October 4, 2012
What do you need to do today? Other than read this blog entry, I mean.
Have you ever noticed that a huge percentage of
Lifehacker-like productivity porn site content is a breathless description of the details of Yet Another To-Do Application? There are dozens upon dozens of the things to choose from, on any platform you can name. At this point it's getting a little ridiculous; per Lifehacker's Law, you'd need a to-do app just to keep track of all the freaking to-do apps.
I've tried to maintain to-do lists at various points in my life. And I've always failed. Utterly and completely. Even turning it into a game, like the cleverly constructed
Epic Win app, didn't work for me.
Eventually I realized that the problem wasn't me. All my to-do lists started out as innocuous tools to assist me in my life, but slowly transformed, each and every time, into thankless, soul-draining exercises in reductionism.
. Adam Wozniak nails it:
My to-do list was killing me
Lists give the illusion of progress.
Lists give the illusion of accomplishment.
Lists make you feel guilty for not achieving these things.
Lists make you feel guilty for continually delaying certain items.
Lists make you feel guilty for not doing things you don't want to be doing anyway.
Lists make you prioritize the wrong things.
Lists are inefficient. (Think of what you could be doing with all the time you spend maintaining your lists!)
Lists suck the enjoyment out of activities, making most things feel like an obligation.
Lists don't actually make you more organized long term.
Lists can close you off to spontaneity and exploration of things you didn't plan for. (Let's face it, it's impossible to really plan some things in life.)
For the things in my life that actually
mattered, I've never needed any to-do list to tell me to do them. If I did, then that'd be awfully strong evidence that I have some serious life problems to face before considering the rather trivial matter of which to-do lifehack fits my personality best. As for the things that didn't matter in my life, well, those just tended to pile up endlessly in the old to-do list. And the collective psychic weight of all these minor undone tasks were caught up in my ever-growing to-do katamari ball, where they continually weighed on me, day after day.
Yes, there's that everpresent giant to-do list, hanging right there over your head like a guillotine, growing
sharper and heavier every day.
Like a crazy hoarder I mistake the root cause of my growing mountain of incomplete work. The hoarder thinks he has a storage problem when he really has a 'throwing things away problem'. I say I am 'time poor' as if the problem is that poor me is given only 24 hours in a day. It's more accurate to say… what exactly? It seems crazy for a crazy person to use his own crazy reasoning to diagnose his own crazy condition. Maybe I too easily add new projects to my list, or I am too reluctant to exit from unsuccessful projects. Perhaps I am too reluctant to let a task go, to ship what I've done. They're never perfect, never good enough.
And I know I'm not alone in making the easy claim that I am 'time poor'. So many people claim to be time poor, when really we are poor at prioritizing, or poor at decisiveness, or don't know how to say 'no' (…to other people, to our own ideas).
If only I had a hidden store of time, or if only I had magical organisation tools, or if only I could improve my productive throughput, then, only then would I be able to get things done, to consolidate the growing backlogs and todo lists into one clear line of work, and plough through it like an arctic ice breaker carving its way through a sheet of ice.
But are you using the
right guillotine? Maybe it'd work better if you tried this newer, shinier guillotine? I'd like to offer you some advice:
There's only one, and exactly one, item anyone should ever need on their to-do list. Everything else is superfluous.
You shouldn't have a to-do list in the first place.
Declare to-do bankruptcy right now. Throw out your to-do list. It's hurting you.
Maybe it is a little scary, but the right choices are always a little scary, so do it anyway.
No, I wasn't kidding.
Isn't Hall and Oates awesome? I know, rhetorical question. But still.
Look, this is becoming counterproductive.
Wait a second, did I just make a list?
Here's my challenge.
If you can't wake up every day and, using your 100% original equipment God-given organic brain, come up with the three most important things you need to do that day – then you should seriously work on fixing that. I don't mean install another app, or read more productivity blogs and books. You have to figure out what's important to you and what motivates you; ask yourself why that stuff isn't gnawing at you enough to make you get it done. Fix that.
Tools will come and go, but
your brain and your gut will be here with you for the rest of your life. Learn to trust them. And if you can't, do whatever it takes to train them until you can trust them. If it matters, if it really matters, you'll remember to do it. And if you don't, well, maybe you'll get to it one of these days. Or not. And that's cool too.
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Posted by Jeff Atwood
I agree about lists (or maybe it's because I'm too lazy to maintain them). But you have a seriously dodgy taste in music.
Genius! A to-do app to manage all to-do app. I'm gonna be rich making one!
Bruce, despite your insouciance, your kiss is still on my list.
My 2 top productivity tips:
-Stop reading about productivity and spend the time you save doing productive stuff.
-Don't write yet another TODO list app (YATDLA). We have reached the TODO list app event horizon, where it actually takes longer to evaluate all the existing TODO list apps than it does to write your own TODO list app.
This blog post brought to you today by Trello... Organize anything, together! (Just kidding!)
Although I totally agree that todo list making helps make procrastinators feel like they are doing something... I do wish there was a better way to determine and provide task dependencies... That would actually help determine priorities.
Say that your driver-license are about to expire, and you never get the new card from the DMV. You keep postponing it - cause let's face it, who wants to
call the DMV, let along go there...
So you don't have a TODO-list, and you've had a really hectic week - then bammmm, a cop stops you for a routine check...
Don't know about you, but I need a TODO-list exactly for all the important things that I don't want to do...
Same for me, My list is for the stuff I don't want to do. I don't think your advice is very helpful here, as I don't want to coach myself into waking up thinking "I can't wait to clean the air filter today!". Not cleaning the air filter isn't a better option.
Todo lists are backups for your brain.
Sometimes there's meta-work involved in cleaning it up yes, but that's the price of keeping your data in sync.
It feels like the same type of person who'd be against TODO lists would be against unit testing.
