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.

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