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« Types of List VII - What do we need in a "No List" system? | Main | Types of List V - Using no list at all »

Types of List VI - So which is best?

So which type of list is best? The answer to this question will be different from person to person because different people have different temperaments, circumstances and requirements.

But if we look at it from the point of view of which type of list is going to dominate in the evolutionary struggle of list versus list, then we may be able to come to an answer. For a long time now the “catch all” system has dominated when it comes to time management advice.

However useful “catch all” may have been in the past I think it’s days are numbered. The reason for this is the changing nature of work and leisure.

To go back a few hundred years, for the vast majority of the population their to-do list, if they’d written one, would have gone something like this:

Get up
Plough fields all day
Go to bed


Get up
Make shoes all day
Go to bed


Get Up
Do housework all day
Go to bed

Nowadays thankfully life is far more varied than that. But it comes at a price.  At least in the developed world the amount of choice we have both in our work and in our leisure increases day by day and the means of communication are multiplying too. We will soon have people entering the workforce who have never known what it is to live without a Smartphone.

This amount of choice poses a huge problem. The tendency is to try to follow up every opportunity that presents itself, regardless of the fact that it’s actually impossible to do so.

What we need is a time management method that a) encourages us to focus on a few things that are really important to us, and b) discourages us from doing other things that get in the way of the important stuff.

In this day and age time management needs to be at least as much about stopping yourself from doing things as about doing things.

The perpetual busyness and sense of overwhelm which afflict so many people is an illusion. All of us fill 24 hours a day with something - no more and no less. Our effectiveness will not come from succeeding in working 36 hours a day however hard we try to.

The secret is focus. We must each decide what our priorities are and ruthlessly weed out everything that doesn’t support those priorities.

It is the list that supports focus that will win the evolutionary stakes.

Let’s arrange the types of lists in the order in which they produce and support focus (least to most):

  • Daily Open List. Lacks the focus of the daily and weekly lists. Can also result in only trivia being processed.
  • “Catch all”. Positively encourages lack of focus. Also highly unmotivating due to the weight of undone stuff.
  • Daily and Weekly Lists. Encourage a greater degree of focus. But still a tendency to leave a lot of work undone, often the most challenging.
  • No list at all. Done properly this relies on well-thought out systems and routines. If these have been optimized, using no list at all can provide a good degree of focus.
  • No list” List. Facilitates the provision of systems and routines. Keeps focus firmly on what can be done during a day. Provides record of what has been done to base future days on.

My verdict:

“No list” Lists are challenging but the most focused. I am convinced that the future of time management lies with them.



What do we need in a “No list” list system?

Reader Comments (3)

<< The secret is focus. We must each decide what our priorities are and ruthlessly weed out everything that doesn’t support those priorities. It is the list that supports focus that will win the evolutionary stakes. >>

Yes, this seems very clear. I think this is why there is so much attention on focus and "deep work" in the literature, and why the word "focus" appears in the name of so many of your own systems!

"Focus" also seems connected to "leverage" -- put your attention on the things that will trigger a domino effect, and it will multiply the effect of the focused effort.

Somehow this quote from Nassim Nicholas Taleb's draft of his new book seems applicable, but I can't quite figure out why. :-)

"Society doesn’t evolve by consensus, voting, majority, committees, verbose meeting, academic conferences, and polling; only a few people suffice to disproportionately move the needle. All one needs is an asymmetric rule somewhere. And asymmetry is present in about everything." - Nassim Nicholas Taleb ( )
January 31, 2016 at 2:18 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
I completely agree on limiting focus, but that's easier for some people than others. The fact that I have six children, for example, means that I may have more to keep track of than those without children (I say 'may' because people can definitely fill up their time with other commitments).

I continue to use Skedpal (an automatic scheduling app) and I feel it's going to be how people with many commitments manage their time in the future. If I didn't have many children and activities in my life, I could get along fine with a no-list list. I did it before very successfully. But now that I have a lot more to juggle, I am just as content and productive using a scheduled approach. Maybe that's because I'm forced to limit my activities? I see very clearly that I can't do it all.

In all the years I've been enamored with productivity methods, that's the lesson I've come away with: I can't do it all and that's OK.
February 19, 2016 at 23:22 | Unregistered CommenterMelanie Wilson
Melanie Wilson:

If Skedpal works for you, stick with it.

As a general principle the more difficult the circumstances the more you need focus.
February 20, 2016 at 10:23 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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