Making lists can be a trap. I say this as the sort of person who uses list-making as a pressure-release valve. My first impulse, when I feel overwhelmed, is to work it out in text. Sometimes that happens digitally, sometimes it happens in a notebook, sometimes it happens on an index card, and when I’m really running low on mental bandwidth, it starts to happen on the backs of envelopes and library check-out receipts. It’s like I’m an octopus trying to hide in a cloud of ink. My personal environment starts to fill with scattered scraps of paper, making it harder and harder to find the information I need. It’s a tendency I have to fight.
Paper scraps are like autumn leaves. Even a small number can spread over a vast surface. It can seem to happen overnight. They also don’t do well after spending a night outside in the rain. This tendency of paper to spread out and obscure every flat surface is, however, only a minor aspect of the larger problem with to-do lists.
1. Salience. Making a to-do list gives each item an equal weight. This is the same problem with out-of-control e-mail inboxes. A message from the boss takes precisely the same amount of space as that spam that suggests I increase my size naturally, which probably doesn’t sound as good to someone like me who has had to work hard to lose a lot of weight, but I digress. Each item on a to-do list looks equally important, from “install new roof” to “buy stamps.”
2. Order. Free-writing a to-do list tends to generate what looks like a numbered list. The order in which the items crossed your mind is not necessarily the order in which they should, or could, get done. Some items can only be done during standard business hours, while others are only going to be tackled on weekends. Some will need to be done today, while others can’t be started until after payday, etc.
3. Contingency. Some tasks can’t be completed until others are done, although it’s not that uncommon to accidentally run dirty laundry through the dryer or start pulling dirty dishes out of the dishwasher before it’s been run. One common problem with tasks that are contingent on others is when the first part is supposedly being handled by someone else.
4. Context. Some items are different from others. Errands, phone calls, repairs, things to buy, daily chores, hobbies, and sometimes bucket list items will all be mixed together. The list format tends to jumble things together, meaning we sometimes miss things when we are batch-processing.
5. Duration. Items on a to-do list might take anywhere from 30 seconds to several months. That is one of several reasons why most lists are never fully finished and thrown away. A list that includes a bunch of daily chores and brief phone calls will usually also include a major project and another aversive task that has been procrastinated.
6. Frequency. Lists tend to include items that need to be done daily, meaning they can NEVER BE CROSSED OFF. If there is one thing that makes an ordinary life feel like the damnation of Sisyphus, it is that. Endlessly rolling a boulder up a hill, just to slip and watch it tumble to the bottom of the hill again, is nothing compared to keeping up on a household’s laundry.
7. Aversion. Aversive tasks are things we dread doing. There are some tasks that are almost universally aversive, like cleaning a litter box. Others are aversive to most people, although some people truly enjoy them, such as washing dishes or folding laundry. Some things are enjoyable for most people, but aversive to a few, and I will avoid the temptation to insert a rant about riding Space Mountain here. Aversive tasks are the things we tend to procrastinate the most. We tell ourselves we’re going to wait until we are “in the mood.” This usually means IT WILL NEVER GET DONE AT ALL until it’s either gross enough to notice, like a stained, dank-smelling toilet, or until a deadline comes up, like moving to a new house.
I have completely restructured the way I get things done. I used to have a running to-do list that would be generated during late-night brain dumps anytime I felt scattered and overwhelmed. I would usually blast through about a third of the list within a couple of hours. The next third would be done within the next 2-3 days. I would chip away at a few more things over the next couple of weeks. There would always be something left, six months or a year or three years later, which I would notice because I kept all of these lists in the snowdrift of paper on my desk. Often, the things that didn’t get done were precisely the things that would have moved my life forward the most. The aversive task generated the anxiety that I then dispelled by making the list and busily doing a lot of less important tasks. Once I learned the concept of “temporary mood repair,” this frenzied yet ultimately meaningless activity ceased to do anything for me. Like a good Questioner, I won’t do anything at all unless I’m sure I have a good reason why.
How do I get things done without a to-do list?
1. Schedule blocks of time for certain types of tasks. I don’t need a list because it’s obvious what I need to do. When I’m coaching, I coach. When I’m writing, I write. When I’m exercising, I have to set a time limit, because my tendency is to want at least a 90-minute workout. I clean one room each weekday and go grocery shopping one day a week. I also set aside a block of time one day a week for administrative tasks that take more effort than a quick phone call or email. I call that time:
2. Power Hour. The first thing I do during Power Hour is to ask myself what task is most important. If I could only get one thing done this entire week, what should that thing be? Is there anything lingering from last week? This is when I do research and make decisions on larger-scale projects, like which platform is best to host my website.
3. Saturday Status Meeting. My husband and I go out for breakfast on Saturday mornings. We talk about all the business matters that affect us as a partnership. Finances, travel plans, household maintenance or shopping, veterinary issues, car stuff, etc. This is usually when tickets get booked. There is also the highly important issue of which movie to see later, and whether it is showing at the theater that has the best popcorn.
4. The 5-minute rule. In GTD, they call this the 2-minute rule, but I think it’s easier to do most simple tasks immediately rather than estimate whether they might in fact take 3 minutes. I work for myself, so I have total control over my schedule. If I need to do something like calling to book an appointment or sewing a button, I just do it. The result of this is that I very rarely have any kind of stack or pile or list of unfinished tasks.
5. Radical exclusion. Most things, I just don’t do. I’ve made a top-down decision that only certain things are relevant to my interests. By temperament, I am drawn to expansion, to constantly trying to add more options. Course catalogs always led me to want to cross out the handful of classes that didn’t interest me, while believing I could find time in my life to complete the hundreds each term that did. I used to think I could read every book and article, watch every movie, master every craft, meet every person on Earth, etc. Now that I recognize the unlikelihood of this, I’ve learned that I get more value out of focusing extreme attention on only one thing at a time. I can reconsider what I want to do next after I finish what I have decided is the best current use of my attention.
My recommendation to anyone who is feeling overwhelmed and scattered, the way I used to be, is to go ahead and do that total brain dump. Write the longest list possible of every single thing that is pulling at your attention. Don’t stop there, though. Categorize and prioritize. Get some colored highlighters, or use symbols. (I’m particularly proud of my personal symbol for phone calls, a stylized drawing of an old-fashioned telephone handset). Mark everything that can be done in five minutes. Differentiate between tasks (one-shot effort units) and projects (large-scale jobs made up of multiple tasks). Mark errands and projects that can’t be done until the money is there. Make a separate list of hobby-related projects, and then burn that list and give away all the materials. (Kidding, kind of). Eliminate everything you can possibly eliminate by deciding that it is no longer the priority it was when you first mentally committed to it. Give yourself permission for a do-over, and reset. Look at your default settings and where you spend your time. Then take a week or two, quit doing your default activities, and set about making that list as short as possible. Imagine what life would be like if you truly felt “caught up” and had a free day with no responsibilities toward Past Self’s choices or Past Self’s projects.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.