Just don’t write a to-do list at all.
Yep, that’s right. Don’t do it.
Don’t write everything down that you need to do and overwhelm yourself before you even get started. Don’t be a slave to your digital or paper guilt-inducing self. Just, let it go.
It’s a novel concept I know, and to be clear, I’m not saying don’t do the work.
But the no-list to-do list truth hit me right between the eyes the other night when I realised I still hadn’t started a new notebook for to-do-listing (of the many fabulous notebooks in my hoard) because I’d been too busy doing the work. Interesting.
And it gets better.
Because really it’s about priorities and what needs to get done TODAY, not just ‘what needs to get done’. They say (you know, them, the productivity gurus et al), that in order to succeed you have to single-focus, and it’s impossible to single-focus when you have a list of 100+ nagging things to do. Even allowing 3 things onto your list is a distraction, apparently.
And I get it. I’ve been there.
It feels cathartic to write it all down and get it out of your head, but then you realise someone needs to try to work through those tasks, and that poor unfortunate someone, is you.
Now we all kinda know the ONE BIG THING that needs to get done that day, today, tomorrow, don’t we? It’s not going to be easily forgotten without the aid of a list. If you’re working on a project then you know that needs your attention. You could maybe write down a few areas that you want to focus on, but re-framing it in those terms makes it that much more palatable and less stressy. You’re choosing to work on a few key areas (or one!) and that’s a good place to kick off in the morning (or afternoon, or evening, or whenever you’ll next be working on said project).
But the fact remains: the important, priority stuff automatically filters to the top of your mind because our brains seemingly can’t let go of unfinished tasks. These tasks create continual feedback loops demanding our attention.
And that’s what I’ve been experiencing. I haven’t had a proper to-do list for around a month but each day I’ve been super-productive and worked through each task as it arises, prioritising the things with a looming deadline, the opportunities that I don’t want to miss. Each day when I’ve
shut down my computer put my computer to sleep, I’ve felt satisfied with what I’ve achieved, without the stress (or perversely, the satisfaction) of crossing out bullet points in a notebook.
And now that I’ve come to this shocking realisation?
I feel liberated – what if I never (have to) write another to-do list again?
I could allow myself to brainstorm ideas or plot out strategies or outlines. There’s no ban on lists per se, but it’s nice to think the tyranny of the to-do list could be a prison of the past.
It reminds me of this article by Tim Harford, partly inspired by Benjamin Franklin and his apparent life-long pursuit of a tidy desk (spoiler: he couldn’t manage it).
The upshot is, a messy desk is ultimately more fruitful and organised than a tidy desk.
“There can be a kind of magic in mess”
And it makes sense.
A neat desk means business with no distractions, but all the things you diligently filed away get forgotten about – out of sight, out of mind – and not only do you forget their very existence, but when you start looking for that crucial piece of paper, research or must-have scribbled note, it’s unlikely to be found.
Here’s my favourite quote from Tim Harford’s article, illustrating just how unhelpful so-called clever and niche classifications can be:
“Categorising documents of any kind is harder than it seems. The writer and philosopher Jorge Luis Borges once told of a fabled Chinese encyclopedia, the “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge”, which organised animals into categories such as: a) belonging to the emperor, c) tame, d) sucking pigs, f) fabulous, h) included in the present classification, and m) having just broken the water pitcher.”
In contrast, on a messy desk, things have to be shuffled about and ‘lost’ pieces of paper or information (or wires and screws and circuit boards in my husband’s case) are sifted and sorted on a regular basis because they are THERE, right there, kind of in the way.
The odd piece of paper falls to the floor and then you tread on it and it sticks to your bare foot and you suddenly realise: it’s the very inspiration you needed, like the universe pointing you in the right direction.
It’s a similar thing with the mind. The more unfinished tasks there are, the more little reminders flag up alerting you to this fact. A bit like an app, but infinitely more…apt.
Which leaves more time for actual writing and journaling and creative-making.
So long to-do list and hello productivity, my old friend.