Sometimes Your To-Do List Is Best Left Unfinished

Rupert's cupboard is empty.

On Monday we discussed using context and prioritization to better organize our to-do lists. Keeping the highest priority items at the top of our lists ensures that we’re getting the right things done in order to make real progress toward achieving our goals. Less important tasks get relegated to the bottom of the list and naturally fall off the list altogether when their time passes or we move on to bigger and better things.

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer likes things this way, recognizing that if she ever got to the bottom of her to-do list it would mean she had spent valuable time doing things that weren’t her priority.

What items are hanging around on your to-do list that just don’t matter? Obviously some things (like, say, paying taxes) have to be done whether we can be bothered or not, but other tasks are only important when we first add them to the list. Time and hindsight exposes such activities as either being worth the effort or not and there’s no shame in changing your mind and excising those that aren’t worthwhile.

Executing such cuts here and there will render your list more manageable, resulting in less anxiety and enabling clearer focus on the things that matter the most.

Prioritize And Contextualize Your To-Do List

Rupert has things to do.

An integral part of whatever productivity system you decide to establish is a mechanism for managing all of the tasks that you’ll have on your plate at any one time. Some will call this ‘task management’ and employ any number of synced apps or custom systems to stay across everything. Others will go the pen-and-notecard route. There is no right or wrong method – the best system is the one that works for you. Your to-do list can help relieve the anxiety that sometimes accompanies the juggling of a few things at once… if it is properly maintained, that is.

As with so many elements of enhanced productivity, intentionality is the key to a useful and properly maintained to-do list. You can still use your notecards (or your apps!) but a little forethought will go a long way toward ensuring you make progress on your list no matter your method of recording the tasks before you.

Consider Context

No matter how simple you like to keep things, you’ll find that the expectations placed upon you are different depending on your location at any one moment. That is, your boss probably expects different things from you than your wife does.

Considering this, context becomes the first consideration in organizing your tasks. Seeing ‘do the laundry’ on my list in between meetings at work is not only futile, but might actually take me out of the zone or cause anxiety as I go through my day looking at that box that I’m incapable of ticking until I get home.

If you can’t do it in your present situation, don’t even include it on the list!

As you may have already deduced, this can be broken down into further sub-levels still. If you float between two sites at work, for instance, there’s no point in worrying about dropping off documents to Mary at Office A while you’re in a meeting at Office B. You’d be dividing your attention for less than no reason.

This context problem can be overcome in many ways, the simplest being to maintain separate lists for each context. A lot of to-do apps will allow you to maintain multiple lists or assign context to tasks, meaning you can keep all of your tasks in once place but still stay focused within your present context.

A particularly intriguing way to manage the specificity of some tasks is to adopt if/then planning of your tasks. This method allows you to frame your tasks within opportunities by phrasing them as “if _____, then I will _____”. Examples might include:

  • If I have ten minutes, then I will email my parents.
  • When this meeting is over, I will grab lunch.
  • When Claire gets home, I will kiss her.

The tasks here – emailing my parents, grabbing lunch, kissing my lady friend – are not left for me to casually skip over with my eyes. Instead, they form a kind of calendar that allows for the fluidity of the day. I don’t know when the meeting will end, but when it does I know my next action. I don’t know when I’ll have ten minutes, but when I do I know how to fill it. In this way you can seize opportunities rather than letting them pass you by.

Make Prioritizing A Priority

Within each context you will want to identify the highest priority items – your next actions. Sometimes productivity can induce a kind of high, but chasing that high by ticking off irrelevant tasks while you put off the most important ones is productivity junk food – you’re consuming empty calories that can’t sustain you and your passions and you will burn out quickly without making any real progress.

Maybe your inbox does need cleared, maybe the trash can does need emptied, maybe you do need to water the plant in the hallway, but if your goal for the day is to work on your novel and all you manage to accomplish is ticking off these three unrelated things are you really being productive?

Depending on who you ask, your priorities for the day should be narrowed down to 1, 3, 5, 10… pick a number, really. The point isn’t really to identify a number – it’s just to establish top priorities of some kind; any kind.

One clever prioritization trick I saw recently was to build levels of emphasis into your to-do list by identifying your top priority for the day, three medium priorities, and five lower priorities before tackling them all in the one day. This is productivity in terms of quantity and quality, helping you move ahead while not letting anything fall through the cracks.

Identifying these priorities can be the bigger problem for some, though. When in the midst of several projects with no deadline, how does one choose what to do next? The Eisenhower Matrix is a handy way to gauge your priorities and – just as important, really – peg the things that are not a priority.

