Maybe It’s Time to Re-Think the To-Do List - 4 Ways to Shake It Up
When your to-do list becomes an infinity pool of despair
Photo: Library of Congress
I’ve got two gripes with GTD - massive projects that span long periods of time (writing a novel) and shorter projects that repeat and may run in parallel with similar projects (writing blog posts).
My current to-do system struggles with big projects. For one thing, simply defining and setting up all the next actions in a big project can be a Herculean task of its own. And midway through the project can shift and change perspective.
Checking off tasks in a massive project doesn’t give any sense of accomplishment. There’s always another task and no easy way to see the cumulative progress. I keep chipping away but never get a glimpse at the figure in the stone.
Repeating projects are equally frustrating and demoralizing. No sooner is the project checked off my list then what the hell it’s back again. It’s just a big game of whack-a-mole.
Hat tip - Beck Tench
What’s Wrong with GTD
Cal Newport thinks the problem with Getting Things Done lies in the way it treats all next actions the same. “Get pencils” (for your novel) carries the same weight as “Get golf balls”.
Faced with a list of next actions you’re most likely to try to accomplish the most do-able tasks. The GTD system does not steer you into the messy guts of deep work.
But I think there’s something else at work. There’s something about the dry linearity of lists themselves that don’t match the way our brains work. The to-do list simply doesn’t contain enough information to make good decisions.
A farmer scanning the back 40 uses all of her senses - color (needs more water), smell (chicken coop needs cleaning), touch (moisture in the air, a nor’easter is brewing).
I don’t have a fully-formed thesis on this yet, but in the meantime here are four ways I’m re-thinking my to-do system:
Make It Kinder
Beck Tench focusses on the language she uses when she creates her to-dos, instead of simple verb imperatives such as “Send email Maria” she crafts each task as a statement of intent, in favor of the more human “you promised to email Maria those acupuncture articles.”
I try to craft my to do items so they remind me of who I wanted to be. I also try to give my future self agency to decide to do something different. A lot of my items begin with “You wanted…” or “You thought…” or “Consider…” so that I can decide what to do when I want to do something. Let’s take a real list as an example. In my old way of creating a list of things to read, each item would contain the name of the article and I’d check it off once I’d read it.
Make It Shorter
Jessica Ivins believes the secret to juggling lots of tasks without burning your soul to a cinder is to use shorter to-do lists. After all, how many times do you actually complete your full list by the end of the day? Adding more tasks isn’t going to give you more peace of mind. Listen to her insight on to-do list management on The Informed Life.
I realized that while the long list has everything captured that you need to do, it is kind of demoralizing because when are you ever going to.check off everything on a list of 25 items? You know, maybe eventually, but you’re not going to feel very productive or very accomplished in the meantime. So what I do is either the night before or the morning of my work day, I sit down and identify one to five priorities that I need to get done for that day.
Keep It Honest
The items on your to-do list are promises that you make to yourself. If you lie to yourself when you jot down to-dos you are doomed to fail. Perhaps the most honest to-do list writer of them all was Johnny Cash. Read about Cash’s two great lists here.
Do the Opposite
Marc Andreessen keeps an Anti-To-Do List. His actual to-do list is a 3x5 card with 3 to 5 items written on this. But on the back side of the card he keeps a record of the things he actually did that day.
A Done List is a pretty big idea and probably deserves a complete topic of its own. In the meantime you can read about Andreesen’s radical ideas on productivity here.