There’s been a lot of “to do” about to-do-lists recently (forgive me the pun). And because I’m an optimization junkie, I have tried most to do lists methods out, and I thought I’d report back on them for you, so you can make an educated choice about what might, or might not, work for you!
About a year ago, Nir Eyal, very successful author of Hooked and then later Indistractable (yes, he creates the poison, then sells you the medicine), argued that to do lists were useless and just didn’t work. And there were several such articles that surfaced around the same time. When this happened I was distraught. Shocked. Horrified. Some would even say, flabbergasted. I’m a keen believer in the to do list. I really am. Put a bunch of tasks on a list, and go through them. Quite straightforward really. And then this nonsense. So why don’t they work? According to Nir Eyal there is a lack of constraint on the to do list: you just keep adding things to do the list. It never finishes. As a result, we subconsciously punish ourselves for not finishing the list: “I said I was going to do it, but I didn’t, yet again. I lied to myself.” Thanks Nir, super helpful…
Thankfully, many solutions have come round the corner. One them being the PARA to do list. PARA stands for Project, Area, Resources, Archives. Now this doesn’t really clarify much in terms of what you can do with it, so I’ll give you the definitions as well:
A project: a series of tasks linked to a goal, with a deadline. For me, these would take the shape of: write blog post on to do lists. Finish pre-registration plan study 2. Submit conference fee refund claim.
An area (of responsibility): a sphere of activity with a standard to be maintained over time. Examples of this for me (but for most people as well): health, finances, professional developments, social life etc. (nice and bloody vague).
A resource: a topic or theme of ongoing interest. Examples of this could be music, exercise, gardening, writing, reading, but could also be related to SEO, online marketing etc. So it’s a mix of personal and semi-professional, which doesn’t make this category easy to understand, whatsoever.
Archives: inactive items from the other three categories. Yes, we get a junk-drawer in this to do list method. Examples for this can range quite a bit: projects that have been completed or become inactive; areas that you are no longer committed to maintaining; resources that you are no longer interested in.
Now, did this work for me? Fuck no. I spent more time on trying to implement PARA into my life then I would have spent on some of the tasks on the damn list. The reason for this is quite simple: I don’t understand the last two categories, at all. so PARA is not it for me.
Then I looked into a different method: scheduling. I have to admit, I suck at scheduling. I have my meetings and calls locked in, sure. But the rest is flexible, and I do mean FLEXIBLE, like bending backwards with both your feet and head on the ground at the same time. My diary is so flexible it could be an Olympic athlete. Gold every time. Anyway, getting back to the idea of scheduling. I did my research, read a couple of articles, and thought this one was the best, which is ironic as it was written by drumroll please… Nir Eyal (what is this man’s issue with the to do list?!). He rants about how we use to do lists to procrastinate on the most important task by doing all the other tasks (also known as productive procrastination), and blame ourselves for doing that during and afterwards, actively reducing our own well-being. So what should you be doing? Building a schedule, of course. Nir recommends you turn your calendar app, which you already use for meetings, to also put in all the other tasks. Fair play, I’m with it so far. So you schedule in work, family, social events, exercise, but also all the fun stuff (e.g. gaming, reading, napping(?)), that you do for yourself (can actually also include exercise). And then you lost me, because that is rigid as hell. Nir argues that this rigidity should alleviate the guilt and dread we feel about doing fun things. That the fact that we carefully planned in gaming amidst all the other tasks, that we know everything will get done and that we deserve this time. And I understand the intuitive idea behind it, as a PhD student I really do. But that’s not how the mind works is it? I’m one of those obnoxious people who will not stop doing all the other tasks, before I turn to “fun.” I just can’t do it the other way round. Also, wtf do you do when you turn out to be God awful at estimating how long things take? If you have planned a work task for 14:00-16:00, but it turns out this takes way over 2 hours? Then you would still have to shift it to tomorrow (which is a big no-no) or extend your current schedule, which means you are going to cut into a different activity. And suddenly, we are right back at where we started… Well, actually, we’re worse off. I’ve tried this method as well, and every single time I underestimated how long something would take, and had to edit my rigid AF schedule, I’d have half a panic attack. So no, this isn’t working either.
The thing that bugs me most about these alternative to do lists is that they assume one key thing about the to do list: it never ends, no one ever finishes it, and as a result this whole exercise turns toxic. But I will step forward and claim quite proudly that this rarely happens to me. And the reason for this is simple: you need to plan that fucker by the day, not the century… Realistically, what can you do in a day? What do you have to do? And what would you like to do? Question 2 shapes the main to do list, maybe even with time annotations (calls, meetings, picking up the kids, feeding the spouse/dog, etc.), whereas question 3 adds some well-deserved respite. And if there are things that sort of “float” between have to do/like to do, such as “I want to get fitter”, well it’s not the to do list’s fault if that never happens. That’s because you did not put it in there. Behavioural science has shown us again and again that there is a massive intention-action gap, which can be reduced by applying active behavioural change models such as COM-B or SMART. So use them! Want to get fit? Decide on a way of doing so: running, weight-lifting, yoga, home-work-outs (gained a lot of popularity recently, I wonder why…). It doesn’t matter what you pick, as long as you plan it in. Half an hour of running before work, half an hour of HITT straight after. If you’ve hade a miserable day at work, maybe leave the HITT and do yoga. This isn’t a schedule per se, but it is a to do list with slightly more direction. And also a to do list that respects that a day only has 24 hours, of which you should probably sleep some…
All in all, don’t hate too much on the to do list. It is a great reminder of what shit still needs to be done, but it does require some actual conscious thought. If you’re currently struggling with getting everything on the list done, re-evaluate how many things you put on the list – like I said, there’s only 24 hours. If you’re struggling with making deadlines, re-evaluate how you split up the different tasks associated with a project, and maybe break them down differently. From personal experience, I now work with an Excel sheet. That’s the only calendar/to do list I have. It’s structured per day, per half hour, which is mainly so I remember when I’m supposed to be in calls, meetings or recordings. The other “to-dos” are also in there, but the fact that they are associated with a certain time doesn’t mean much. And I like it that way. It doesn’t matter much to me if I do yoga at 11:00 or 11:38 or 22:15, I just wanted to do yoga. It’s a learning experience as well. If you never finish your daily to do list, chances are you are either putting way too many things on them, or, you are not working in a productive environment. It’s ok to admit to yourself that you’re overdoing it. Adjust accordingly. And if possible – delegate.