To-Do lists make me shudder inside – after years of trying and numerous failed attempts I can barely stand to look at a to-do list, and yet, keeping everything in my head is exhausting (see linked post for more information).
So how do I stay productive and tame my to-do list dread?
I’ve discovered that my main issue with a to-do list is that they are useless for creating the framework of priority and importance, they don’t help me to see what is significant and what isn’t. A list of 50 items can be sorted and re-sorted by many different versions of priority and importance.
I have spent many hours sorting lists, when I am at my most determined, the items at the top of the list are those things that are clearly important and urgent, but I can make anything important and urgent and when I let my self control slip I will. There have been many times when the prioritisation of the list didn’t give me the answer I was hoping for so I just re-prioritise everything using a different criteria until it did. My integrity wouldn’t allow me to just pick the things I wanted to do, I needed to have some reason for doing those things, but they were often the flimsiest of reasons.
Remarkably, the things that I progress using this technique often turn out to be the things that were significant all along. There have been many time when the things that appear to be urgent and important just fall by the wayside and weren’t needed after all.
I’m not trying to claim some sixth-sense here, just the fallibility of a prioritised to-do list.
To-Do Lists v Productivity Planners
I don’t work from a to-do list anymore, I work from a productivity planner.
“A what?” I hear some of you say.
“A Productivity Planner.”
“What’s the difference?” you respond (don’t you?)
“I’m glad you asked – the primary difference is that framework of significance I’ve been talking about.”
This is the analogy I have in my head. Imagine that the things on your to-do list are each represented by a book that you need to read, and you have 1,000 books on the list. Sorting the books alphabetically is like sorting them by priority, you still have 1,000 books, they’ve just been sorted. You have to get a long way through the 1,000 books before you start to feel like you are making any progress at all. The problem with your progress is that it is one dimensional, all you are tracking is how far through the thousands of books have you got, it’s not showing you how much progress you have made in learning, or how close you are to be able to use that information productively, you’re just counting books. What makes this worse is that every time you turn around there will be another pile of books that will need sorting into the alphabetic ordering system. There is no chance that you will ever get from A-to-Z, it’s never going to happen, and why do you even need to go from A-to-Z? Why do you need to read every page in every book? What purpose is reading the books fulfilling?
To put it another way:
- Why do you need to do all of the activities on your list?
- Why do you need to complete every aspect of these activities?
- What purpose is completing these activities fulfilling?
Productivity planners tend to take the questions above, but in reverse order:
- What’s my purpose? One of.
- What do I need my focus to be to fulfill my purpose? One of.
- What are my priorities for that focus? A few of, 5.
- What other tasks do I need to get done? Several of, but less than 8.
I find that this approach gives me a much more realistic plan of priorities and activities, many of which will get completed and others progressed.
My current productivity planner is the Panda one, but I have used others that follow a similar scheme. The people at Panda provide a PDF of their layouts so that you can try them out for size (I don’t seem to be able to buy an actual Panda planner in the UK, so printing out sheets is my only option). The Panda planner asks a few additional questions aimed at connecting you with the “why?”
- I’m grateful for?
- I’m excited about?
It also encourages an end of day review challenging me to think about today’s wins and one area to improve.
Of the 11 areas on the Panda Planner 7 of them are focussed on connecting with a framework of significance.
Switching from a pure to-do list to a productivity plan has tamed my dread of those horrendously long lists whilst helping me to maintain my productivity. There are still lots of things that don’t get done, but, hopefully, with the help of the plan, I’m spending my time doing the significant things.
PS: Another aspect of the various Productivity Planners that I’ve used is that they are on paper. I’ve used many apps, I’ve ever written blogs about them, but I keep coming back to paper, I suspect that there is a reason for that.