The Ultimate List To Help You Break Free From To-Do Lists
Illustration by Mr Jori Bolton
I have always been a sucker for a list. Over the years, I’d acquired ever more complicated notebooks containing daily, weekly and monthly tasks, short-term goals, yearly planners, sub-lists on cities that I wanted to visit, creative projects to pursue, skills to acquire. Once, to my shame, even a list of lists that I needed to write.
Maybe it was my way of attempting to assert control over an uncontrollable world. Perhaps it was undiagnosed OCD. But despite my love of a fresh notebook and my fascination with productivity plans, a question began to loom – were they helping or hindering? Was the sense of organisation that they offered actually an elaborate and carefully bulleted illusion?
I began to realise I was spending more time on the planning than I was on the actual doing. Instead of making progress on the things that really mattered, I was bogged down by an overwhelming number of tasks and personal objectives, many of which I would never be able to complete.
I came to think of Professor Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Was there another way? Here are my findings – in list form.
Beware of systems that promise the Earth
There are thousands of systems out there, both digital and analogue, that purport to solve your productivity problems and I’d given most of them a go. My Bullet Journalling days produced beautiful notebooks in different coloured pens, but almost zero progress. The Kanban technique, which began life in Japanese heavy industry, left me drowning in index cards. Apps such as Evernote and Todoist left me pining for pen and paper. If your “system” isn’t working, the temptation may be to seek out a yet more detailed and prescriptive “off-the-shelf” formula. In fact, the opposite is probably more constructive.
Observe the most effective people around you
I began by talking to the heaviest productivity hitters that I knew, to see how they did it. The results were illuminating. Not only had many had struggles of their own, the majority no longer used overarching lists at all but had settled on a basic system involving just their calendar. If they needed a task list, they used cards, Post-its or a sheet from a disposable pad. What they all shared was a more instinctive approach that focused on action rather than prep. As someone told me once, “Why would I ever write ‘prepare for meeting’ on a to-do list when my calendar was already telling me to.”
Reduce, reduce, reduce
There are an infinite number of things we can do in our lives, but reminding ourselves of this every day isn’t healthy and in my case was leaving me a little overwhelmed. While I found it intoxicating to imagine pursuing every possible avenue, from writing children’s fiction to learning aikido, this scattergun approach was stopping me from pursuing those things that were most important. Investor Mr Warren Buffett’s five/25 rule demonstrates this nicely. Write down 25 goals, career, personal, whatever, and circle the top five. Consider the remaining 20 your “avoid at all costs list”.
Time block your projects
Armed with a clearer idea of your priorities, it’s important to give the biggies the time in your calendar that they deserve. What Mr Elon Musk calls “day theming” and Deep Work author Dr Cal Newport calls “time blocking” is essentially ring-fencing days or half-days in your week for undistracted progress on your key projects. Similarly, less glamourous activities such as emails and personal admin can be grouped into periods of batch tasking, so you avoid that sense of multi-tasking despair when you try to call the garage in the middle of writing your business plan.
Be realistic about how long things take
When the day was new, I would frequently fall into the trap of writing lengthy daily lists of 20 or more items in the hope everything would go perfectly. When, inevitably, one task took a while or something unexpected cropped up, I’d feel the pressure build, finishing the day with a sense of failure and – worse – resolving to do more, and try harder, the next day to catch up. It’s a classic error that led me to the One-Three-Five Rule, whereby you aim for one major task, three medium tasks and five small ones. Beautifully simple, it not only made me better at categorising my work, but crucially left a sense of achievement rather than disappointment when the day was done.
Change your self-talk
For many of us who feel controlled by our to-do list, it’s worth paying attention to the language we use when we address what needs doing. As Dr Neil Fiore, author of The Now Habit, suggests, by noticing when we use phrases such as “I have to” or “I must” and countering it with “I choose to”, we are, over time, reminding ourselves that it’s we who are in control of our lives, not the all-knowing list. It sounds subtle, but it can help us, Fiore says, transition from procrastinators into producers.
Understand mastery is impossible
For those prone to become a little obsessed with lists and productivity systems, frequently there’s a perfectionist problem lurking somewhere within. For years, journalist and author Mr Oliver Burkeman, whose column in The Guardian covered this very subject, was hooked on his pursuit of reaching net zero in his inbox and “completing” his to-do list as if it was a finite problem. This of course is a fallacy. Daily life is made up of problems that need overcoming and however good your system, there’s a truckload more on its way tomorrow. Realising this, and leaning into it, is itself a big step in the right direction.