Befriending Our Task Lists

The more tasks I've written down to do, the less I got done in the end. The list ended up an ever-expanding source of pressure and misery, which in turn further diminished the chances of accomplishing the respective tasks. I'm sure many of us have dealt with the same experience.

I've since realised better ways of using to-do lists. If you've discovered that your to-do list is your enemy, then I hope this blog post will help you befriend it, or at the very least give you an idea on how to tame it.

1. Use to-do lists rather sparingly.

A bit of thinking, researching and planning is helpful; however, ultimately it is the task itself which matters the most. The more you plan, the less you do. The preparation stage can easily snowball into a perpetual stage, as it protects you from facing the task whilst eluding you into feeling a sense of accomplishment.

Task lists are culprits for that. Of course, task lists can be used to note down things before we forget them, but in reality, how many of us do it for that reason? One can argue that if a task is so important, it wouldn't need to be written down. The exception to this is discussed in the next point.

2. List only the inevitable tasks.

Rather than writing down a task which you should do, you should write down the tasks which you have no choice but to do. This includes meetings, appointments, events, and so on and so forth. It can also include items such as paying bills or work-related tasks. Anything that's external and out of your control can be noted down.

This makes the list much more informative and effective, because you are keeping track of items which can ultimately be marked as done. You are not gambling on your motivation and drive to accomplish them. Plus, writing them down also helps with remembering their times and details, of course.

3. Embrace the "do NOT do" lists

This one's my favourite. Up to this day, I can't decide whether it's easier to start a habit or quit a vice. However, what helped in the latter department is listing things that I should not do.

When writing down a task that must be done, we feel the nagging pressure that - when combined with the resistance of doing it - gets us into a state of limbo where we think about the task but don't accomplish it at all.

However, at least in my case, writing down things I shouldn't do gives me the drive to commit to the list. It's easier to refrain than to initiate. At the very least, the goal of quitting something becomes more than a mere thought. It manifests as a potentially tangible, real thing in a much more effective way than planning will. This is because the moment you write down what not to do, you've already started working towards not doing it.

A side-effect of not doing things, especially when they take up a lot of time, is that you get free time to do other things. These include the tasks which you consider they should be done. It's easier to exercise when bored out of your mind and have nothing to do, than when being carried away with spending hours online.

For effectiveness, strive to live in the moment as much as possible, and also keep the tasks as pragmatic as possible. Rather than writing down something ambiguous and grandiose such as "don't waste time for a year", keep it succinct and focused, e.g., "don't go on Twitter for today".

At the end of the day, if you've successfully refrained from something, you can mark the task as done. Repeat it every day, and it may even become a habit which you won't have to think about. Even if it doesn't, you will be implicitly focusing on small steps that influence you to walk the right path, rather than getting caught in the trap where you'll think about the right path and feel intimiated by it.