Thoughts on Daily To Do Lists
An interesting dilemma in blogging (at least for me) is the balance between posts that reflect a more settled position on things and posts that capture my in-process, very-much-in-development, top-of-mind reflections on various things. I think most of my posts fall into the former category.
This one falls into the latter category: a few random thoughts on daily to-do lists that aren’t necessarily settled positions, but reflect some tentative observations. So, take it in that light.
Here’s the issue: In Getting Things Done, David Allen says that GTD means “no more daily to-do lists.” (Since these are just rough thoughts, I won’t look up the page number.) Instead, you manage your day from an inventory of all of your next actions, most of which have “as soon as possible” status but which also includes “even the most time-sensitive actions.”
An inventory of non-scheduled, “as soon as possible” stuff is fine. But I have found that not having a daily list in addition to that is fantastically frustrating and unworkable for me. (I’d like to put that in stronger terms, but might regret it.)
As you know, I highly recommend Getting Things Done and find Allen’s approach very helpful and worthwhile. But I do think that some aspects of the approach need to be tweaked a bit, at least for me (and I think, probably, others).
Allen’s mindset on these things seems to be “if that works for you, go for it.” So, while there is an important core to GTD, it is also very adaptable and flexible. Thus, although my thoughts here are probably outside of conventional GTD wisdom, I don’t think that they are contrary to the spirit of the approach.
With that in mind: Some reasons I find it unworkable not to have some type of a daily to-do list are as follows.
I find it impossible to pace myself without some version of a daily to-do list. I have found that there is no way to know when I am “done” for the day without some type of daily list, given that there are always more actions you can do.
I find it more complicated than it needs to be to keep up with deadlines without some version of a daily-to-do list. This is a corollary to not being able to pace myself without one.
The fact is that if I have 4 larger projects that need to be done over the next two weeks, I will not be able to focus my progress on those projects if I just let their next actions remain in a set of “as soon as possible” next actions. Keeping them in that kind of list gives them equal weight with the less time-sensitive actions. But they don’t have equal weight.
And the reality is that my intuition does not function to make me always pick those time-sensitive actions out of the mix of all the others at the right time. Instead, I find that my tendency is to want to get rid of the smaller actions because they feel like they are “clogging things up.” Then more smaller things come up (I think Merlin Mann calls these “mosquito tasks”), creating a cycle of frustration.
Hence, because of the role that systems play in influencing behavior even contrary to the best intentions, I’ve found that I need to bake it right into my productivity system to focus my attention on the most important and/or time-sensitive actions.
The Ambiguity in Truly Defining What Must Be Done Today
David Allen writes that “if there’s something on a daily to-do list that doesn’t absolutely have to get done that day, it will dilute the emphasis on the things that truly do.”
It seems to me this concept, however, very quickly runs into unhelpful ambiguity: How do you define what truly has to be done today?
Is it defined by what your boss tells you that you have to do? By deadlines others have set and want you to comply with? By contextual realities (Fred is going out of town Saturday, so you have to call him on Friday)?
I think the reality is that there are very few things that absolutely have to be done on any given day. But there are many things which, if not done this week, will simply make your life a lot more complicated and put you behind on your projects. Hence, if you only put on your calendar (or a daily to-do list) things that absolutely have to get done that day, you will get out of step with things. And you might find that all of a sudden, you have a large number of actions that “suddenly” need to get done today — but now you don’t have enough space in the day to do them.
Further, if it is OK to regard action A as something that has to be done today because someone else (such as your boss or manager) said it needs to be done by that time, why isn’t the fact that you yourself simply want something done today enough of a reason as well?
In other words, I think that more important than deadlines other people give us are the time frames that we want to meet simply because we want to. Or, to put it differently, the mere fact that you think it will work best to get action A done today is sufficient reason to make it a “have to do today” item. And without a daily section of your next action list, the decision to do that item today will not be reflected in your list, and so it will be easy to end up overlooking.
List, Not Calendar
Some people block off time on their calendar to do very important tasks. I think that is a great practice. It does not scale to every important or time sensitive action you have, however.
The reason it doesn’t scale is that there may be, for example, five 10-minute actions that you need to get done today. Add those to your calendar would be cumbersome. Slotting them into specific times would assume greater precision than is likely possible. But creating them as “all day events” in your calendar program also quickly gets cumbersome as well. Calendar programs are not designed for holding a bunch of all-day events — it quickly starts to feel cluttered.
Hence, while I do recommend blocking off time on your calendar for sizable tasks, an actual list is still necessary when you have multiple smaller actions that you need to accomplish in a day.
But What About Re-Writing?
The idea that those who create daily to-do lists always end up having to recopy a ton of items that they didn’t get done to the next day is, in my view, an incorrect stereotype. Sure, that may be the case for some people. But it doesn’t have to be the case.
First, many people have the discipline to actually do what they decide they will do. You can develop this discipline. Second, it’s really a matter of being realistic with yourself and not over-scheduling. Third, in the age of copy and paste, it is not hard if you do have to revise things every day, even significantly.
Fourth, if you do find yourself having to carry over a bunch of items from one day to the next, regard that as a learning process. That is showing you that you are over estimating what you are able to do. So stop planning so many things for your day. This realization is one of the central uses of doing this — it forces you to start being realistic about what you can get done, so that you can then become more selective in deciding what you really will do, and what should be eliminated because, while nice, it’s less important and needs to give way.
At the end of the day, this concept is not as foreign to GTD as may at first seem. For Allen does say in Getting Things Done that “having a working game plan as a reference point is always useful, but it must be able to be renegotiated at any moment.”
That’s really what I’m advocating here: creating a working game plan for your day. I just see this as implying a bit more than what seems to be contemplated in the standard GTD approach.
A key to making this work is to remain flexible. This doesn’t mean regarding the items on the list as mere “hopes” of what you will do that day. Rather, it means not outlining literally everything you will do that day. Keep it as basic as possible and to the most important things. Two hours of work is probably enough. Preserve lots of time for being able to do things not on your list that fit the flow of the day, and for being able to meet the needs of others that arise.