4 Task List Antipatterns


The software development world has the concept of the antipattern – a code structure that one commonly finds in failing software. Antipatterns are worth studying because they help us learn from our mistakes (or, even better, from other people’s mistakes). But antipatterns are not confined to software alone. Stare at any activity deeply enough and you’ll find that some people are more successful with it than others.

Take the humble task list, for instance, much beloved of web workers. Almost all of us have one, and yet it’s undeniable that for some people the task list is a vital and useful tool, while for others it’s a sea of forgotten notes and a waste of time. If yours falls into the latter category, check yourself for these four task list antipatterns.

1. The Non-Actionable Task. Anyone who has bumped into Getting Things Done has run across the word “actionable,” but have you actually taken it to heart? If a task isn’t something you can sit down and do, in a reasonable block of time, it doesn’t belong on your task list. “Get PhD” isn’t a task; it’s an albatross that will sit on your task list for years. “Research PhD program entrance requirements” is a task that you can actually perform and remove from the list.

2. The Eternally-Postponed Task. Do you have a task that’s been on your list for months, because you change its due date every time it gets to the top of the list? For heaven’s sake, get that puppy out of there. If a task is so unimportant that you can just postpone it whenever it’s “due” it has no business cluttering up a space that should be for important things. Keep a separate text file or outline or mindmap for long-range planning and brainstorming, if your task list is also serving as a general holding pen for “stuff I just don’t want to forget.”

3. The One-Minute Task. If your system for tracking tasks has a lot of overhead, you may find yourself spending more time managing a task than the task takes to complete. Enter the task, set its due date and category, fiddle with the color and context, prioritize it, decide where it fits on various lists…and then it only takes 30 seconds to actually file that invoice in the proper folder in the filing cabinet. While you may get a warm fuzzy feeling from checking “completed,” next time just file the invoice without the overhead of creating and managing the task. (You might also consider switching to a tracking system with less overhead).

4. The Task That Can’t Be Done. This is a special case of the non-actionable task that deserves its own category. Sometimes you can’t do a task, not because it’s too large, but because something else is blocking you from completing the task. “Make birthday cake” might be stalled because you’re all out of eggs in the house. In that case, you’d best add the necessary preliminary task to your list (“Buy eggs”) – unless you prefer to only manage some random selection of your tasks in one place.

What other task list antipatterns have you overcome in your own life?


Martien de Jong

I agree about the Someday/Maybe list.
I am also keeping a list of ideas(as in wanna-do’s) on Wridea. This helps me a lot to get rid of my long term ideas :p
I am still looking for a place where I can store my todo’s in folders and assign tasks to other tasks, as in antipattern 4.
Does anyone of you happen to know of such a website?

Andre Kibbe

Actively using a Someday/Maybe list is a great way to handle postponed tasks, for the simple reason that we’ve explicitly acknowledged that it’s been postponed by putting tasks in that list category. Otherwise we end up looking at tasks that we implicitly know we’re not going to do, but experience cognitive dissonance because the tasks are “officially” on an action list.

Many people have a Someday/Maybe list, but use it to store fantasies instead of using it as a temp file. It can be a very practical list if used for actions and projects contingent on some change in mood or circumstance.


I have to agree that i am a culprit for the eternally postponed task as well. I write out my next action list everyday and any tasks i have left over from the previous day i transfer them to my new list. So, last monday, i started numbering the amount of times i transfered them forward. Guess what? By Friday i had finished them all.

I’m also guilty of the one minute task. I love the feeling of crossing off the task or ticking the completed box and sometimes i write the task down only to cross it off! I haven’t found a solution to this one yet.

Anthony Russo

Good points. I personally am guilty of the Eternally-Postponed Task. I have things in my list I placed there months ago that I keep pushing off. Time to get em done, or get them out. Good points.


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