I pick it up, look triumphantly at all the things I’ve done and rip it into shreds.
Every afternoon I do the same thing: I take out a 4×6 index card. I write my daily standard at the top. In the top right, I choose my writing hours for the day. Underneath, I write five or six things I want to accomplish tomorrow.
And then I destroy the old card.
I’ve tried A LOT of variations of the to-do list.
I’ve tried keeping a diary and logging my list in there every day. Too formal. I’ve tried multiple productivity apps. I don’t need another reason to look at a screen. I’ve tried productivity notebooks and planners. Some are cheap, some aren’t, and most never do exactly what I need. I’ve tried not-to-do lists. They just made me feel bad when I fail at not doing.
Then I started using index cards. I tried several variations of these too.
I’ve put to-do down one side in black pen and not-to-do on the other side in red pen. I’ve sorted the to-dos by priority. By difficulty. By interestingness. I’ve tried having the essential items on the front, and the non-essential on the back. The essential on the left and the non-essential on the right. I’ve tried coloured pens, highlighting the number one thing, crossing out items with a red Sharpie marker.
I’ve tried not even having to-do lists. But then I forget things, or I get in trouble for forgetting things, or I can’t get my head around my competing commitments, or I end up doing nothing creative or productive.
But the most important thing I’ve learned about to-do lists?
Make them specific.
You are walking down the high street. You collapse to the floor. Perhaps it’s a stroke? Maybe a heart attack? Doesn’t matter. It hurts. You can’t breathe.
In Influence, Cialdini describes about the most effective way to solicit help in a public place:
“My advice would be to isolate one individual from the crowd: Stare, speak, and point directly at that person and no one else: “You, sir, in the blue jacket, I need help. Call an ambulance … your best strategy when in need of emergency help is to reduce the uncertainties of those around you concerning your condition and their responsibilities. Be as precise as possible about your need for aid.”
Putting vague, generic tasks on your to-do list is like navigating with a compass. It can work, but it’s not as good as the tech we have now.
Creating specific instructions is like using Google Maps or CityMapper to plan your journey.
The effort required to start is minimal because you don’t have to ask, “what’s the first step?” It tells you what to do, where to go, what time. You don’t have to think. You just have to do what it says.
Yes, it’s nice to wander, take your time, explore. Some of our greatest discoveries and insights come when we aren’t really looking or trying to be anywhere.
But when you need to get somewhere fast, you don’t meander. You take the quickest route.
Whatever form or medium you choose for your to-do list, be specific.