Why Your To-Do List Never Ends

For many Americans, there’s more to do, and less mental bandwidth with which to do it.

Alex Merto

A common 21st-century complaint is that life didn’t used to be as busy as it is today, but some people are more likely to think so than others. According to Liana Sayer, the director of the University of Maryland’s Time Use Laboratory, many Americans who are employed, married, a parent, or a college graduate feel shorter on time today than people in those situations did several decades ago. Working mothers and shift workers feel particularly crunched.

Overall, feelings of busyness do not appear to have increased population-wide, so this is hardly the case for everyone. But two developments that are making a substantial group of Americans busier, Sayer explained, are that a larger share of the country now takes on the combined “social roles” of worker, spouse, and parent, and that the expectations of each have risen. Increases in busyness, she told me, are a matter of “both feeling like there’s more [to do and] feeling that you have to ‘be the best you can be’ in all of the roles, or you’ve failed as a person.”

The mundane yet fraught place where these various obligations converge is the to-do list. Americans have long felt that they had too much to do, but in the past few decades, this feeling seems to have become more common and intense, as new breeds of tasks have emerged and people’s finite mental energies have been depleted by changes to the modern economy. For many, the to-do list, whether written or mental, now suffers from a sort of infinite scroll: Reaching the end of it can be unimaginable.

Perhaps many to-do lists have lengthened simply because there is more to do. In his 2015 book, Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day, the writer Craig Lambert cataloged a startling number of now-common tasks that have been enabled by the technological advances of the past 30 or 40 years: Purging your email inbox, managing your online passwords, booking your own travel, researching health conditions online, scanning your own groceries, navigating online customer-service portals, answering customer surveys, checking your own bag at an airport kiosk, and so on.

As we perform these tasks, Lambert’s stopwatch is running. “They nibble away a minute of your time here, five minutes of your free time there, and the next thing you know, you’ve lost an hour of your day,” he told me. Many of these “incursions into unstructured time,” as Lambert writes, are no accident: Businesses and organizations benefit from “helping [themselves] to your free time” instead of hiring more employees. Over the years, that incentive has contributed to loads of shadow work, such as pumping your own gas and waiting on hold for a customer-service agent.

And while technology can make life more convenient, it can also eat away at our time in under-recognized ways. Lambert told me that he recently tried to get a light-up accessory for his dog so he could easily spot her after sundown in a nearby field. The first one he ordered online wouldn’t stay on her; the second, an illuminated harness, necessitated two calls to customer service—one to figure out how to put it on, and another to request a replacement, because it didn’t charge properly. The whole ordeal was a case study in shadow work. Yes, the gizmo allowed him to play with his dog where and when he wanted to, but procuring it was a considerable time suck. Before the age of online shopping and affordable dog-illumination technology, Lambert said he would have just taken his pet to a better-lit place, angst-free.

The stress of shadow work is, just like paid work, exacerbated by the fact that the internet often allows you to do it at any hour. Lambert thinks “true downtime” is less easily achieved: “Even if you’re not doing [some online task], it preys on your attention just because it’s an available option.” There used to be some sense of relief, he told me, after stores had closed for the night.

In the to-do-list equation, shadow work addresses only the volume of tasks that people must do. It’s also important to consider people’s bandwidth for doing them. This is an idea that the journalist Anne Helen Petersen has raised in her writing on burnout, a deep and paralyzing weariness among Millennials that she attributes in large part to the sustained pressure they’ve felt to make themselves into perfect workers.

Petersen’s inquiry into burnout emerged from a pattern she noticed in her own behavior, a seeming inability to accomplish mundane tasks, such as scheduling a dermatologist appointment and vacuuming her car. “I’d put something on my weekly to-do list, and it’d roll over, one week to the next, haunting me for months,” she wrote in an article for BuzzFeed News in 2019. She called the condition “errand paralysis.”

As she surveyed these elusive tasks, she noticed that most seemed to be “medium priority” as well as “high-effort [and] low-reward”—non-urgent things that should get done eventually, but wouldn’t greatly enhance her life.

On a basic level, Petersen argues, burnout induces errand paralysis because it is psychologically draining: Being stressed and overworked leaves little mental bandwidth to handle anything that isn’t pressing. And further, Petersen links burnout with a need people feel to always be working productively or, failing that, to be optimizing their mind, body, or social status in some way. The humdrum chores that don’t fit into either of those two categories naturally decrease in priority—and become stubborn fixtures on people’s to-do lists.

These explanations might help demystify what can look to an outside observer like puzzlingly counterproductive behavior: When people avoid uninspiring tasks, Petersen senses an attempt to “get off the treadmill of our to-do list.”

Petersen is writing about Millennials, but people of all ages have had their to-do-list bandwidth reduced by what the economy asks of them. This is not just about the number of hours worked, though that has increased in the past few decades for Americans with a college degree. In knowledge work, “the sheer volume of different things you touch on during a workday has greatly increased, and I think that is particularly exhausting,” says Cal Newport, a professor at Georgetown University who often discusses productivity on his podcast, Deep Questions. He thinks that this exhaustion makes it harder to work through a to-do list after the business day, and surely the grind of shift work and just-in-time scheduling exacts its own psychological toll on lower-paid workers. By the time many Americans finish work and turn to their to-do lists, they seem to have less mental energy to tackle errands and chores, Millennials or not.

This lousy combination—more to do and reduced capacity to do it—does not seem like something that can be easily reversed, especially by any one person. Petersen finds some solace in having at least put a name on her misery, but in the end calls for “paradigm-shifting change” in American work and family life.

The ultimate antidotes to shadow work and burnout are structural, but given that many of their consequences are currently inescapable, perhaps there are some things individual people can do to make them marginally easier to bear. This is not about encouraging productivity for productivity’s sake—it’s about how people might get through their to-do list with less apprehension.

For starters, these problems aren’t the fault of the to-do list itself. Newport views it as a “neutral technology,” a container for storing obligations. All else being equal, he told me, “having the things you need to do captured somewhere that’s not your brain” demands less mental energy and causes less stress.

But for people who feel they have too many tasks to get through, “building a to-do list and trying to cross things off … almost certainly isn’t up to the rigors of what you’re trying to do,” Newport said. He recommended something that was more sophisticated without being overwhelming.

The process starts with identifying your “big rocks,” the tasks that are “big enough that you’re never just going to say, ‘I have nothing to do. I have hours free. Let’s go to the DMV,’” as Newport put it. (The phrase was popularized by Stephen Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, who used it in a slightly different way, to refer to people’s highest-priority projects.) Since people often hesitate to take on “big rocks” in the spur of the moment, it can be useful to schedule them in advance for a particular time during the coming week. Then, to get through smaller tasks, Newport recommends doing a daily scan of your list and taking care of a few chores that are less imposing.

This system can be effective in two regards. First, Newport said, “the pre-scheduling of the big things makes sure the big things actually get done.” And second, that daily scan encourages steady progress: “You're breaking the seal—every day you're doing some productive stuff,” and “it adds up,” he told me.

It bears repeating that renovating your to-do list does not solve the problems of shadow work and burnout. Also, this sort of pre-planning is significantly more difficult for people who are already short on time or money, often because of work or parenting or both. But, short of changes to American policy and culture, it seems like one of the few strategies available to bring the end of the to-do list back into sight.