Well, the best approach for me has been using Google Calendar. It is very flexible, you can put things to do there that repeat weekly, monthly, every 6 months, every 35 days... anyway you want.... and then I setup Google Calendar as my initial page on Chrome. Done.
To quote the sage, "I can't go for that."
"no can do"
My to-do lists (and yes, I have 3) are:
1. Google calendar for things I don't need to remember right now. I just need to remember them down the road and I'll send myself a reminder so that I do them (dentist appointment, etc.) Non-work things go here. Appointments go here.
2. The big whiteboard on my wall where anyone on my team or I can write down something that needs to get done by me at some point but not right now. If it's on the board, it's going to get done but isn't priority 1.
3. A single sheet of paper on my desk where today's train of thought goes. I get interrupted throughout the day. Stuff comes up. Each day I write down today's tasks and mark though them as I've finished them. No pressure... no feeling that I'm a failure if I haven't finished them all yet... I'm not racing, I'm developing solutions to problems. This frees my brain to think about solutions, not try to memorize what's next. Then I'm not "out of touch".
Yeah.. Hall & Oates... you make my dreams come true. ;-)
So you just fix bugs when you remember them and it feels right? /rhetorical snark
Yes, pushing back on the productivity porn is important. I remember Merlin Mann had a pretty good post about just that when he put down 43folders for a while. (Which I apparently didn't bookmark. List fail.) But addiction to todo lists is an addiction problem not a todo list problem. Find what works to augment your brain, recognize when you're going down the gear whore hole, and then go outside and do things.
My problem with To-Do lists was that while there was a bit of a high when crossing items off the list I didn't have an adequate method of keeping track of what I had gotten done.
I found a website, www.dolisted.com, that tackles this problem. It is still in the early stages, however I like the idea of getting away from the traditional To-Do list with a future-focused approach and looking back at what you have actually finished.
If you have lists of to-do lists then I think you have a problem. I think that would require a Lifehacker's anonymous class.
Clearly you do not have Attention Deficit Disorder.
No, I disagree. Time is a resource and just like money, it needs to be managed. Without a budget, we lose track of what we spend money on and waste money. Without a to-do list of some sort, even just an agenda, we lose track of what needs to be done. Saying that if you have too many things that need to be done, you need a lifestyle change is like saying if you have too many allotments in your budget, you need to spend less. It might be true to an extent, but it does not mean do away with the budget.
I maintain fighter aircraft and you better believe lists are important.
I write 'em on a 3x5 and throw 'em out at the end of the day. Messy is flexible.
"Come up with the three most important things you need to do that day "
That sounds a lot like a list! The difference between writing down three things in the morning vs. memorizing three things each morning escapes me, except maybe the former is less stress.
I've found a light "to do today" list actually has real value, followed by lists for work project ideas, restaurants I want to try, and projects I'm currently working on. I'm not 100% sure the last list is useful, but "to do today" is great around 3 o clock when I'm tired and lost in the details of the day, and forgot what I set out to do in the morning.
I don't obsess about the tool; right now I'm keeping everything in a lightweight web app called Trello (perhaps you have heard of it :)
By the way, about 99% of the productivity lists I've made have indeed been wastes of time, so I think you're on to something. But "to do today", limited to at MOST five items and usually around 3, has been great.
I've never had luck with most productivity applications, and I think it's because those highly idealized "things I kinda want to get done over the next half-year" lists never work out for me.
In practical terms, Apple's Reminders is good for very time-sensitive things that absolutely have to be completed by a deadline (groceries, chores, my wedding prep), and Google Calendar is great for keeping track of my schedule. I've tried other things and realized that whatever doesn't fall in those first two categories is fodder for my procrastination.
The only todo list I've ever been able to use is the one built in to GMail. It works because I can't forget it exists (like most todo apps) but it's also not ever-present.
Plus I only use it for long term tasks, so it's more of a "to remember" list than a todo list.
To-do list is just a list of reminders. If you rely on it to be or to stay productive, then you should ask yourself why you had one to begin with. You're taking your to-do list way too seriously lol.
I really like the budget analogy above - when money is tight, smart people budget, to ensure the important things get bought. When time is tight, you need to manage that too. I started todo-listing about eight months ago, and it has made a substantial improvement to how well I spend my time, and how much stress I feel. I get more stuff done, with less guilt about what I don't get done. I'm working full time, raising three kids with my partner who also works full time, and studying for a PhD part-time. That doesn't leave many hours in the day to play around with, so the ones I have I want to budget wisely.
The most important thing (for me) with my list is that it tells me when I can feel satisfied that I've done enough for the day, and I can sit down and read a novel or watch some TV without guilt. A good todo list will allow you to set a date something needs to be done (which makes them similar to the "three things today" lists, except you can start planning tomorrow, the day after, etc.), and priority. It'll let you track priorities, and it'll let you track repeating events - a "vacuum the house" every four weeks means I get it done more often than I used to; a "remind Fred to do that thing" repeated daily means my projects are less likely to fall over because Fred doesn't consider them a priority.
I've got 42 things on my lists, spread across the next 8 weeks or so. That's 42 things I no longer have to keep in short-term storage in my brain, freeing it up for other more important things, like actually doing all that stuff. If a to-do list is giving you stress, you're not doing it right.
Automate, automate, automate.
Nothing frees up your mind to do life's important tasks like automation. I don't have a budget, my money gets automatically pushed into savings accounts - if there is no money in my checking account or short term savings (aka cushion account) then I can't spend any money. All my bills, except the mortgage are paid automatically - I never miss paying a bill. All of my financial transactions are auto-magically tracked. Every month I can login and see if I spent to much money on something and make a mental note to cut back. Turns out money is one of those mind numbing tasks that can and should be automated as much as possible.
My thermostat is programmed so I don't have to remember to adjust the A/C before I leave the house. One of these days I'll get around to programming all the lights in my house. I have a robot that cleans my floors for me, I love him. I'll be getting automatic cat feeders too, I can't wait for that day, cause boy are my cats annoying between the hours of 4 PM and 6 PM.
