To do list or not to do list was never a question!
As such, our working memory is too shallow to hold all that we must be doing and wish to do. To worsen the matter, the world around us keeps changing faster than we can cope with, in both predictable and unpredictable ways. A well-maintained to-do list only can get you an up-to-date snapshot of your rapidly changing work universe!
To-do lists are not new. I have been seeing my dad using it since I got senses! He always carried a small diary to keep adding and striking off the items on his list. What might have changed since then is that today one could use Apps to manage the to-do list.
But then, or now, to-do lists have been largely useful as a one-off phenomenon. As soon as you start using a to-do list as a system for work management over the long term you would face several troubles with it! Let’s see which of those you could relate to:
1. You end up with multiple to-do lists –
This is the most common scenario. You end up having several of them and since you don’t know which one of them is fit for use, you start fresh, and uh-oh, you added fuel to the fire!
2. All to-do lists even when put together you are sure it doesn’t cover 100% of your work –
This is the most serious issue. One needs to have confidence in their to-do list to rely on it and use it. A partial list will never give that confidence.
3. Your to-do list is a crazy mix –
It could have very small tasks and very large tasks as well. Too small items just bloat your list and make it difficult to work with. On the other hand, too large tasks typically lack clarity on what needs to be done and so they linger around leading to procrastination.
4. Your To-do list has become too long to review and use meaningfully –
Working with a small to-do list can even be fun, but as your to-do list grows, you start missing your items in the nooks and crannies of your long winding to-do list.
5. Your criteria to pick a task from the to-do list is ad-hoc –
It’s one thing to pick a task from your to-do list and get busy with it and it’s another to pick a task that could be called the best usage of your that time slot. You need a mechanism to choose a task by keeping the size and quality of the time slot at your disposal, which a vanilla to-do list may not offer.
6. There is no way to track delegated tasks that are struck off from your list –
Another peril of having short working memory is that your delegates forget the task assigned by you to them. And, now that you have struck off that item from your list you don’t have a way to track the progress.
7. There is no way to track completed tasks for reflection –
When you finish something worthwhile, it’s always good to do a reflection on the process and quality of the deliverable for optimizing for the future. Again, a vanilla to-do list does not offer any mechanism to do this.
If you are abandoning your to-do list for one or more of these problems, you are throwing the baby with the bathwater. There is no alternative to a to-do list till either human evolve to get better working memory or Singularity arrives!
Meanwhile, you should build a little system around your to-do list to overcome the limitations. Here are a few ideas:
- Have just one place to make your master to-do list: a notebook, a spreadsheet, or whatever suits you but just one! Don’t worry even if it grows into a monster. But ensure that it is up to date all the time.
- Use the 2-minute rule to finish tasks that take less than 2 minutes to complete, than to enter them into your to-do list.
- Break down large tasks into smaller ones and then put them into your to-do list.
- Always scan your master to-do list once every weekend to pull out what is relevant for the coming week and focus only on that weekly to-do list during that week.
- All that you have to do every day is to review your weekly to-do list and make a day-specific to-do list and just focus on that small list that day.
- Any new tasks that come should go into your master to-do list. Some of them should also into your current week list if they are relevant for the ongoing week.
- Instead of striking off the delegated tasks, put them separately, for tracking till the task is delivered back to you.
- Write a journal to write completed tasks and use the time to reflect and improve the system.
The best utilization of your time is not just for productivity, but for also staying stress-free and healthy and enjoying that precious life beyond work!
Subscribe to my newsletter, to get tips like this and more, directly in your inbox!
(Originally published in Times of India on Oct 23, 2022)