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Why Following To Do Lists Can Be Counter-Productive

to do list
Mark Lack
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Published on June 13, 2014

A to do list is created to produce an outcome, a certain goal. But to do lists can be dangerous, because they don’t allow room for change or flexibility. 

When someone is focused on the to-do list that a superior has given them — rather than the outcome — it can be counter-productive.

Most people will follow a to-do list because they think they’ll get in trouble or be fired if they don’t. This however leads to the inability to focus on the desired outcome which has been the cause of many unsatisfied customers, employees, managers, bosses, teachers, students, etc.
Here are a few examples from personal experience of people strictly following a to-do list:

Example 1: I’m next in line at a soft-serve yogurt store. There’s a married couple in front of me, paying for their purchase. The couple’s order totals $10.01. The man gives the girl a $10 bill. The girl says, “Sir, it’s $10.01….” The man politely asks the girl working the cash register if she could spot him the penny because he had only large bills. The girl says, “I’m sorry, sir. I’m not allowed to do that” (she was following a to-do list). The man grows angry and voices his frustration. He is forced to break a $20 bill simply because of one penny. He storms out the store shouting, “F%#& this place — I’m never coming back.”

Here we learn that management must focus on the lifetime value of a customer; not only attracting customers, serving them, but also retaining customer happiness. This girl was given a to-do list, and she followed it so strictly that she caused the loss of a customer forever.

I’m sure the CEO of that yogurt company would have reprimanded this girl in a heartbeat had he or she seen her inflexibility in handling the to-do list she was given. She should have been taught that one of the most important factors in any business success is customer satisfaction. This company lost a customer — over a penny! — as the result of a to-do list.  P.S. I didn’t have a penny. I was using a card, or I would’ve helped the man out.

Example 2: A waiter at a restaurant who is supposed to ID everyone ordering a drink who doesn’t look older than 35. I’ve had my parents get carded when one of them didn’t have their ID on them, and they were therefore unable to order a drink. Mind you, my parents are in their early 50s and graying. The waiter was obviously following a to-do list, and he focused only on the part that said, “ID everyone!”. But if we look at the overall picture, the desired outcome of the to-do list was to prevent anyone under the age of 21 from drinking. Because of this, the restaurant loss revenue from the drinks, my parents became upset, and our family will most likely not be returning anytime soon.

Example 3: I used to have a to-do list as to how I would handle things — what I would and would not allow myself to do. I wasn’t aware of this to-do list because it was deep in my subconscious mind.

Only when I started personally developing myself did I become aware of this internal to-do list of how I would do things.

We all have this, whether we’re conscious of it or not. I use to handle situations a certain way because of who I saw myself as — how I thought someone like that would behave. Remember that people who follow to-do lists can be blindingly dangerous.

Rather than blindly follow a to-do list, ask yourself what result you’d like to produce or the outcome you’d like to have. Then create a  TO-DO LIST VS. OUTCOME LIST of some strategies for best producing the outcome you’ve chosen, but leave room for flexibility. Don’t set your list of strategies in stone.

Always leave room for improvement and adjustment to any plan.

Mark Lack

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