I keep a calendar that has certain items on it as a reminder of when they need to be done. That is it. Otherwise, if I can't remember to do it, not important.
I like the simplicity and lack of organization and it lets me keep track of things exactly the way I want to so it's not really a list at all.
The problem I have with lists is that other people need them to have any idea of what I'm doing on any given day, or even month. We use Trello. On my list of task management applications, Trello sucks the least. But it still sucks for the reasons you state above.
I found something interesting while using it, however; the comments under each list, or lists of lists if you're unfortunate. The little input box looked a lot like Twitter, and when I pushed the send button it behaved a lot like Twitter, so I began using it like Twitter. Instead of focusing on checking items off of my list, I committed to just deliver its purpose instead - keeping people up to date with what I'm doing with the added value of being able to go back to see what I was thinking two weeks ago.
They now not only know what I'm doing, but what I'm thinking. Every hour or two I fire off a rapid succession of five to fifteen comments. Soliloquy by soliloquy, they get what they want and generally don't bother me for formal updates or meetings. I tested to see if anyone actually read the stuff that I wrote several times and it turns out, yes - those interested in my project _do_ in fact read every single comment almost faithfully. There are times that I become engrossed and don't update it so much, but that's expected when you're wrapping your head around something not knowing how big it might be.
I found thinking out loud in this way to be an excellent companion for my rubber duck. He doesn't have buttons to push, he just sits there and stares at me and squeaks loudly when I smash him and blame him for everything.
tl;dr - Productivity apps can not suck, but lists of (anything), even *groceries* are evil little things. Ever feel guilty for not following a grocery list, or forgetting to put things on it?
I dont keep a todo list... I just add stuff to my calendar for when it deadlines and remove it as I get it done. I have far too many things that are far too important and completely outside of work to not do this. Things I miss the date on get thrown out. Nothing is ever extended, that is how these lists work and become effective. It has left me with a lot of unfinished sw projects, but its ok, I obviously took the idea as far as I could with the time I had. I try and do a month of important stuff in advance in a day and then I have free time to do whatever I want, including the projects I deadline (quite generously) myself. If the list is stressing you out, then you are not prioritising correctly.
Sorry Jeff, but this might be good advice for people without much to do or with photographic memories, but I find this to be generally really bad advice for most people.
Now, I'm not a TODO app snob or a productivity evangelist - I'll just say this - your wetware is good at a lot of things, but keeping track of lots of small details and future deadlines isn't one of them. One of the best things I ever did was read David Allen's book, Getting Things Done, but not for the reasons you might think. The main thing I remember from that book is the simple advice to have a "Trusted System" - one place to put all the things that are rattling around in your brain so they stop rattling around in there. If you hold on to stuff that you can't or aren't doing but need to remember, then it causes you stress. If you have a place where you always put those things then you don't have to keep remembering to do them. You just input them into your "trusted system", and that's it. Then, decide what you're going to do and know that anything else that comes up can go there until it's time to do it. I understand the notion of rejecting faddy, gimmicky apps that claim to solve all your problems, but the truth is that the brain isn't good at some things which is why it's worth taking some time and investing in a tool that relieves your stress. If your TODO list causes you stress, you're doing it wrong. But don't through out the baby with the bath water. Your TODO list is supposed to be a pensieve (thank you JK Rowling!), not a conscience.
Productivity tip #1 - use tldr.io
Productivity tip #2 - use noprocast in HN
Productivity tip #3 - don't read productivity tips and get back to work!
This part of your post really caught my eye:
"And the collective psychic weight of all these minor undone tasks were caught up in my ever-growing to-do katamari ball, where they continually weighed on me, day after day"
I don't follow the whole GTD system, but I did take away some important lessons from it. One of the the most important aspects to your to-do lists is what David Allen calls the Weekly Review.
All that means is this: at least once a week, you review and prune your lists. GTD suggests being pretty ruthless about it, because Allen recognizes
exactly what you describe: the psychic weight and clutter of an ever-growing action list. That will definitely stress you out and weigh you down.
Whichever way you go, best of luck. Thank you for all the great articles you've written and your contributions to StackExchange.
The best to-do list I have ever found was a text file. It's literally a list of things that I want to do if I ever have billable hours but nothing to do. If it's actually important, it doesn't go on the list.
The problem of most todo apps is that they focus on productivity (do as much as possible) rather than effectiveness (do the right thing).
Try an app that helps you keep your goals in mind in your everyday workflow.
http://weekplan.net is inspired by the "Put First Things First" methodology from Covey, and it works for many.
I'm sure you didn't mean for this to be a slap in the face for people with learning disabilities, but you didn't think about the fact that we exist when you wrote it, and it shows.
Lists aren't a good solution for you, and that's ok. Telling other people that lists can be counter-productive for some people is ok, too. It might be helpful for some people. Not everybody's brain is the same as yours, though.
I have ADHD, and I can't trust my brain to keep track of the things yours keeps track of. There's no exercise I can do or medical procedure I can get to "fix" that. This is how my brain works, and this is how it will work for the rest of my life. All I can do is use the tools that are available to me, such as medication, alarms, and lists.
Yes, it takes some time to make lists. It takes a lot longer to try to do the dishes when I keep finding myself in a different room and can't remember why I'm there or what I was doing. I can save a lot of time by making lists, especially when you consider that without them, I forget to get my prescriptions and end up doing things like taking ten minutes to dial a phone number because I keep messing it up.
I found your advice marginalising and hurtful. Like many people with learning disabilities, I've been fighting certain messages for most of my life. One of those is that I have to do things without help, the way normal people do them, or else I must not really care. It's an intensely harmful way of thinking for people with learning disabilities, and I'm very disappointed to see it on this blog.
For me, the point of the lists is to get all that stuff *out* of your brain, so that you can focus on the important things - otherwise, you just keep mentally context-switching and get nothing done. Whether you do all everything on the lists is another decision.
