The “to do”list…a longtime tool of the uber-productive. For as long as we can remember, checklists and to do lists have been a vital part of our day planners, PDAs and later smart phones. More recently, their stock has risen even further with “big idea” books like The Checklist Manifesto singing the praises of a simple list of tasks, checked off as they’re completed.
But there’s a fundamental problem with the “to do” list…and it’s a problem of design.
I recently interviewed Greg McKeown, author of The New York Timesbestselling Essentialism and promoter of a lifestyle of productivity and focus through a disciplined pursuit of less. He pointed out that the problem with the to list is that it presents all tasks as equally important. “Make the list,” he said. “But then eventually you’ve got to determine out of that list, some things are really important, and some things are really not important in comparison. If you spend a whole day doing all the little not important things, you still make some progress, it still not nothing, but those small things often do not add up to the importance of that one thing you knew would really move the needle.”
Instead, McKeown recommends we redesign the list, and we use white space as our guide. “I recommend daily creating a graphical, essential list,” McKeown explained. “Something I found helpful, I’ve taken an old piece of paper, and I will make the top 1/3 of the sheet is the top item. It’s the idea of a big rock. This is the big essential thing that I want to get done today. By visually showing that it’s the most important thing, it helps me to justify and keep coming back to that item.
“Instead of treating it as an equal task–level of importance–with all the other tasks,” he said. “The first 1/3 of the piece of paper is one item. The second 1/3 of the piece of paper is 2 items. Then the final 1/3 of the piece of paper is 3 items.”
McKeown also recommends limiting your daily to do list to just 6 items. Any more than and you’re likely stretching too thin–just 6 items laid out graphically by importance. “These are the 6 essentials, these are like the big rocks of the day, and I find it very liberating to have it visually aware in that way,” he said. “It helps me to feel motivated to keep hitting on the thing that maybe I don’t really want to be doing, but I know it’s the essential thing, and get it done.”
If you’re a fan of the to do list, but not a fan out checking lots of things off and still feeling that you haven’t made progress…maybe your to do list needs a redesign