The matrix features four quadrants used to define activities in terms of both importance and urgency. The highest priority items will obviously be those that are both important and urgent (putting out the fire after you blow up the microwave), while those that are neither important or urgent (House of Cards) become the lowest priority. Items that are important but not urgent (reading this blog?) receive consideration alongside those that are urgent but not important (things your boss wants you to do like, now, that you don’t care about). The distinction between urgency and importance is a significant one. Where urgency is the same, it is the difference between, say, what is important to you and what is important to others. Work on the ones that are important to you first (depending on the context – your boss likely won’t agree that reading this blog is more important than filing reports).

However, as I have said before, it’s not neccesary or altogether desirable to eliminate those activities that are neither urgent or important. Being on at all times can burn you out and you’ll need recovery time here and there. It might seem counter-intuitive, but if you have a hard time switching off it might be worthwhile to add leisure to your to-do list. After all, there is a difference between getting sucked into another House of Cards marathon and allocating a specific time slot in which you’re going to watch X number of episodes.

Mind The Cracks

Once you’ve added contexts and prioritization to your task-management system (and doesn’t that just sound so sophisticated?), you will probably find yourself facing a dilemma: what about all those little ticky-tack things that still have to get done but never end up making your ‘priority cutoff’? You don’t want anything to fall through the cracks, after all.

A cornerstone of the GTD system is the “two minute rule”, which dictates that any action that can be completed in two minutes or less is completed then. It’s not filed away, it’s not added to the to-do list and it’s not left for after you’ve read more emails – it’s done then and then, well, it’s done.

For slightly more involved tasks that aren’t especially important, one clever idea is to maintain a separate to-do list containing these tasks. Anytime you find yourself with a few minutes to kill and no prioritized task that can be completed in that window, pull out this list and tick something off.

Move Forward, Not Sideways

The intent of all of these ideas is to keep you moving forward rather than treading water. It can be easy to fall into the trap of being busy but not making progress and life is too short.

It’s also worth remembering that you’ll probably not accomplish everything you add to your to-do list, and that’s okay. Prioritizing your list keeps the most important next actions at the top and allows everything else to kind of naturally fall off the bottom over time. The daily review that prioritization requires ensures that you won’t waste your time and energy on things that you just clearly didn’t value in the first place.

By renewing your commitment to progress each day you will find yourself moving confidently forward, one ticked box at a time.

Make A Habit Of Passion, Learn From Kids, Be Inspired

Rupert is reading 'A Hologram For The King'.

The weekend is here again! Rituals were the theme of the week, which happens to coincide with the first weekend link about making a habit of pursuing your passion projects. Kids pervade the other two links by showing us how to channel our inner nine-year-old and allowing for a little inspiration after a disappointing loss in the Little League World Series.

Tackle Your Passion Project With The 90-90-1 Rule

Concluding a week of discussing rituals and their roles in our everyday production and creativity, here is the kind of challenge to help you get a start on making everyday your ideal day. Dedicate the first ninety minutes of your next ninety work days to working on your highest-priority passion project. Seeing as habits stick after 66 days, you’ll be well on your way to the life of your dreams if you see this challenge through to the end.

Five Things I Learned From Hanging Out With A Nine-Year-Old

There is much we can learn from kids and Eric Ravenscraft shares a few valuable lessons here. Kids aren’t afraid to make mistakes or try new things, which is refreshing to see if you spend a lot of time around jaded adults that have thrown in the towel.

R.I. coach inspires after LLWS loss

Speaking of kids, the Little League World Series is ongoing at the moment. Unfortunately, the Rhode Island team representing New England was recently eliminated but their coach took the opportunity to deliver a speech that I doubt any of the players will ever forget. I can’t embed the video here without it starting automatically, so I’ll spare you that annoyance and point you to the link.

ToVa Rewind:

Convert Routines Into Rituals For Meaningful Progress
Use Rituals To Engineer your Perfect Day

Rupert is reading: A Hologram For The King by Dave Eggers

Have a great weekend!

Use Rituals To Engineer Your Perfect Day

Rupert is having a perfect day.

A powerful way to start living the life you want to live while making progress toward your grandest goals is to map out what your average perfect day would look like (via). Not your fantasy perfect day, but a perfect day that you can engineer out of the raw material of reality.

Naturally this perfect day should include doing the things you love, even if only for a little while. Writers should want to write everyday. Musicians should want to play. Painters should want to paint. Athletes should want to run. If this is not the case, perhaps revisit your “passions”.

On Monday we discussed converting your routines into rituals. The use of such rituals can help you stick to your map of an average perfect day on an ongoing basis.