I love the term "to-do bankruptcy". It's brilliant. It's an ongoing process, though - you need to declare it every day. Or at least every couple of weeks, when the next list has crept up on a piece of paper. Or in Notepad. Or in your Inbox.
Another blogger I follow wrote about a very similar topic yesterday - claiming that there is the need for capitulation, an acknowledgement that there is always more stuff we need to do than we will ever be able to do, at any given time. She wrote, paraphrasing from German: "Say 'I didn't get around to doing that' aloud. Make it your mantra. Repeat it until you don't feel even the slighest trace of discomfort or guilt any more when saying it."
I'm still working on that, and don't feel like I'm there yet.
Jeff you should not use your todo list to do the weekly review. Weekly review is the only thing that will tell your if you have done progress through days and weeks.
If you show you weekly review (it can be a 'list') and your todo list to someone they will say it is of two different people which means, You do lot different then what you want.
Ideally have a buddy to do your weekly review. Don't do it alone with a tech gadget.
Todo list is natural for us, even if we use tools for it or not.
For example, My mom thinks of things to have before making turkey preparation in form of list, she might not write but it's in her head.
If I loose my drivers licence which I do a lot, then I know I have pre-defined list.
1. File complaint with police,
2. Collect the letter of notification from them
3. Fill up the duplicate licence form from at the Driving authorities.
4. Etc, etc.
There is no running from the list; and things will not be auto-solved if you stop using the todo list or app.
Totally agree with your post, except for one item list: My grocery shopping list. Without that I'd die of starvation or malnourishment.
Man, you do need to read Checklist Manifesto.
Jeff, I think you may have tripped into the pit of over-generalisation. It's a bit of an annoying habit, though I admit it's a good way to attract long discussions in comments.
It is certainly true that some people are better off without to-do lists of any kind, but it's also true that some people get quite the nice benefit from them.
I use an adapted GTD system myself. Rather than explain my system here, I'll just link to the write-up I did of it:
http://gtdfh.branchable.com/ (titled "GTD for hackers"). Spoiler: I don't use an spesialised application for managing my system, and it also doesn't take much time to maintain it.
A to-do list of any kind is a tool. If you feel guilty about not doing something on your list, the problem is probably not that you have a list. The problem might be that you didn't do something you needed to do, or that you put something on your list you didn't really need or want to do. Maybe it would have been better to have a list of things that you'll do only if you can be bothered and happen to have the time for them?
I agree with Matt McElheny about how the brain works, and that it works better when it doesn't have to keep actively remembering lots of details.
I have a terrible memory. I've lived with lists my whole life. I couldn't get through the day without them.
I do need todo lists for what some people above mentioned: groceries, paying bills, filling out a form, generating a data export for someone, ... Things I can safely say I'll do, but that I put off to the last minute anyway so might as well put them on a todo list with a date attached and forget about it.
Things that definitely don't work is stuff like implementing features or getting documents written up or the like. Some days I'm really productive (or rather, motivated), some days I'm not. So todo lists usually only make me feel guilty, or trivialize the amount of work I just did with a single checkbox. I think it's solid advice to forget about tracking that sort of thing (or rather, not with a todo list).
I think the main problem is that people thinks that todo lists are really just plain lists , this is why Jeff and most of others hates TODO lists. After years of searching and trying +100 tools, I finally found that all TODO lists apps really suck, whatever how they have beautiful and creative user interface. Actually you need something like a virtual secretary or a life organizer that turn your TODO list stupid items into a super items that you can track. I really love this one
It really changed how I think about TODO lists, I encourage everyone to use it , I use the free lite version.
I think lists are important. The thing is to know how to use them, expire ones which are just undoable and not add items which are huge, or vague. "Sort out job" or "Stop biting nails" is something you know you need to do and doesn't really need a list. But "buy wife flowers" just jogs the memory.
Didn't Hoffstadter already cover this in Godel, Escher, Bach? That is to say, Reductionism versus Holism? Then again, maybe it's because I spent more than a bit of time earning my undergrad CS poking around in scheme, but I find nothing wrong with lists. Provided, that is, I treat them as immutable and toss them in the garbage when I'm done with them.
My point is, I use lists. It's very difficult for me to not. However, I used what I learned in computing theory to find a solution (of sorts) of the problem of pointless reductionism and wasting too much time trying to put everything that
absolutely must be done on the list. Basically, I keep my lists short (no more than five items), and immutable (no adding items once the list is completed). To accomplish this, I set a time limit for creating the list of no more than five minutes at the end of my workday. Finally (the important part), I do all of this on paper and intentionally dispose of the list after 24 hours.
My point is I intentionally treat the lists I
do use as a collection of symbols to be manipulated, nothing more. This (for me, at least), effectively halts the endless reductionism and allows me to work on a more holistic level at whatever problem I am solving without being quite so absent-minded that important things that need to be done do not get done.
My method may, or may not, work for you.
In addition to the (very, VERY real) forgetfulness issue, which a lot of people here have already covered, I personally find to-do lists a useful analytical tool. If something's been on my list for multiple days without getting done, why is that? Is the task not actually worth doing? Is there's something else that has to be done first in order to proceed? Do I have some sort of mental block against finishing it? Thinking about these things helps me cut the cruft and get the important stuff done.
I can't imagine doing this as a purely mental activity, particularly in a cubicle.* Even if I were working in a monastery, using lists is faster and more accurate. The tool itself isn't evil; it's just people's relationship to it that's messed up.
* Yeah, yeah, cubes are evil. But you can't expect people working in them to abandon all attempts to stay productive.
Well Jeff the thing is, we have to-do lists because we actually don't wanna do the stuff in the list.
Let's say I follow your advice and stop taking notes about whatever my boss tells me to do or the stuff I have to get done for myself by the weekend.
