This article was originally published on 17 December 2007.
Photo by By POSITiv
To do lists. Those (in)famous little lists that supposedly keep us on track. I believe they’ve been around since the dawn of writing. To do lists, also known as next-action lists and many other names, are simply lists of things we need to accomplish. Every modern time-management system has them in one form or another.
The Evolution Of The To Do List
Back in the day, to do lists were informal scribblings of things that needed to be accomplished. Those that made them accomplished more than those that didn’t, just from removing memory from the equation.
As to do lists grew in size, next came prioritized to do lists. It acknowledged that there was a lot to do, but by putting your best efforts into the items that were most important, you could have great effect.
Quadrants came next. We were asked to distinguish between the combinations of urgent and important. We were urged to not work on things that were not urgent and not important, even though these same gurus told us this was where the majority of our work would lie. (Try telling any mother that she shouldn’t do laundry because it’s not a quadrant 1 or 2 item! Sooner or later, that unimportant and non-urgent task will be a very important and very urgent one!)
Getting Things Done took another approach to this, assuming that if the project was important enough to be on your horizon, it was important enough to work on, so priorities were banished. The to do lists were sectioned off into chunks based on “context“, or where you were at the time. That way if you had to accomplish something at home and you were not at home, you could dismiss it from your present thinking. These lists excluded mundane tasks that were relegated to checklists, or things to be repeated often.
Next up were the Do It Tomorrow closed lists. This is a list of items you commit to getting accomplished in a given day. It abandoned priority, since it would all get done, and it abandoned context for the same reason.
The Fundamental Problems with To Do Lists
I’ve been through all the types of lists. I started making lists when I was in school, and I’ve done it consistently ever since. I believe the main problem with any to do list is that they can quickly get out of control and un-doable. Also, by including everything all the mundane tasks, you will quickly have reams of paper and lose sight of the important stuff you want to get to.
Avoiding Being Overwhelmed
It seems to me that in order to avoid being overwhelmed, you need to limit what goes on the list. Recognize you have limited time and energy, and make sure your list reflects that reality. There are a few ways to go about this:
Look At Your Mundane Tasks
Sure, you might not need to be reminded on a list to brush your teeth, but it is still something you must do, and it takes time. On the same page, it is easier to keep up with household tasks as they come up than to deal with them in a mad rush on a weekend. Washing a day’s worth of dishes is easier than a week’s worth, and will also save you the psychological “ick” you get from seeing a week’s worth of amassed dirty dishes. But again, it takes time.
In order to recognize that these tasks need to be done, but take up time, I group them. I know that “complete morning routine” involves showering, dressing, feeding the critters, brushing teeth, letting the dog out and making the bed, to name a few. “Make dinner” involves not only the food prep and serving, but also the cleanup, including wiping down the table and counters, and loading the dishwasher. I have two sets of weekly cleaning tasks that group the weekly chores I do in one place.
Eliminating Everyday Tasks
It may be that some of your routine tasks don’t need to be done at all. I used to bake all of our family’s bread. However, I found a whole grain loaf I liked at the grocery, and it saves me a great deal of effort to purchase. I still bake bread, but not weekly.
Look At Your Commitments
We don’t have unlimited time. I know I seem to think I do, and the number of active projects I have going on at any one time grows all the time. The only way I can rein that in is to cut back on what I am trying to do.
Don’t Underestimate the Time To Shift Between Projects
It is very tempting to think, I’ve got an extra ten minutes here and there, I can work on another project. But at the same time, it is never just ten minutes. It takes time to jump into a project, even to work on it for small time period. It is better for me to work on an existing project and complete it than to keep switching. Makes me think of the shift for multitasking…
Cut Back On What You Are Doing
I am no good to anyone if I don’t take regular time out, every day, to read and relax. That means that I have to severely limit what I do outside of “work”. I would love to tackle everything on my list, but the truth is, a large part of my daily time still goes to my clients. One of the items I do weekly is cull my program list to make sure I can work on a few things well instead of a lot of things poorly.