I love a good to-do list.
And I’ve tried a number of different methods for working through those lists; Getting Things Done, Top-3, Pomodoro’s… But inevitably there is something left on that list, occasionally something important that, for whatever reason, I just can’t bring myself to do. This leads to self-contempt for not being able to seal the deal.
So while a to-do list can be an amazing tool, and I would argue a necessity, it can also become a source off stress, aggravation, and self-loathing.
What is the list for?
Take a step back and think “What is this to-do list actually for?”.
I am a firm believer in David Allen’s theory that it serves as an effective brain dump; clearing out all the open loops that are bogging down your RAM like apps running in the background. An idea, a task to do, a call to make. All of these keep rattling around in your brain until you do something about them; either by completing the task or by committing it to paper.
They can act as a wishlist, both of things you would like, and of things you would like to do. Often times nothing ever comes of these, and that’s okay. It’s good to get it out of your head and nice to see it on paper, even if you never actually cross them off your list.
Then there is the primary reason for the lists existence. It is a list of things that you need to complete.
Why is it then that only a portion of the list actually gets completed? Life gets in the way at times, sure, but important tasks are important tasks. Why did it make it onto the list in the beginning, then fall out of favor later.
Or maybe as time marches on that task that was once important becomes less so. This can happen when you’ve completed a more powerful task that suddenly makes this other one irrelevant. This is a key concept in The ONE Thing by Gary Keller, which I have adopted as my primary task completion philosophy. Read my notes on it here.
In the end it doesn’t really matter why tasks make it onto the list and don’t get done. It doesn’t take away from the utility of keeping it, and I feel there is great value in making them. But we must never forget the primary action that it is designed to prod us towards.
Completion is the Key
It is not the planning or the reminders that is important. It is the completion.
We write down things to do because we need to do them. It can feel like the act of naming the thing on paper is somehow moving in that direction but it is not. Completing the task leads to completion, nothing else.
To-do lists are powerful tools when used well, but can also be a vehicle for procrastination. Making a list of topics to write about might be useful, but only sitting down to write will get you where you need to go. Nobody cares about how many great ideas you have, only how many great ideas you have brought to life. What you have executed on.
Seth Godin wrote about this concept, called Ship It (check that link, it’s a great PDF!). You have to ship. What you do only becomes valuable once it’s shipped. No amount of half written books, or uncompleted to-do lists will ever stack up to something of value, until you complete it. Then, for better or worse it is done and can be judged on its merits. And that feedback can be incorporated back into your next work.
The list is not the end goal; the list only serves as a reminder of what you need to be completing.
To that end I have started a new list!
The Completions List
Month after month I was making a list of high-level tasks that I needed to complete. Some things got done and some things didn’t, but the end result in working this way is a feeling of disappointment. So starting this month I’ve thrown that old list overboard and have begun to track completions instead.
This list offers positivity and encouragement. Looking back I am reminded about hard work I’ve already put in, rather than extra graft I was unable to accomplish. And writing a line in my completions list is far more satisfying than listing a task that still needs doing.
What goes in the list? Anything I’ve completed that I set my mind to and worked at. Articles I’ve written, work assignments completed, Successful events I’ve thrown or attended. Anything where I’ve put in the work and reaped the result – good or bad.
What doesn’t go in the list? Items repeated daily. While I might write every day to complete an article, the act of writing alone is worth nothing until the result is shipped. Some things completed daily are never completed fully – brushing your teeth for example.
The exception here is if you are trying to build a new daily habit, such as flossing, or meditation. What I do here is write a single word in the completions list that represents the action, then put a tick mark beside it every day completed. If I miss a day I put a period behind the last set and start a new set of marks. It acts as powerful encouragement as the marks add up, because you don’t want to break the chain.
Shift Your Focus
To-do lists will never go away, and I still use them daily. But by adding a completions list to your workflow you are shifting the focus from the never finished to the completed. Tasks will always need to be done. Reminding yourself about how much you’ve previously accomplished helps maintain your enthusiasm. And focusing on getting things shipped helps you to ship more things. It’s all a matter of perspective.
I’m a to-do list, note-taking junky. How do you manage your to-do list? Do you find it helpful or frustrating? Have you used a completions list, or have any experience using one? If not, try it for a week and let me know how it works for you.