If I do that I'll probably lose my work and play video games all weekend long. The advice "if it's important you will remember to do it" is untrue. I have important stuff THAT I HATE doing but I have to do. Also there is always those things that you only remember that need doing when you actually need them - like calling your girlfriend, hehe. Okay, bad joke.
But yeah, if I throw away my To-do list and only do what I remember because that is what really matters I would probably play games the whole day and do nothing.
What's with the self-help column all of a sudden?
Also, what's with the inability of most people to understand that not everybody else is exactly like them?
Todo lists don't work for Jeff, okay. But they do work for a lot of people (myself included), so what is the purpose of this post? To discourage all of those people in the middle who can't seem to get themselves organized?
I wish that more people I know -- particularly my colleagues -- were better at managing their tasks. Most of the people that I work with don't have the luxury of waking up in the morning and working on whatever 3 things pop into their mind. They have many complex commitments due on different days.
Hi Jeff, thanks for the link-love. Appreciated.
My current insight (helped in part by 'Mud Rooms, Red Letters, and Real Priorities'
http://www.43folders.com/2009/04/28/priorities ) is that the list of tasks you make is not really a TODO list at all.
The list you make are the list of things that are so unimportant that you don't need to do them immediately.
By putting them on a list you should relieve yourself of all guilt in relation to them. You are saying "These things are low enough priority that they can sit here undone for at least one more day."
So I'm pouring all my not-to-do items into Trello. And working on just one item at a time, taken from that list. And even that one item is not a real priority.
Real priority is saved for real things -- like two weeks ago when my daughter broke her arm, badly.
That was a priority. I rushed to be with her and didn't even need to consult my todo list for a moment.
Have you ever found a todo list (paper or electronic) weeks, months or even years after you lost track of it? Do you recall how stressed out you were when creating that list and how half the things on it seemed to be matters of life and death? And now here it is, that list, many if not most of the items on it undone and here you are, alive and unscathed.
Maybe that's what we should do. Make lists and then put them aside to be read at a later date as insights into what really matters to us.
As a programmer I recently realised that my todo list was basically a mix of a feature list and a bug list. So now my todo list has one two items on it. Work through bug list and work through feature list.
I use Google Calendar as my "todo" list. I put almost everything I have to do in a day (including things like grocery shopping) on my calendar. The time spent is only a few minutes a week, since most events are recurring. The main reason I do this isn't because I'd forget to do these things otherwise, but it's to stop me from over-committing. I have a tendency to say "yes" whenever someone asks me to do something, and then regretting it later. When I keep my calendar full, I can pull out my smart phone, look at all the things I intended to do on that day, and say "Sorry, I just don't see room for that on my schedule". It works pretty well for me. And it has the advantage that missed tasks don't pile up. Unless I deliberate reschedule a past event for the future it just falls into the void of the past on my calendar.
As someone who spent their entire life up to age 30 without any kind of formal system, and never having read lifehacker or 43folders or any productivity porn, I have much more experience with what Jeff is advocating than he does, and he's right, it works. You can absolutely keep everything in your brain and pick the most important things to work on and be very successful that way; I certainly was. However there are downsides.
Sometimes you forget things that actually really were important. When this happens you may feel guilt that's a lot more real and justifiable than the self-imposed guilt of an unfinished todo list. As the complexity of your life ramps up, especially with modern life and knowledge-work being what it is, you can develop anxiety over not forgetting things. The human brain isn't evolved to manage the lifestyle complexity that many of us live on a daily basis.
So a couple years ago when the complexity of my life had grown to the point where I was feeling pretty severe negative consequences from the demands on my time, I decided I needed something better than my ad-hoc ways. I read Getting Things Done, and I was surprised to find out that the gist of it is not a rigid process-oriented system, but rather the idea that if you can get things out of your brain into a system that you can trust, it frees your mind to enjoy life better. Sure there's overhead of maintaining some lists and you have to tune it to your specific workload, but with modern digital tools I've got my personal system humming along where I don't think about it more than 5 mins a day, spend 20 mins a week on review, and the list doesn't grow out of control because I *gasp* delete things from it rather than ascribe some false weight to it simply because it's written in text rather than bouncing around in my brain.
If Jeff's new-found-meat-minimalism makes him more productive than more power to him, but this whole article reads like one big overreaction to having been mired in productivity porn for too long. TMTOWTDI.
Here's my thought on lists and my need an why they fall off my "radar" as it were. I do not have control over my time at work. I don't have control over what is needed to be done. I need to use a list to try and remember who asked for what, and by answering a question has made me responsible for it. Using a to-do list helps me remember what I'm responsible. I don't let it run my life, just is the thing that reminds me what is promised.
As far as home goes, it's the little hooks that remind me that I should dust the countertop, or run the shower curtan through the wash. It's not what I need to do, it's what I need to see. It's a difference in how I use omnifocus.
I like to think of my lists as secondary storage. Off-loading future stuff to a piece of paper frees up my local "cache" to focus on more important things. FWIW, I don't use TO-DO apps or lists to prioritize, only to keep track of stuff that's important enough to not lose in case it's "swapped out" of my memory by something more important.
I don't think the problem is with lists per-se. I go through phases of using a to-do list when I realise that I'm not coping with storing the necessary data in my head. And at this point it becomes invaluable. But generally I then slip back below a threshold where I realise that my head will work as efficiently as I need it to. I, like many others, read GTD back in the day, and I think the key lesson he does give - above and beyond any methods and techniques - is that trying to keep track of information in your head can be much more stressful than being able to put it on a list and then "forget" it can be.
I think the real mistakes are:
that once you've started writing a list it needs to turn into a system which rules your life.
that there's some silver bullet app either in existence, or waiting to be invented, which is better than pen and paper.
Wow, Jeff, I normally take your recommendations as gospel but this is the worst advice I've ever seen. If your lists stress you out, You're Doing It Wrong.
