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Beyond the Task List

I used to be pretty big on task lists. It's such a highly touted way to stay organized, and what could be simpler? List all of the tasks you need to do for all of the projects you have to do, and then check them off as you complete each one. Before you know it, the list is all crossed off and you can bask in all that you have accomplished, right?

The basic task list has many variations. The first one you were likely introduced to was the assignment notebook to keep track of all of your homework and when it was due. It was promoted as an invaluable time management tool that would allow you to juggle the multitude of assignments that you had to deal with every week. Then there's the social calendar, which comes in a slightly different grid form, and tasks - I mean events - get checked off as the days pass. If you have a better half, one of the two of you will have to take primary ownership of the social calendar, or be prepared for double bookings, conflicts, and general confusion. Then, of course, there is the honey-do list, filled with hopes and dreams and expectations just waiting to be... waiting to... well, you get the idea.

Entire systems have been built around the task list. Any email client of reasonable size has a task list and calendar that link with the inbox to make task generation as easy as clicking a button. I've used Outlook's and Thunderbird's task list features in the past. Most note-taking software also includes task list features, and then there are programs whose sole purpose is task management. There's even one that's a game. You can buy any number of paper-based systems that come in notebooks or binders with all kinds of dividers and tabs and other organizational tricks to make a polished system that promises to simplify your life. You can even take training courses in these systems to learn how to fully utilize all of the organizing power they have to offer.

A Solution in Search of a Problem


At one time I tried one of these systems myself, the FranklinCovey Planner. I never took one of their courses, but I did talk my wife into using the binder planners with me. We are still using parts of the planners today. We cut out all of the unused pages and are using them for scrap paper to jot down notes and grocery lists. Very useful, but a plain old notepad would have been a bit cheaper. You see, there are so many problems with task lists and their brethren that most people will not stick with them for any length of time. I never could. Here are the problems I can think of off the top of my head:
  • Task lists are a time waster. Small, targeted task lists that focus on a specific goal are fine. Making a quick task list to keep a bunch of little errands straight can be quite helpful in a pinch. But if you are making comprehensive task lists to manage every aspect of your day to day life, you're probably spending too much time making lists and not enough time getting stuff done. You should be spending that time on more important pursuits.
  • A task list is (almost) never finished. I have rarely, if ever, completed a task list that was more than about five items long or requires more than a couple of days to finish. The real problem is that I add items to the list that I think should be done for completion's sake, but I honestly never intend to do. Then I give up on the list before checking off the last items so I miss the most satisfying part of using a task list.
  • A task list is never up-to-date. If the completion of the task list is going to take more than a couple days, the action items will change during the course of the project. Some items on the list will become irrelevant. Other items not on the list will become necessary. Pretty soon you are spending too much time maintaining the list instead of making progress toward your goals.
  • You are contorting your life to a list. Life is not like a task list. We are not robots that follow nicely ordered, linear procedures, and we shouldn't try to be that way. Real life is fluid, nonlinear, and chaotic. We have to deal with obstacles, make branching decisions, and generally react to diverse conditions. Trying to shoehorn your activities into a task list is a fool's errand.
  • Task lists are not dynamic. Just as tasks need to be added and removed from the list while a project is in process, pretty much everything else about the tasks will change during the project. The relative priorities of tasks, the execution of tasks, the meaning of tasks, and the relation of the tasks to other ongoing projects will all change over time. The completion of certain tasks will affect other tasks in unforeseen ways, resulting in more work managing the task list instead of making real progress.
  • You don't need a task list. If you have any experience with the activity you are doing, you already know the next couple of things you have to do to make progress. Pick the one thing that will allow you to make the most progress, and do that thing next. Repeat until done. If you don't have the experience, then you're not going to be able to create a viable task list anyway, so why waste your time?
  • Task lists are a burden. Every time I've tried making and maintaining a general task list, I've fallen into the mindset of finishing the list before adding anything new to it. I actively resist taking on more action items because I want to see that list getting shorter, not longer. I don't have much trouble removing tasks that become irrelevant, but that is a small subset of the necessary changes that a task list has to endure to reflect reality. Having this completion mindset exacerbates most of the problems I've described here.

There Has Got to be a Better Way


I've found that in most cases, I don't really need a task list. What I need is a list of choices from which I can pick the best option to work on next that will provide the biggest gain for time spent. That list of choices can take many forms, and I try to use the simplest form that will work for the goal I'm working toward. Sometimes it's useful to categorize or tag items as the list grows. Sometimes different sorting options and capabilities are important. Sometimes the list needs to be extremely flexible, and it ends up not looking much like a list at all.

The big advantage of a list of choices over a task list is the change in mindset. Instead of a rigid list of things that need to be completed and checked off in lock-step fashion, you have a fluid list of options that can grow and contract with your current needs without the mental stress of completion anxiety. Here are some examples of lists of choices that I'm currently using.
  • Life Mastery List - This list should be short enough to fit in your memory without any assistance because you should always have this list with you. Whenever you have some spare time, you could work on something from this list no matter where you are. At least one thing from this list will require nothing more than your own thoughts and possibly a pen and paper. Sometimes you'll have an item on this list that you can work on with a little ingenuity, like juggling. You can almost always find something to juggle.
  • Amazon Wishlists - These lists are great for holding all of the media that you want to explore. I have hundreds of books, movies, video games, sheet music and documentaries in over a dozen different lists. I know that I'm never going to finish these lists because they keep growing and I'm always adding new ones. But that's okay because I don't expect to finish them. I use them to tag interesting things that I may want to look at later. If a list gets too big, I break it up into smaller lists. Then when I have time for a new book or game, I can peruse the lists and pick out something to do without having to remember what I had thought was worth my time six months ago.
  • Google Drive - Both the document and spreadsheet are great low-tech tools for keeping track of ideas. Spreadsheets are good for things that have defined properties that can be sorted. Documents are better for ideas that need descriptions, like my list of ideas for blog posts. Best of all, they're available for me wherever I have an internet connection, and search is built in. Having the ability to search across lists makes the lists much more dynamic and flexible without complicating the interface.
  • Trello - This is a web app that allows you to make lists of cards on a board. Each card has a short description of a task or idea, and the card can be expanded with checklists, due dates, comments, and all kinds of other things. You can have multiple boards, and share boards among users for collaborative projects. It's great for keeping track of projects at work, and it's designed for constant change. Check it out!
All of these tools help me to stay organized and remember the important ideas and tasks without being overwhelming. They are the simplest tools necessary to get the job done, with as little overhead as possible. I spend a very minimal amount of time in these tools, but they are almost always available when I need them. It only takes marginally more time to add an idea to one of these tools than thinking of the idea to begin with, and if I can't get them right away, I'll write the idea down and add it later.

The Task List is Finished


Other than the occasional weekend to-do list, I no longer have much use for task lists. The social calendar still works quite well, but that's a special case of needing something to keep track of appointments, obligations, and social events. In most other cases, I've found that there are much better tools for getting things done. Having a list that provides you with options instead of regimented tasks enables better control of the process. It will free up time to make progress and lead to much more satisfaction. It's time to stop messing with task lists and start getting things done.