todo lists

Todo lists considered harmful

by Jason on October 25, 2011 · 0 comments

empty todo list

The title’s a little misleading, but my comp sci training forces me to invoke Dijkstra whenever possible. Just so we’re clear, I’ve been using a daily todo list for most of this year, and the reasons are very simple: when I start the day with a list, I get more done.  More so if the list was written the night before. (Related tip with the same photo: start the lists at the bottom.)

The trouble is, it’s ridiculously easy to get a lot done without actually getting anything done.  Becoming a slave to getting five checkmarks per day can be incredibly counterproductive.  It’s very easy to start picking items that have the sole strategic value of being things that are accomplishable without much discomfort, so they become easy checkmarks to achieve.

And how big should each task be, if we’re going for five items a day?  My usual strategy if I’ve gone a few days without many checkmarks is to start breaking the tasks into smaller chunks, but a better plan, in hindsight, is generally to figure out the root cause of why those items never get finished in the first place (hint: it’s usually not because they’re too time consuming. Other avoidance factors are usually at play.)

Conversely, there have been days where I managed to finish everything I thought was important in the first hour of work.  Should those tasks have been bigger?  Do I get the rest of the day off?

What I’m finding is that todo lists are still hugely powerful motivators for me (like I said earlier, if I don’t have them, the morning disappears very quickly,) but for them to gain maximum effectiveness they need to be matched up with weekly, monthly, quarterly, and even annual todo lists of larger goals.  Ideally every item on a day’s list is directly tied to an item on one of the later lists, but I usually figure if I average 3 of them I’m doing OK.

Todo list tweak: start at the bottom

My top five todo list needs some filling

by Jason on May 9, 2011 · 1 comment

For the past several months I’ve been following a “top 5” daily/weekly/monthly todo list system, where I list the top 5 things I want to accomplish for each time period, ideally before I’m in the middle of it.  There’s still room to optimize (especially with making the different lists congruent, so my daily tasks actually get me towards the monthly goals, for example) but it’s been going well so far.

One thing I was finding was that I’d get maybe 3 or 4 of the items crossed off on any given day, which was cool, but I wouldn’t have any measurable progress, because the really important stuff tended to get missed.  I fixed that (somewhat) by starting the day’s list at the bottom.

Here’s what happens, and I’m sure it’s not just me.  I start my todo list, right, and OK, I’ve got to call Bob, and I’ve got to get to the bank, and I’ve got to code up a new module for Susan, and I’ve got to wireframe up a new help page, and oh yeah, I’ve got to do that thing that’s going to make the absolute most difference in my business this month.

The problem is that I never get to item 5 because I’m so busy getting the first 4 checked off.  So now I start at the bottom.  For a while I’d actually start reading the list from the bottom up, but now I tend to write in the items from five to one so I can re-prioritize if I recognize that something’s important as I come up with the list.  Because here’s the thing: when I’m writing a todo list, the items that come to mind right away aren’t that important.  They’re urgent, sure, because I think of them right away, but to use my coach’s parlance, these items tend to be transactional, not transformational.

You can spend years feeling like you’re accomplishing something every day because you got a bunch of checkmarks, but that short-term hit to your reward mechanism in your brain will only keep you running in the hamster wheel.  There are certain items in your list that will make massive differences in your life, but they can be harder to do.  Take a look at your own list, and ask yourself if there are things that never get checked off, and what would it mean if they were done?  Are they at the bottom of the list?  Maybe it’s time to flip it over.