Unless you don't have that much going on, you have more to do than your brain can effectively keep track of. Getting that stuff out of your head and into some sort of trusted system is the best thing you can do for your own mental health. To-do lists aren't for productivity, they're for peace of mind. They're so your brain feels reassured that it doesn't have to keep reminding you at awkward times (e.g. 2 AM) about some unmet commitment you've made.
I think most task-tracking systems out there suffer from an excess of complexity. A text file works fine. Google Tasks, which is just one step up from that (it adds integration with Gmail and easy nesting of tasks) is what I use. And rather than try to assign due dates to tasks, I just group them under headings like this:
- CRITICAL TODAY
- TARGET TODAY
- TARGET THIS WEEK
- OTHER STUFF
The key here is to keep the "critical today" list to what you ABSOLUTELY have to do today, i.e. stuff you'd stay at work late or stay up late to finish.
The other key is a GTD-style weekly review, where you go over the entire list and make sure that everything on the list still belongs there.
If you call being pulled over by a cop "routine", you have more important things to worry about than a to do list.
They have a book about this called '18 minutes'. It basically addresses what you are talking about. The truth is you will not get it all done. It isn't going to happen because todo lists don't really factor time and preparedness, nor do they factor your priorities. No one leaves work early because they just don't have anything to do.
I use a combo of the todo list, and mostly the calendar. I did stop relying so heavily on the todo list because I found it insufficient for a life that involves other people. The other thing is that time spent not doing something can be just as productive. It gives you a chance to step and see if the process of getting things are done can be improved instead of the knee-jerk reaction that happens to the events as they occur.
I learned a while back that the more I tried to learn about being productive to help me become productive, the less productive I actually was.
Far as Lifehacker goes, it has become an orgy of productivity apps. The blog sucks balls now (Including the rest of Gawker as well but, I digress.).
Vital and valuable information indeed. I like your effort. Thanks Buudy!
I'm really not a fan of this post, you're worst I've seen if I'm honest. Raging on how your tasks are thankless, soul-draining exercises is hardly reason enough to run around screaming todolists are the devil.
If you've got the ability to remember every single things you need doing, or only happen to ever need to do things that take 5 minutes of your time and so therefore can be done right away, then fine todolists are unecessary for you. But forthe real world, task lists/todo lists are a necessity.
I agree that depending on a new program to solve the issues of your current are liekly to be more of an issue with the person than the program, and that todolists arent always appropriate (calendar notifications are always better for things than cannot be done until a certain time, or must be done on a certain occasion).
Also for very large tasks, you're almost always better off breaking apart the task into smaller tasks (see: GTD).
If you're going to be doing a full on project, you're not only better off breaking it into multiple tasks, but probably better off with a Gantt chart, so you can delegate tasks and synchronise timing.
Todolists aren't a new thing, before apps, we had paper and pen, and before the average person could write we had handkerchiefs to tie knots in. There is always a necessity to have a way of remembering to do something, no one's memory is 100% perfect.
Yes there's an over saturation of todo list apps, and yes systems masquerading as games which in reality are chores are terrible. To me it just sounds like you've decided to not rage on todolists so much, more specifically on lifehacker. Fine, don't visit it. I don't. I have higher priority things to do.
I recently adopted an approach very similar to what you describe here, and have found myself both happier and more productive as a result.
I spent many years using a progression of mainstream approaches, from Franklin Institute's Productivity Pyramid, to Stephen Covey's First Things First, to David Allen's Getting Things Done. And while I did get value from each approach, I also found myself chafing in multiple ways with every single one of them. None of them seemed to work the way I naturally work inside, so I went looking for a more natural way.
I still use standard tools (outlines, diagrams, calendars) for specific needs. But when it comes to the all-important question of where to direct my attention on the current day, I likewise prefer (and trust) a more organic approach.
Gary Klein has a terrific book called the Power of Intuition, where he suggests that the best decisions come from intuition (which he describes as pattern recognition based on past experiences) which is then validated (or not) for the current circumstance through mental modeling. This makes deep sense to me, and is the basis of my own approach.
What I do, first of all, is regularly feed my intuition with clear images of directions I might like to go (work, family, personal, whatever). This usually takes the form of simply writing down as much as is clear to me when it occurs to me, in what amounts to a digital diary. This has two clear and immediate benefits: writing it out helps me get much clearer and more specific, plus it gives me the security of knowing it's on record and locatable if I should forget about it. In practice, I rarely go back and look at these things unless there are very specific details I worked out that are no longer clear to me. However, the images stick and unconsciously integrate in my awareness, informing my intuition when it's time to make choices.
So when it comes time, at the start of each day, to choose what to work on or where to direct my attention, it's very easy to relax and just see what naturally comes up. I still get more ideas from this process than I can fit into a single day, but by doing this, certain ones just naturally stand out as the most important ones to focus on now. I believe my own cumulative experience informs which ones naturally bubble up to the surface, and I continue with this exploration until I find ones that deeply resonate.
This process seems to work not only for the things I want to do, but also for commitments I have made, and directions that may be uncomfortable initially but align with my deeper values. It also allows my thinking to evolve in each prospective direction, without feeling unwittingly beholden to a particular notion from a previous point in time.
Choosing this way is, for me, producing much more meaningful days. Like you, my experience is that the personally important things do just keep coming back, and they inform my decision making quite nicely when I quiet myself to sense them. Thank you for sharing your own experience with this in this public forum.
Thank you for sharing, this information is useful to me,good quality.
I can completely relate to the feeling of being overwhelmed, stressed and confined by long todo lists. But I don't think that To Do themselves are the problem.
However my attachment to them and their expected results definitely
is a problem
When I don't use them wisely they can become a symbol for all that is wrong with my life. In short, I attach a lot of emotional baggage to them. I forget that it is just a list.
