Stop Making To-Do Lists

to-doPlease stop making to-do lists.  You are simply setting yourself up for failure and frustration.

Instead, create a Next Action list that has the very next action you can do to move one step closer to completing the task.  What’s the difference?  A lot.  Typical to-do lists have a mixture of atomic next actions and much larger projects and possibly someday/maybe items that you are not really committed to doing.  The result of this is you are repelled by looking at your to-do list because you subconsciously know you have items on your list that you really don’t or won’t do.  Every time you scan your list your subconscious gives you negative feedback.

When you have a list of things that take 10 minutes, 10 hours and 10 days to do, you will invariably focus on the the shorter ones so you can get the psychological payoff and subsequent dopamine release that comes from completing an item off your list.  This leads to the longer ones staying on your list and the subsequent negative feedback.

In addition to the problem of a mixture of next actions and projects, to-do lists lack the context necessary to help you determine what you should do.  how long will the item take?  What tools do you need to complete it?  Where must it be done?  Contexts like this should be “pre-thought” so you don’t have to think about these things every time you scan your list.  What good does it do you to see “paint the living room” or “return the book you borrowed from mom” or “buy tomatoes” when you are at work?

The better approach is to put the very next action necessary to complete the task or to move it closer to completion on separate lists like “Home”, “Work”, “Errands”, “calls” etc. so that you can scan the appropriate list in the appropriate context.  This drives action which drive positive feedback and that nice dopamine squirt once you cross that item off your list.


As Simple as Possible but No Simpler

David Allen has a saying that your trusted system should be “as simple as possible but no simpler” and while that may seem strange there is real gold in that statement.

When I first started GTD I tried elaborate systems of using folders in email and categories in Outlook  Later on when I migrated to Evernote, I implemented an elaborate system of tags.  These systems tried to capture every possible situation.  I even applied this approach to my calendar and physical folder system.

What I came to understand is that the drag or friction required to process my stuff led to procrastination and ultimately falling off the GTD bandwagon.  Once I reread Getting Things Done and Making it all Work and the concept of making my trusted system as simple as possible but no simpler really sunk in.  Then I was able to simplify my trusted system to a point that capturing, processing, and doing became almost frictionless.  It was like second nature to me.  There was really no need to think when I was capturing or processing.

My advise to people who are getting started with GTD or are trying to get back on the bandwagon is to simplify, simplify, simplify.  Less is more when creating your trusted system.