Why a Traditional To do List Always Fails: The New Task Management
In the 1980s many people were converted to personal planning systems, lured by the promise of
being able to live their lives by Filofax.
Note: Ok – I’m probably showing my age there, but I can personally remember the joy of
opening up my first Filofax, complete with rail-maps I’d never use and a list of every single
public holiday – you can never be too prepared.
While such systems made organizing time and tasks a ‘fun’ (even arguably a ‘cool’ thing, back in
the 80’s) thing to do, at the heart of each system was still the traditional written To Do list
that had been around for centuries.
And though the humble To Do list is still a viable tool if you don’t have a myriad of tasks to
do, in our 21st century fast moving world, where new projects are coming at us left, right and
center, they tend to lack the flexibility and fire power to keep up, even with the help of software
on occasions (at least, where that software mimics the traditional to do list model).
The reason for this failure is the nature of the To Do list itself. Let me explain in a little
Ungrouped, Disparate Tasks.
Your typical, straight To Do list tends to ‘isolate’ tasks from the projects they are part of.
When that happens, it’s all too easy to lose sight of why you’re doing something - it just becomes
‘something to do’ and not a vital step on the way to achieving a goal or the end of a project.
To Do lists also tend to heap together a hotchpotch of items that require different skills and
thinking patterns. To get through them all in a day, you have to continually switch between
disparate mind frames as you flit from task to task. That’s less efficient than getting into a
particular mode of thinking and staying there.
When we are surrounded by interesting interfaces on devices like the iPad, smartphones and
iMacs, working with unexciting linear To Do list software just doesn’t cut it any longer. And if we
have to keep using a system that doesn’t inspire us, we get bored, and it quickly becomes a chore
in itself, as ‘list-fatigue’ sets in. Finally, we stop using it altogether and revert to the
haphazard structure that is our day.
The Task Dumping Ground.
To Do lists also often fail because we tend to use them as vertical filing cabinet for all the
new tasks, thoughts and ideas that come to us during the day. So, by the end of the afternoon, all
the morning’s original focused To Dos are submerged beneath an avalanche of irrelevant ‘task
debris’. none of which we have time to complete.
An Inflexible System.
With handwritten To Do lists, things are even worse, because you can’t ‘manage’ what you put in.
If you need to make a change, tasks have to be scratched out, erased and re-written. That’s hardly
productivity improving. And, of course, it’s impossible to share your list properly with
To Do List 2.0.
So, rather than constraining ourselves with long vertical lists, what’s required is a more
flexible approach that adapts easily to changing circumstances. That’s where a new generation of
‘smart’ task management software, like the one linked to from the Resource Box below, delivers.
This new way of thinking regards tasks not as random things that have to be ‘done’, but as crucial
components of larger projects. These projects can cover all areas of life and they don’t have to be
big either, in fact anything that requires at least two do-able actions to complete can be
considered a project.
The first step to embracing this ‘new generation’ task management is to create a list of all
your projects – those which you are currently engaged in and others that are just on the horizon,
or even off in the distant future. Very quickly, you could find yourself with a list of as many as
30, 40 or even 100 projects - the number doesn’t matter, no matter how many you have they can all
be handled with the right system/software.
Just thinking in terms of projects creates an organizational structure, not only for each day,
but also each week and each month and gives every task a point and purpose.
But to really make the best use of this ‘project-focused’ approach to task management, you need to
ask yourself the one question that will immediately and spectacularly improve your personal
‘What is the next action I can take to move this project
What’s the next action? is the perfect antidote to the ‘lumpy’ thinking that sees us putting
Organize Exhibition, Arrange American Trip, or Create Brochure on to our To Do lists. It forces us
to break down big things that we can’t do - what task management expert David Allen calls our
‘amorphous blobs of un-doability’ - into small focused actions.
So, for instance, the task ‘Create Brochure’ consists of many ‘hidden tasks’ that include: set
budget (this may well involve arranging meetings, writing a proposal), drawing up a brief,
researching content (this might include sub-action points such as interviews, Internet trawling),
writing copy, finding a designer and many more. These are the things that need to be done.
When we break down tasks in this way, we remove the sense of overwhelm we often get - that leads
to procrastination - when we’re confronted with a large and looming project.
With a sequence of much smaller tasks to complete, we can also enjoy seeing ourselves
progressing towards a goal. And when you enjoy doing something, it becomes easier to do each day
and so becomes a habit.
Crucially, ‘smart’ task management software recognizes that while certain universal tasks can be
done anywhere and anytime, others can only be done in particular places (home, office, town), using
particular equipment (phone, computer), or with particular people (boss, colleague, husband, wife).
So, it allows you to ‘tag’ tasks to these specific ‘contexts’, which immediately turns To Dos into
‘fluid’ items that can be sorted continually in all manner of ways. No more static lists, but
‘living information’ that can be used and adapted according to circumstances.
These kinds of systems for managing your tasks are proven to be significantly more effective
than the long, linear lists of old. They adapt to your situation whatever (and wherever) it may be
at a given time.
As soon as you start organizing your world in this way, you will not only get an immediate sense
of control, but also gain an excellent overview of your life that was missing when you focused
entirely on just ‘doing stuff’.
Once you start doing things in this way, you will never again want to get back to that scruffy
old To Do list.