They are a tool, nothing more. Like any other tool, they can be dangerous if not used properly. But I certainly wouldn't throw out my hammer, just because I have smashed my thumb a few times. Instead I would try to improve my skills with the hammer.
sorry for the all bold. That was no intentional. :-(
If I only had three things to get done every day, I wouldn't need a to-do list.
I'm also wondering if this means you're suggesting that project management tools—essentially just a very evolved form of the to-do list—should also be thrown out the window.
100% agreed about life-lists -- especially your closing sentence -- but I thought it odd, as a fellow geek, how this juxtaposes to the incredible, amazing importance of bug/issue/feature databases, which are really just an institutional to-do list.
No big point, I just thought it was interesting enough to share.
When I was clicking that "only one, and exactly one" link to YouTube, I was pretty sure it was going to be a City Slickers scene.
Most of Adam Wozniak's 10 points (isn't that a list?) are perfectly valid. And well worth bearing in mind, I think, before continuing to refine any scheduled lists you might have.
I don't agree that lists are inefficient. They serve the function of getting the day's less attractive (but economically valuable) tasks off the agenda, to leave the mind free for those pressing creative jobs. Get the chores tamed so they don't take over. Only caveat with that is: try to do your most creative work as early in the day as possible, when your mind is fresher.
"you'd need a to-do app just to keep track of all the freaking to-do apps."
There's an episode of "Malcolm in the Middle" with a To-Do Board crammed full with post-its with housework chores ("clean gutter" etc). Then Hal sticks another note on the board which reads "do to-do list" xD cracked me up
Could it be that now you have retired with your stackoverflow millions, you don't have anything that needs to get done? ;-)
I have been struggling to find a good TODO list app for years but haven't yet found that perfect one I could happily open every morning. I have used tens of different apps like Google Calendar, Tasks and online and desktop TODOs apps.
GQueues( https://www.gqueues.com) is what I have been using consistently for the last couple of years.
When the pending list becomes huge, I add another item to it saying:
URGENT: Clear Backlog
ToDo's don't need killing, just a gentle rebranding will get you over the list-pressure. Call it a "Good ideas" list, and you're free to pick up a task from the list, or remove it (a good idea now is not necessarily a good idea forever, right?) at any time.
I used to use WorkFlowy to organize all my notes but then I realized it was just taking up all of my time maintaining them. Now I have more time to actually do stuff. It's really not worth it.
Someone else mentioned ADD, which I have - Having a "today" list has definitely helped me, however the other issue is staying on task, both in writing/prioritizing the list itself, and then following it to the letter. Unfortunately, feeling like the list is taking over one's life happens much more often (and sooner in the process) for ADD sufferers. I am trying out the idea of "Positive Procrastination"; the things that you really want to do, you put off in favor of the things you need to do. It's really just a re-frame of the 80-20 rule. Hope it works. I'll probably still employ the "30 minutes on, 10 minutes off" technique on top of it.
I realized the problem with ToDo lists in High School.
I was reading the Harry Potter books back then and I was loving it. I couldn't stop reading and still I can't count how many days I "lost" because I spent the whole afternoon and evening reading the book.
Then, my English teacher allowed us to choose any book from the library to read for the test at the end of the trimester. I thought "Hooray, I will read the next Harry Potter book".
The thing is, because it became an obligation to read the book, I couldn't spend more than 1 hour reading the book. It instantly became boring.
And that is the effect that we have over ToDo lists. The list keeps remind us of our obligations and take all the joy from our lives.
I don't write things down so I can remember them. I write them down so I can forget.
I guess the mileage varies from person to person, so although I agree with Jeff's observations, they are not absolute truths.
I do use simple todo lists for the simple reason that I don't have the best memory. Working on several projects at once, I need to know what to do when. There simply is no other way for me. So I plot tasks and time blocks in my calendar and block them. It works.
That's for work. Privately, I don't maintain anything. As for productivity porn, I also have major philosophical issues with most advise, as that advise usually covers one's entire life, not just work. The so-called consensus is that one's productivity is to be maximized, so that you can get "the most out of life". Whilst I agree that spending your productive time efficiently is solid advise, the whole thought behind that idea is broken in several ways:
- It suggests spilling productive time into personal time is a good thing. For example, in the bath tub? Why not prepare for tomorrow's meeting, to maximize your productivity?
- It suggests non-productive time, doing nothing, is bad.
- It suggest that one cannot (partially) fail in one or more aspects of life.
The day I will wake up with the rest of my week planned from the early morning to the late night into merciless detail will be the day I arrive in hell. Do important things, things that are meaningful to you or meaningless but you must do them anyway. For all the other stuff, use your gut and live.
I don't think it's a question of whether or not to keep a TODO list because having more than one thing to do means you have a TODO list. The list may only exist in your mind, but you have one.
What I get Jeff railing at is that it's too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that some technology or technique is going to magically turn your mental TODO list into hyper-productivity. That's never going to happen. If your mental TODO list is chaotic then you're not going to be able to tame it with technology. You need to tame it first and then use technology to augment where your brain fails you.
Even simple technology like pencil and paper can make your TODO list persistent, something that your brain isn't very good at doing. Software with reminders turns your TODO list from polling (going over it periodically to find the next thing to do) to event driven (being notified when the next thing is up). Software can also help you store meta data with your TODO list, e.g. the URL where the information is or the phone number of the contact. These are all things that a TODO list outside your head can help with.
Productivity porn is really putting the cart before the horse. Get your TODO list organized
before you search for technology. Or, more realistically, start simple (pen and paper) and only go to the next step when your TODO list is ready for it.
Without a to-do list my toilets would be disgusting.
I do NOT agree at all with this article. I desperately need a TODO list everyday. I tend to forget things quite alot. And with the job that I have, it is absolutely imperative that i maintain a todo list. I have a team of software developers working with me and they are working on various modules. Therefore, starting from who would be doing what to writing emails to helping another team to writing some more emails to conducting a meeting to knowledge sharing session, i need a todo list. It saved my life actually. Otherwise i would have been out of a job.
