making a simple change in vocabulary, by using a “could-do” list: “‘To-do’ lists almost never get done by me, because as soon as I have to do something, it’s the last thing I want to do. A ‘could-do’ list, however, reminds me that I can choose whether or not I complete the task.”

As for Questioners — Questioners need to make sure they see the efficiency and justification for every item on their to-do lists. Then they will follow through.

Obligers need to build in outer accountability for anything on their to-do lists — even items like “read for fun,” “practice guitar,” or “keep my New Year’s resolution.” This is crucial, Obligers! Always, outer accountability.

Upholders tend to enjoy using to-do lists, and find them easy to use.

When we understand ourselves, and how our Tendency shapes our perspective on the world, we can adapt our circumstances to suit our own nature — and when we understand how other people’s Tendencies shape their perspectives, we can engage with them more effectively.

If you keep telling yourself — or someone else — to use a to-do list, and that method isn’t working, it’s time to try something new. There are so many different ways to build the lives we want, when we do it in the way that’s right for us.

And what works for an Upholder, or a Questioner, or an Obliger, or a Rebel, are often quite different.

Don’t know your Tendency? Take the free quiz here. More than one million people have taken it!

How do you feel about to-do lists? Do you use them, or have you adapted this idea in a way that suits your Tendency?

It’s funny to remember…years ago, as I was groping for an understanding of the framework that became the Four Tendencies, it was a glance at my own to-do list that gave me the key insight that the response to expectation was the core theme.

Gretchen Rubin is the author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller The Happiness Project—an account of the year she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific studies, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier—and the recently released Happier at Home and Better Than Before. On her popular blog, The Happiness Project, she reports on her daily adventures in the pursuit of happiness. For more doses of happiness and other happenings, follow Gretchen on Facebook and Twitter.


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