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Within a sequence of decisions, your most hesitant and vague decision will have the greatest effect on the overall consequences. Alexander Cortes
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« How to Do Anything - Part V (and last) | Main | How to Do Anything - Part III »

How to Do Anything - Part IV

I’m sure you have been in the position of looking at a to-do list and deciding which item on it to do next. For example you might start the day with a list of tasks something like this

Check email

Tidy desk

Take action on challenging but extremely worthwhile project

Sharpen pencils

Check Facebook

How do you go about deciding which task to do first? You may use a variety of techniques, but they usually boil down to finding an answer to the question “What do I want to do next?”

I’m not going to say that the fate of the world depends on your answer to that question, but the fate of your future most certainly does.

If you’re not careful at the end of the day your five task to-do list will look like this:

Check email

Tidy desk

Take action on challenging but extremely worthwhile project

Sharpen pencils

Check Facebook

Sharpen more pencils

Check more email

Tidy In Tray

Check Facebook again

Buy more pencils to sharpen

Subscribe to more email lists

Re-arrange papers

Subscribe to Instagram and check that as well as Facebook

Now is a good time to ask yourself Benjamin P. Hardy’s question “If you repeated today every day for the next year, realistically, where would you end up?”

You would have some very sharp pencils and absolutely no progress on the challenging but extremely worthwhile project.

What’s causing the problem? Well, basically it’s that when you ask yourself “What do I want to do next?” you’re asking the wrong question. When you ask a question like that, the answer will usually be “Whatever’s easiest” [see Note]. The result of that is that at the end of the day you will look at the list and say “The one thing I wanted to do today was to get moving on the project and I was just too busy to get round to it.”

So you didn’t do the one thing you wanted to do. That happened to me the other day with my book challenge

What is the right question to ask?

It’s “What do I want to have done?” or more specifically “What do I want to have done today?”

This focuses your attention on the end result of your day and how your actions, or lack of them, will effect it. Life is made up of an accumulation of days.



When you’ve got good habits established whatever’s easiest changes, because you have made it so that it’s easier to do the right thing than the wrong thing.


And finally remember:

Short term question: What do I want to do?

Long term question: What do I want to have done?

Reader Comments (8)

...or, put another way, productivity is the implementation of purpose: "What's my purpose for today?".
April 6, 2016 at 7:56 | Unregistered Commentermichael

I'm not sure I agree that those are equivalent.

"My purpose today is to take action on Project X"

"I want to have taken action on Project X today".

The first is looking from now as I start the day at something which I am trying to persuade myself that I'm going to spend lots of time on today.

The second is taking a standpoint from the end of the day looking back and reminds me that this is what I actually want.
April 6, 2016 at 9:09 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

Or, "What is the purpose of today?"

That is, "What will today contribute (or have contributed) to the accomplishment of my commitments?"

And then trust your routines, interest and discipline to accept what the day brings. I think this is close to Mark's "What do I want to have done today?".

Both are ways of fooling the cowardly, lazy, greedy lizard who lurks in our R Complex into letting us get moving.


As soon as I put in the "today", my lizard gets nervous and suspicious. I think, stupid as he is, he knows me too well.
April 6, 2016 at 11:43 | Registered CommenterWill

Or possibly:

"What don't I want to finish today without having done?"
April 6, 2016 at 14:38 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Or perhaps in the spirit of the Benjamin Hardy quote - "What will I want my purpose for this day to have been, as demonstrated by what I actually did?"

I am not sure if that is snarky or useful - please help me decide. :-)
April 6, 2016 at 18:23 | Registered CommenterSeraphim

<< It's begging the question. In order to do the right thing you develop good habits, which come about by doing the right thing.>>

But that's exactly how you do develop good habits. How else would you do it?

<< The idea that someone has decided they have a worthwhile project but is somehow unable to progress it because they favour sharpening pencils, yet by doing some mental magic suddenly they do work on the project and make progress. >>

I can't see that clarifying whether a project is worthwhile and why is any less a bit of "mental magic" than changing the question as I proposed. In fact all that you've done really is exactly what I've proposed except that instead of changing the question to "What do I want to have done today?" you've changed it to "Do I really want to do x?". That's a perfectly good question, quite possibly better than mine, but it's basically just another question. It doesn't come with the amazing ability to save you from the Stockholm syndrome and the clutches of mainstream religion.
April 6, 2016 at 23:29 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Thanks for this article Mark - really good stuff.
April 7, 2016 at 10:00 | Unregistered CommenterBen H

<< However, I also see the value of mental tricks to get my program past the lizard. >>

I wouldn't myself classify asking yourself the question "What do I want to have done today?" as a mental trick. It's certainly not intended to be that.

If I expanded the question more fully it would be something like "What are the things which at the end of the day I will feel were worthwhile to have got done - or if I fail to do them I will feel that I haven't used the day productively?"

To answer that question you have to engage your mind to identify the important long-term projects you mustn't allow yourself to be distracted from.
April 7, 2016 at 13:21 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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