When To-Do Lists Don’t Work

fridge-gladiator_freezerator.jpegFor most professionals, To-Do Lists are woefully inadequate.

The reason is simple — they have gotten to the point where they have too many time demands to be handled by a single ToDo list.

In the 2Time system a user has the option of selecting the level at which they mange their lists.  From White belt to Green belt, a user can graduate up a ladder of increasingly skillful ways to improve the way they use lists.

At the very lowest levels, users don’t bother with lists. Instead, they try to use their memory to keep track of the stuff they have to do.  This mental list is not a problem, as long as the number of items they have to remember is small.  The habit of writing a list probably originates in high school, when some students were just not able to keep a mental track of the homework they had to do, and were forced to write things down in order to get them done later.  (A few gifted students might not have had this problem.)

At higher levels, users develop the discipline of making lists, and they notice a vast improvement over their prior habit of trying to remember the things they have to do.  When they become skillful at writing everything down, they notice a smaller but significant jump in their time management skills.

However, the habits that the typical user develops when using their ToDo list gets them into trouble when the number of time demands becomes too large to handle.  For some, this never becomes a problem, but for most, the advent of email has served to increase the number of time demands dramatically.

What are the habits that render a ToDo list unworkable when the number of items increases?

In 2Time terms, what happens is that a ToDo list fails when the entries on the list become a mottley bunch of items that shouldn’t be on one single list, but should be treated by very different actions, or  fundamentals.  The typical ToDo list becomes a grab-bag of different items that are actually serving different needs.  A partial analysis of the typical ToDo list reveals the following.

1. Some items on the list are the result of what is called Capturing.  They are on the ToDo list because they are being temporarily staged until a later moment when it’s more convenient.  The problem occurs for most users when they are weak in the skill of Emptying.  In other words, they fail to reduce the list back to its empty state often enough, or rigorously enough, causing items to be added faster than they are removed.  The result is that their ToDo list grows uncontrollably, and they are forced to start using their memory as a supplement.

While a lack of Emptying is the source of the problem, it’s also useful to see what happens to the ToDo list when other skills are weak.

2.  Some items on the list should be acted on immediately, simply because they are so short that they should be dispensed with at once.  This is called Acting Now.  A failure to do so leaves the item on the ToDo list, where the user hopes that it will not be forgotten.

3. Other items should be put into electronic or paper storage, such as a phone number or email address.  When Storing is not done properly, the item is left on the ToDo list so that the critical information is not lost i.e. for “safekeeping.”

4.  A few items should be written off the list, or Tossed, but instead end up getting lost in the clutter of the items on the ToDo list.  Some people have items on their ToDo list that last for years, which happens easily when the list is kept electronically.

5.   Other items need to be scheduled into a calendar, with an appropriate audible reminder.  Instead of Scheduling the item, however, it remains on the list mixed in with other items where it can also become lost.  Users keep items on a ToDo list in order to try to remind themselves to perform the action at a later time.  When the number is small, this practice works.  However, when the number of items grows to be too large (as it does for most knowledge professionals) the list cannot perform that function.  Instead, the skill of Scheduling is the answer to the problem.

6.  There are some entries in the ToDo list that belong on a separate list of their own, such as a list of items to pick up on the next trip to the market, or a list of topics to be covered in an upcoming meeting.  When they are separated into their own lists, they can then be used a t different times.

As you can see, the typical ToDo list has items that are actually serving very different purposes and need to be disposed of in very different ways.

This places a tremendous burden on the user for the following reason.

The typical item on a ToDo list actually signifies two pieces of critical information — a representation of the item (in writing,) and how it should be acted on (which is kept in memory.)

For example, the following items happen to be on a user’s list at 10:00 am on Friday morning:

Pick up dry cleaning

Mike – 999-555-1234

Remember to ask Burt about project start date

Get materials for Jones project

It’s clear what the items say, but what exactly should be done with the item next is not stated on paper, and instead must be remembered by the user.  Here is the information that must be stored in the user’s memory

Pick up dry cleaning  (5:15pm -6:00pm today after work, and make sure that the dinner date isn’t tonight, otherwise reschedule)

Mike – 999-555-1234 (This should be placed in Outlook and on my cell phone)

Remember to ask Burt about project start date  (Remind myself the next time I see him after his vacation to give me the date)

Get materials for Jones project  (This item is not needed as the project has been canceled, but the items was entered before the cancellation.)

This is hardly an unusual situation — the ToDo list is such a mixed bag that the sorting must be done mentally, and the results must be stored in personal memory for some later time in the future.

The ToDo list therefore forces the user to keep critical information in their head about each item, and this is one reason why the list becomes overwhelming — the user simply has to manage too many thoughts in their mind in total, even though each single item has only a small piece of information to be remembered.

When a refrigerator has too many unsorted items in it, the results are predictable — the left-over dinner rolls somehow drift out of sight and eventually go bad.  Recently, we moved to a new townhouse, and my wife is complaining that she is without a shoe-shelf for the first time.  Her many pairs of shoes have ended up in a single large bag, with the result being that she ends up wearing the same two pairs of shoes all the time.

The ToDo list becomes just like the full refrigerator and the bag of shoes — too hard to sort through.

The alternative is to master the 7 Essential 2Time fundamentals, and to improve one’s skill levels.  When a skill such as Scheduling is mastered at a high level, the ToDo item —   Pick up dry cleaning  —  would be simply placed in the calendar in the appropriate time-slot, and the challenge of ensuring that it doesn’t conflict with the dinner date would be handled immediately.  This is assuming that the dinner date is also scheduled into an appropriate time-slot on whatever date it pertains to.

The result here is simple — the fundamental skills of 2Time allow for greater peace of mind, because they rely less on the user’s memory than a ToDo list does.  At the higher belt levels, there is actually no need for a ToDo list.  Instead, it has been replaced by a more sophisticated set of skills and tools.

As mentioned before, the higher belt levels  are not necessary for everyone.  Each user must decide for themselves whether or not a ToDo list works adequately for them or not with respect to their productivity and peace of mind.  I have noticed, however, that users who experience an increase in time demands often find it necessary to graduate from a simple ToDo list to the skills and tools employed at the higher belt levels.

In the 2Time approach, all levels are acknowledged as valid, and it’s simply a matter of choosing a belt level that gives the individual user the peace of mind they require and desire, given their particular environment.