I agree with the
spirit of the post. We all need to do better at saying no and shutting down unsuccessful projects.
But I will say that my
your brain and your gut have utterly failed my in the past.
The whole point of todo lists is to manage the
unimportant things. Just because your brain views something as unimportant doesn't mean it doesn't need to (eventually) get done.
We all procrastinate. I'll say that there's value in at least knowing what you're procrastinating about.
The problem with TODO List is that they're a list.
While what we probably need is a map of what we must do and already done, so we could choose the most important task.
Here's what I do, I use MindMap tools (XMind) to map general objective that I must do and from there I branch to every task that need to be done.
Here's an example:
Anyone else find it ironic that Adam Wozniak uses a list to list out what's wrong with making lists?
I recently read an
article on HBR with a similar sentiment towards to-do list apps.
The author there suggests trying to "live in a calendar" instead of in a to-do list (because, so he thinks, they don't work).
But I think it's a good thing that there is such a variety of to-do list apps one can choose from: for those who do use to-do lists, everyone can find something for his or her taste! For example, I've somehow settled with
I have been obsessive about todo lists for years (todoist.com is my drug of choice). As an experiment after reading this post, I have been going without a personal todo list for the past 3 days. I'm surprised how much I like it. It hasn't made me less productive, it has made me less obsessive about doing stuff that didn't need to get done anyway.
I'm not ready to go todo-less for my work stuff, but so far I'd say this is the most useful coding horror post I've ever read.
I tried a todo list application for my personal life. It bugged me about tasks I already knew I had to accomplish until I finally uninstalled the bloody thing.
I use a todo list at work. It serves two purposes: to give me a queue of work that I previously thought of (and it's actual useful work, stuff I decided was necessary) so I have stuff to do after the current set of tasks, and to log things I've finished. (I move finished tasks to another section of the file rather than removing them entirely.)
My work todo list has about fifteen unaccomplished tasks right now. I wouldn't be able to remember all that, I think, and I'm not going to empty it in the next week.
I *can* remember the tasks I'm currently working on, and the next thing I need to work on when I'm almost finished. But that's only two or three things.
your gut will be here with you for the rest of your life
Damn. I was hoping to get rid of about 40 pounds of that thing. (then again, that's been on my to-do list for more than 15 years now...).
Lists are awesome. But you have to organize them better than just the one gigantic list. Once you organize them, the list is freedom. You SAVE a TON of time not having to remember the same thing over and over again or figure out what you are working on.
I don't know, but I have too much going on to keep it all straight.
Being one of the chaps who has built to do list apps in the past I think what you're trying to say is that everyone is different!
Some people need lists to keep track of their lives, others prefer to live life without them. And you're the later. At least in this digital age we have choice and competition.
From a developers POV building a todo list application has helped me learn new skills, techniques and programming languages.
http://todomvc.com is wicked for that sort of thing.
Aside from loving the phrase "productivity porn site" (another niche that's yet to be exploited) I actually came back to this post after a while to say this:
You're right. But, you're not.
I get up knowing exactly what I want to do. But that's not what I get to do. What I get to do is go to my job and do it, all the while wishing it were something else. So, I make goals to get out of this job and into the next, and they become a to-do list, because I come home, spend every minute I can with my kids, and am pretty much brain dead when I get time for myself. I like knowing what goals I set for myself.
And, when the kids are in bed, I like knowing where I can look to remember what goals I'd set for myself.
So, yeah, I know what I want to do. When I have time to do stuff, I've often forgotten it.
In my experience, it's effectively terrible to just start a todo list for the sake of a todo list. You need some rules to manage it and especially clean it up. After trying a ton of things in my job the following works best for me :
- Maintain todo lists for specific projects and developments (currently I have four)
- Use only a text file. Everything more complex, like Outlook tasks, gets annoying and forces you to spend more time tweaking the task options than doing the job.
- Every day before starting work, write up from memory everything you would like to do today. Sort between long-term and short-term. Write up important things in your to do list, and do the rest.
- Every once in a while, go back to the todo list and clean up/move the things you did. If an item has been there for ages, it's not important so remove it/mark it as not necessary/rework it.
- Don't look at your lists more than twice or once a week. You should know the short-term stuff by heart.
With this, you should be able to have lists containing only the most important and up-to-date stuff. For me it works quite well, it helps me keep track of what I want to do in the weeks to come without having every minute item like single bugs in it.
Great article. I couldn't agree more. Lists are just a way of avoiding the hard parts: finding the actual time to do it, prioritizing, and saying no. If it really needs to get done, schedule time for it on your calendar now. Which often means rescheduling or even canceling less important stuff.
For people saying they have bad memories, there's nothing like an actual scheduled appointment on your calendar to jog the memory. "I need to renew my license sometime this weekend" is just a way of procrastinating. "I've set aside 2 hours at 3pm on Saturday" gets it done.
Lists of things that must get done in order to complete a project? A todo list is very much the wrong software to document and manage requirements, issues, and defects, or even the steps required to complete a regular procedure.
The "I maintain fighter aircraft and you better believe lists are important." comment scares the crap out of me. I sure as hell hope those lists are in a shared and backed up organizationn-wide software and / or calendar and not on someone's todo list on their iphone.
i am quite new to this cool coding stuff, i am student just trying to figure out how to be better programmer and mathematician, and at same time i am making games, and to do all that i have been making to do lists, but always they fail and i end up making my lists better again and again(only lists get better not anything else).. i love coding and making games, but i haven't given enough time to anything..
this article does reflect what i am going through.. maybe i need to relax and start believing myself and just plunge into this awesome place and really put all those copies and apps away ... this was really cool article.. and i know what i should do now.. your blog is really inspirational..
J.D. Meier actually came up with a personal results system based precisely on the Rule of Three:
I use it every day at work to help streamline what I do and keep myself sane for this exact reason.
I prefer MS outlook -> Task + color categorization.