Sunday 15 August 2010

Squaring the To Do List Circle - for GTD anoraks mainly

I always suspected that organisation was the key to having time to make the most of life, but I didn’t find my way there by the easiest route.

I'd heard that users of that old favourite time management tool, the To Do List, did more, did it more efficiently and felt better for it. But just how far could you take this? Did you become ever more efficient, more effective, more productive and less stressed with no limit? Of course not. What I discovered the hard way was that if you stuck with just the To Do List, you were pulled into a cyclical process that sucked the life out of you.  The basic tasks of list and prioritise are never static entities. Once you change the context, or throw a spanner in the works they evolve into monsters.

Decades ago, I got by with a few items scribbled on a whiteboard. Then life became busier. I no longer had time to attend the weekly research seminar. I came to rely on the To Do List more and more. There’s something reassuring about sitting relaxed to take stock at the start of the day. Listing all those pressing tasks feels almost as good as doing them.

But, like Topsy, they grow. Creating today’s list became a matter of checking yesterday’s for the things that didn’t get done because of this or that unforeseen crisis. Pretty soon, that relaxing few minutes became a fevered transcribing of notes from previous lists and the small pad became an A4 book.

So I computerised. Why waste time writing it all out day after day, I reasoned, when a computerised version could list and prioritise just as well.

Time to throw in that spanner.

Someone decided to sack two of my colleagues because they found a better use for the money that was paying their salaries. “But hang on,” I said. “That money comes in specifically to pay them. If they go, it doesn’t come in at all.”

Logic didn’t sway the day. It often doesn’t. The colleagues went and the money disappeared, but the work was still there. Furthermore, by voicing my objections, I’d shown up an inadequate manager to be a berk. So not only did my To Do List quota go up by a factor of three, the manager threw a hissy fit and pulled my secretarial and technical support.

The list now took on a life of its own. Where there were once well-defined areas of responsibility making it easy to list and prioritise tasks, I now had a stack of extra areas. I needed several To Do Lists.

With the computerised version I could sort by area of responsibility as well as priority. I fixed it so the 1A task for each area popped up at the top of the list, so no single area would be forgotten. But sometimes an area had more than one absolutely-vital-must-do-now-task. So the top of the list, the bit that just scratched the surface of all those areas of responsibility, grew longer than the old To Do List had ever been.

Before long, the list was many pages long and scrolled way off the screen. And that was only the priority 1A-Star tasks. The 2s, 3s and 4s were stashed in separate files that would never be opened again.

That first screen of the Top Priority List became etched on my subconscious. I dreamt in A-stars. My best efforts to scratch away at the surface of it were overwhelmed by tidal waves of new and follow-on 1A Double Star Priority tasks.

It became obvious that any task labelled a mere Priority One would never be looked at, let alone done, so one day I dumped the lot of them. And while I was at it, I deleted the 2s, 3s and 4s.

It wasn’t only the list side of the To Do List that changed shape, it was the prioritising too. A task might be 1A Triple Star, Whole Nation States Will Collapse If It Isn’t Done Right Now, but did it pass the “will anyone notice if I don’t do it” test? No? Okay, out it went.

Then there were the 1A Trillion Star tasks. Yes, they needed doing. Yes, they would be noticed. Yes, the sky might fall in if they weren’t done. But there were half a dozen higher up the list, all of them huge mega-effort tasks. I calculated what chance there was of ever reaching number 7 or more on the list. Basically none. So I decided I might as well bin those too, and not go through the agony of having them staring out forlornly from the list every morning until they scrolled off the screen.

Then in a moment of madness, I threw in my own spanner and went to the weekly research seminar. I was away from my desk for an hour and a half. I returned to a To Do List bursting at the seams with 101 other things clamouring to be added at the top.

I threw out the prioritisation system and decided there would henceforth be a single criterion for any task. Do I fancy doing this today? A couple of things usually met that one.

So I deleted all electronic lists, binned all paper ones, scribbled those two items on the whiteboard, and the cycle had started again.

The solution in the end was two-fold. I stopped working for stupid employers (no job satisfaction working for idiots) and I discovered that a genius called David Allen had researched this stuff properly, figured out the underlying principles, and that Getting Things Done really could mean empowerment and time to enjoy life.

What I've learnt is that sticking with the principles really works, but as to implementation, no specific system works for everyone.  There are loads of systems about - computerised and paper-based.  For what it's worth, I use Nozbe to implement David Allen's ideas.  It works for me.  I have more to do now than I ever had, but I can go to research seminars, even take time out to see a movie, and nothing goes critical in my absence.  And we all have to interact with idiots at times, but the best thing is to steer clear as far as possible and pity them for their impoverished lives.


  1. Well said! I'm fighting the same battle, not only with lists, but with idiots. It all comes down to the questions "What should I do right now?" and "Will what I'm doing right now make any difference to me or to the project?"

  2. Interesting article -- it's a great story of upgrading your time mgt system with full awareness of what's happening around you.

    It's the first time I've seen someone share the pathway between using lists and using schedules to plan the day.

  3. I hadn't seen it in that light, it started out just as a bit of a rant, but another lesson hard learnt along the way is to look for people's experience and not just take the theorising at face value. David Allen struck a chord as soon as I started reading his stuff for so very obviously having lived it and worked it all out at the sharp end.