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To Do Lists — How we hate them!

Personally I have never been a great fan of to-do lists. If they work for you, fine, don’t let me put you off. But I know I am not alone in finding them very difficult to manage.

The theory behind a to-do list goes something like this. First thing in the morning before you start anything else, you write down everything you have to do during the day (or even better do this as your last action the previous day). You then go carefully through the list and work out what order to do the items in the list. There are various methods of prioritising the list, but they all boil down to some form of balancing urgency and importance.

You can add items during the day as they arise, and allocate them appropriate priorities.

Then all you have to do is take action on each item in their prioritised order. Any items you have not actioned by the end of the day are carried forward to the next day’s list.

The advantages of a to-do list are obvious: everything is prioritised; you know exactly what to do next; things which are urgent and/or important get done first; items don’t get lost; and you have somewhere to write new things as they arise. What’s more it’s ideally suited for computerisation. What could be better?

There is only one disadvantage of a to-do list. It doesn’t work!

There are two main reasons why it doesn’t work. The first is that you never get more than a third of the way down the list. The second is that for every item that you cross off the list, you think of another three items to go on it.

The result is that you end up with a huge, growing, indigestible lump of unactioned items which gets tranferred day after day. Many of these will never become urgent or important enough to get actioned. And yet if they don’t need doing, why are they on your list in the first place? First rule of time management: the question is not what priority something is, but whether it needs doing at all.

Now as I said earlier, I am not a great fan of to-do lists and never use them myself. But I am aware that many people like lists and like the satisfaction of crossing items off them. If you are one of these people, then here are some suggestions about how to make your list work better.

Keep your list on paper, not on a computer. There is something too clinical about computerised lists. They do not engage the whole mind in the way that a handwritten list, complete with crossings out, alterations, creases and general dog-earedness does.

Don’t rewrite your list every day. Keep the same list going. That way you will become acutely conscious of how long items have been on it. The trouble with re-writing your list is that you lose the sense of history that comes from all the above-mentioned crossings out, etc.

Be extremely selective about what you put on the list. This is crucial. The key to a good to-do list is that you only put on it what you actually have time to do (and that means time to do allowing for all those “unforeseen” interruptions that happen every day without fail). That means that you must sift items before you put them on the list, not after. That will force you to keep your total work-load well under control.

Have a separate place to record new ideas. When you think of something new to do, don’t write it straight onto your to-do list. Items should only go on your to-do list after they have been subjected to rigorous assessment as mentioned above. On the other hand it’s important not to lose new ideas, so keep a separate list of “possible” actions.

Keep items small. Ideally an item should be small enough to be done in one session. So don’t put down “Write Project X report”, put down “Write outline for Project X report”.

Don’t prioritise your to-do list. This is heresy I know. But think about it. Prioritising things by importance implies that some things are not going to get done at all. If everything on your list really needs to be done, does it make any difference whether an “important” item is done before a “less important” item? It’s a bit like someone barging to the head of a queue because they are an “important person”. If there are enough “important people” the rest of us will never get served. Frankly the best order to do things in is the order they present themselves.

Cherrypick. In the real world of course it’s not either possible or desirable to do things strictly in the order in which they present themselves. So a useful technique is to go through your list actioning the items you feel like doing at the time and ignoring the others. However it is very important to go through the list in order so that you look at every item on the way. Don’t just randomly pick items from the list.

Always start from the beginning of the list. Whenever you come back to your list after a break, always start again from the beginning. That is where the oldest items are. Each time you come back, you will knock more of these items off. This is where keeping the same list on paper with all the crossings out which that entails can really help you. Crossing off an item is a satisfying feeling. Tearing up a completed page is a really fantastic feeling!

Use the same techniques on your mail box and your in-tray. The reason we tend to build up backlogs of e-mail and paper is because we cherrypick new items and never get back to the old items we have ignored. The solution to this is to reverse the order in which we deal with our mail. Re-order your mail box so the old e-mails are at the top. Then every time you deal with your e-mail, start from the top and work down. When you deal with your in-tray, take the papers out of the tray and turn them over so the old items are at the top. Simple!