To-do: write about to do-list

In your planner, on scrap paper, on your computer, or in your smartphone, you probably have a to-do list. And, if you are like me, you get deep satisfaction from completing items on the list and the items that remain undone haunt you to some degree. This is why the first chapter I read in Baumeister and Tierney’s book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, was about the to-do list.

Those of us who are driven by success generally have goals. Goals translate to tasks on a “to-do” list. And many of those items on our lists never get done. Why? Baumeister and Tierney suggest we do several things that set us up for failure in completing our lists. First, we have too many goals. In fact, state the authors, we have so many goals that “an executive’s daily to-do list for Monday often contains more work than could be done the entire week.”  Sometimes our goals are in conflict (e.g. get more sleep/go to the gym before work), which can lead to worry, rumination, and poor health. To make matters even more complicated, we have proximal goals (with short-term objectives) and distal goals (with long-term objectives) and, although some people tend to do better with one or the other,  if we don’t embrace the notion that proximal goals support the distal goals, we’re unlikely to act on either.

The key to completing to-do lists, suggest the authors, is to reconcile short-term with long-term, and specific with flexible – and make sure none of them are in conflict. Hmmm… Easy to suggest, but how do we put it into practice? Baumeister and Tierney seem to be proponents of rather low-tech system by David Allen, who uses the 43-folder system. Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) is explained in detail in his book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. I have yet to read Allen’s book, but I will attempt to simplify the way I understood it through Willpower.  Instead of leaping from task to task, because something happens to be on the list, break goals into tasks and organize the tasks. Decide when each needs to be done. Then put each task in a day-specific tickler file. Your to-do list becomes a piece of paper for each task, instead of one overwhelming list.

How overwhelming can to-do lists be? The typical person generally has at least 150 tasks that need to be completed and new tasks are added to that list constantly. Our brain simply cannot deal well with all of that “noise.” Breaking our goals down into tasks, and placing our tasks in a tickler file, and then completing what needs to be done each day helps our brain cope with to-do items. So, the authors suggest, our brain doesn’t crave completion of these tasks as much as it craves a plan for them. By filing each task in a tickler file, we provide that plan for our brain, freeing it to focus on things done that need immediate attention.

So, instead of adding “Implement the GTD system,” to my to-do list, I will instead break it into tasks. The first task is to get the book. I’ll let you know how it goes.