What differentiates routine from ritual is intent. Routines are undertaken passively, sometimes unconsciously, while rituals are ceremonial and intentional. Assigned the proper meaning, rituals grant us passage to a desired state of mind or place. A cup of stale coffee from a vending machine is mindless and routine but a flat white made by your own hand and enjoyed in your favorite chair can be so much more. It can usher in creativity or kick-start intense productivity – it’s really for you to decide.

Such rituals should be installed as cornerstones within your average perfect day. In this way you can piece together great, productive days one ritual brick at a time and see them through to live the life you truly desire.

Convert Routines Into Rituals For Meaningful Progress

Rupert is a creature of habit.

You might not think that you’re a creature of routine but consider the course of your average day for a few seconds. Maybe you always have a cup of coffee in the morning and try to wait until noon before having another. You iron your shirt for the next work day just before you go to bed. Maybe you can’t fall asleep without some light reading. The first thing you do in the morning is mindlessly scroll through your Facebook feed while you will yourself to rise from bed and face the day. You probably always have lunch around the same time.

With the same person.

In the same room.

You might be realizing that you have a lot of routine activities that you don’t actively consider. Imagine how much more your day would mean if you did actively consider them; if you engineered your routine activities into a set of daily rituals. No matter what your idea of success looks like, meaningful rituals can help you get there.

Drive The Plot Forward

Where a routine is mechanical and rote, a ritual is ceremonial and injected with meaning. A daily ritual can’t be a ‘token’ activity that you do merely because you feel like you should or because you’ve seen other people do it – it must mean something to you and that meaning should ideally relate to whatever you’re trying to accomplish.

It is common wisdom among writers that each word of a story should drive the plot forward. The same rule applies to your daily activities: if the activity at hand isn’t getting you closer to your goal, why are you doing it in the first place?

A powerful enough ritual can set the pace for our entire day, so it is important to consider the pace that we want to set. This begins with knowing yourself and your natural rhythms. If you’re developing rituals around writing, for example, you would want to tee these rituals up at a time that you are naturally more creative. The ritual, then, serves to maximize and enhance your natural rhythm.

My own rituals that lead into my creative work (usually writing) involve a cup of coffee, reading and – depending on the type of writing I’ll be doing – a walk around the neighborhood. I am naturally more creative in the afternoon and early evening so if I were to deploy these rituals at 5 A.M. they would be less effective than if I started them after lunch. Likewise, a walk only fuels my creativity if I’m going to be writing a blog post. If I’m going to be writing fiction, it’s best for me to get right into the work with my coffee in hand. Once I’ve followed the given pattern of rituals, I am well and truly in the ‘zone’ for creative work.

Your own rituals should likewise suit your own personal and specific needs. It’s interesting to know that F. Scott Fitzgerald arose at 11 A.M. most days, but that doesn’t mean you’ll write the next Great American Novel if you also wake at that time. Rising at 11 worked for him, but only when combined with any number of other rituals that fell in line with his own creative rhythms. There is no formula for creativity and maximum productivity – there is only what works and what doesn’t work for you.

Your Rituals Evolve Along With You

I was raised on a lot of colloquial wisdom in West Virginia. A saying that I heard pretty often while growing up was “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It’s true that constant tinkering eventually (and sometimes rapidly) reaches a point of diminishing returns. In the same way that you can only coax so much power out of an engine, you can likewise only derive so much power from a ritual.

Life-hacking your cup of coffee, in other words, won’t make the muse any more forthcoming. Your ritual will only ever be what it is until – one day – it’s not.

The day that it’s finally ‘broke’ and needs fixing.

Your rituals will evolve along with your personality, goals, rhythms and surroundings. A walk around the neighborhood might inspire you around your current suburb but if you move across town it might cause anxiety. The ritual will be broken and need to be adjusted or jettisoned.

It is important to remember that rituals are not end states – they exist on a continuum along which they must serve your needs for the moment (via). They may eventually stop serving your needs as you move toward your goal. Your rituals of the moment must always be helping and not hindering, otherwise they become rote and you guessed it: routine.

Periodic reflection is necessary to prevent your rituals from leaving you in a rut. It’s important to pause every so often and consider the purpose of your rituals, the same way you did when you considered your daily routine at the outset of this article. What activities in your day are filled with meaning and which are just examples of you going through the motions? Lose the meaningless ones and substitute in ones that will actively bring you a step closer to your dreams each time you perform them.

If we are all floating downstream, daily rituals are our paddles. Without them we have less control over our path and are ultimately at the mercy of the current. By empowering ourselves with rituals we give ourselves the freedom to choose our path; to chart our own course. Don’t settle for going with the flow – make your activities mean something.