Do you love your action lists? Do they love you back?
I was in the garage last weekend doing a bit of a clear-out when I came across a to-do list from a long time ago, before I got deeply into the game of personal productivity and Getting Things Done (GTD®). It was a bit like being in a foreign country where they speak a dialect of your mother tongue – there were bits I understood perfectly well, but other stuff that, without the context I had at the time, were beyond comprehension.
“Talk with John re. project alpine.” Project what? John who? And yet at the same time despite the murkiness there were clearly a lot of things that the list had helped me achieve, i.e. lots of very important things were ticked off as done.
The humble to-do list. Is there anything in our lives that is at the same time so prosaic and yet so powerful?
We’ve all experienced the positive effects of creating such a list. Just getting things down (digitally or physically) generates a sense of order and relief. There it is in front of us, the menu of things we need to and/or want to do. It helps us see the action options we have in context of the other things in our life, so that we can make good priority calls.
Also, finishing stuff on the list feels good. Want proof? Have you ever written something on a to-list that you’d already completed just to feel the warm glow as you ticked it off? Then you know what I’m talking about. You’re acknowledging success (your own). That feels good whether it’s you doing the acknowledging, or your boss.
So our to-do list helps us in many ways. Yet when we arrive on the scene with a new coaching client we often find lists that are neglected and unloved. Lists that are the cause of stress, not a remedy. Lists that have ceased to serve a positive purpose.
So how do you keep your lists in tip top shape? Here are some of the problems we see, and some thoughts on tuning your lists so they can serve you better.
Problem 1: the list as a reminder of the failure to meet (unreal) deadlines
If we create unrealistic deadlines on our lists, we can see failure where there isn’t any. I often hear people say things like “I created the to-list for today and then didn’t get everything done, so I’ve failed.” And yet when I probe, what I hear is that the reason some of the things on today’s list didn’t get done is that reality changed and there were higher-priority things to do. So not working on the things on the list was the better choice.
My advice in this area is to be very miserly when assigning deadlines. Most people give too many things deadlines in a mis-guided effort to motivate themselves, but they generate failure and demotivation instead.
So take a hard look: that thing you are saying you need to get done today, is that because it’s truly that critical? Or is it that you’d like to get it done today as long as reality doesn’t throw you anything that’s more important?
Try taking a long-term view of your lists. Assume that certain things may still be on the list after weeks or possibly even months because they just haven’t been important enough for your attention, given everything else life threw your way. The world has presented you with higher-priority things to do, so leaving that thing undone was the right choice.
Problem 2: our lists don’t help us move forward as quickly as we could because we haven’t finished the thinking
Do you have something on your list like, “Roof”? “Christmas”? “Proposal”? Something like this ususally means “I really must think some more about that” or “I mustn’t forget that” rather than “this is exactly what needs to be done next”.
It was good to get the thing out of your head and clear up the mental space it required to store it. Even better to now finish the thinking. Ask yourself what the very next physical, visible step will be on that thing, and then get that down. “Call Susan re. recommendation for roofer”, “Create Christmas gift list in Microsoft Word”, and “Browse client’s web site for ideas regarding their needs” are all better next actions. They leave you with no thinking left to do, and increase the chances that when you’ve got the time and energy to act that these things will move forward.
Be kind to your future self, that self that will be faced with this list in the future. Only add actions once you’ve phrased them in a way you think maximizes the chances they’ll actually get done. Pay attention to what it feels like to put that thing on the list. If it’s too big, like “clean out garage”, try chunking it down so that the first step is doable, maybe even attractive, say “delegate cleaning out the garage to my son.”
Problem 3: we don’t truly believe in the list as an appropriate tool for our complex lives
Sometimes we get the sense that something as simple as an action list can’t possibly be the answer to our problems. Surely something more strategic, more important, more complex must be required to get a handle on our work day?
In The Checklist Manifesto, which was recently on the New York Times bestseller list, Atul Gawande addressed this head on:
“We may admit that errors and oversights occur — even devastating ones,” he wrote, in reference to his fellow surgeons, a sometimes less-than-modest group. “But we believe our jobs are too complicated to reduce to a checklist.”
Gawande then goes on to describe how the use of simple checklists in operating theatres dramatically reduced mortality rates during surgery.
Don’t let their simplicity fool you. Action lists are some of your most powerful tools. Craft them carefully and sensitively, and they’ll help you get out the office door faster and with more of the right stuff ticked off.