The science of to-do lists

Research says "to-do" lists don't work, writes Daniel Markovitz at Harvard Business Review. That's not exactly what he means, though. Instead of condemning the very idea of "to-do" lists, Markovitz piece makes an interesting case for re-thinking how you use those lists. If you're throwing a jumble of stuff to be done onto a page, that's probably not going to be terribly effective. A better solution involves breaking down how various tasks fit into allotted spaces of time on specific days, and setting up that more realistic list as a part of your routine, rather than just magnetizing it to the refrigerator. Basically, it's not that "to-do" lists suck. It's that some people probably aren't using them effectively.

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  1. Most important: keep your to-do list flexible.

  2. "...or this will happen to you." That part still kills me.

  3. It should be noted that this is why a good to-do-list MANAGER is such a huge win -- and is a large part of what originally sold some folks on paper organizers and then sold many of us on PDAs such as the Palm. written properly, the program gives you ways of prioritizing the list such that you only see the top few (top seven?) items as judged by some combination of importance (a priority number) and urgency (a due date). If it isn't in that set, you don't worry about it yet, and the problem is solved.

    Every now and then, when you AREN'T trying to Get Things Done, you take a bit of time to recheck your priorities and due dates. Or you may want to filter things by additional facts -- "I'm in the basement, what else needs to be done down here?" -- but still see only the top items from that filtered set.

    Palm, and Research In Motion, got to-do lists and calendars right -- which is [a large part of] why those two platforms were the ones adopted by business types. [RIM also took security much more seriously than most of their competitors, which was a big sales advantage when you have to worry about industrial espionage.]

    Friends who have used the Palm apps report that they have been completely unable to find anything on the iPhone/iTouch/iPad that comes close to the Palm's fit of tools to tasks, despite years of looking at alternatives. (Which is the single strongest reason I've never been very tempted by Apple's offerings in portable devices.) I don't know whether better alternatives exist for Android.

    I'm not trying to claim that the Palm is better across the board than the newer devices. I just wish that they had put the kind of design time into functionality that Palm did, rather than letting making it pretty consume the entire budget. Or even that they'd just learned from Palm's experience. I'm sorry, but while that's a very pretty buggy wheel, nicely carved and painted and beautifully built out of the finest materials, it would be better if you'd noticed that someone else has already invented pneumatic tires.

  4. Isn't all that sort of just saying "If you are not that organised a person, writing stuff down probably isn't going to help that much"? I tried lists and they do not work for me. On the other hand I have a dear friend who keeps multiple lists and a list of lists which summarises the lists!

  5. There are SO many different psychologies here. For some people he's absolutely right, for others his approach would cause more trouble than it's worth.

    I remember going through the 'Franklin Planner' stage when working at Tivoli only to realize that it just didn't work with my brain and was hurting me more than helping. I did okay with sticking a small number of post-it notes in annoying places, but anything more and it just started to become background noise.

    I've got two big takeaways.

    • We have REALLY different brains, and the hard part is figuring out
      what tricks work well for you, so it's best to try a bunch of
      different things and see what happens.


    • Most of us aren't designed to micromanage life this way, we're
      neurologically not far removed from hunter-gatherers and aren't
      designed to be wasting our time having to deal with so many
      'important' things that in a more practical culture should be

    My career ended up kicking into gear when I said 'Screw it, I'm not good at this stuff and you're wasting all my processing power. If you want me to be amazing then link me up with some OCD person who digs this stuff and we'll make each other look good'

    I also got a LOT better at solving actual problems and implementing actual solutions and went from 'frustrated but smart guy who's underachieving' to 'everybody's favorite mad genius that business units fight for time with'

    Of course, doesn't do as much good in the current economy, but the fact is sometimes we should be spending a lot more time playing to our strengths and less time trying to program a bunch of robots.

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