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4 Reasons Why You Need A Killer To-Do List

Killer To Do List

Anyone who leads a busy life needs 3 things to be productive.

You need access to email, a calendar and a to-do list.

Email. Tick.
Calendar. Tick
To-do list… Hmmm.

As a productivity coach, I often ask clients about their list making habits and regularly hear this reply:

“Do I have a to-do list? Sure. Well… kind of.

I jot stuff down in my notebook at meetings;

And I sometimes use the Notes app on my iPhone – although that’s a bit ad hoc;

Then there’s sticky notes. They can work for me;

I sometimes use email to remind myself of stuff;

Oh – and when I’m on the go I write stuff on my hands…”

Does this feel close to home? If so, then join the club.

Most people do not have a to-do list that works. They keep most of their actions in their head and create a new list whenever they feel overwhelmed. Commonly, people can’t even consider a killer to-do list because they’ve never seen one in action and don’t know what one looks like!

Define killer?

A killer to-do list is like a well packed caravan.

Everything that you need for the trip is organised and in one place.

You’ve added the obvious stuff, like soap, sleeping bags and spare undies. ‘Just in case’ items are also included — like Scrabble and a first aid kit.

Everything’s planned. Everything’s organised. The van might be full, but you know where to find stuff when you need it. And so you can relax and enjoy the moment.

Caravanning not your thing?

Then to say it straight, a killer to-do list:

  • Is complete — everything that’s competing for your attention is recorded
  • Is in one place — work and life actions are all in the same system
  • Is multi-levelled — big stuff is broken down into smaller stuff
  • Is trusted — you review it, you work from it and so you can trust it

Why lists work

Lists are powerful tools and work at a number of levels on our psychology.

1. Remember stuff

Superficially, lists help us to remember stuff. We easily forget long lists because the human brain doesn’t function like a data-base.

That’s why you and I use shopping lists.

Without a shopping list, we spend our energy trying to remember (or not forget) the stuff we’ve committed to buy. We walk through the supermarket with an internal monologue that says ‘don’t forget the bread.’

In contrast, a shopping list allows our brain to focus on other things. We can plan and creatively think about the fastest and smartest way to move through the supermarket aisles to get our shopping done.

The numbers are interesting.

I tend to forget stuff (or come home with chocolate!!) if I have to remember more than 7 or 8 items without my shopping list. Yet my current to-do list has over 200 items that previously competed for space in my head.

How does a killer to-do list help? Just do the maths!

2. Define your work

Lists help you to define your work and make good decisions moment by moment.

Peter Drucker,[1] one of the founding guru’s of management literature, suggests that the key task of the knowledge worker is to “define your work.”

A knowledge worker (as opposed to someone who works on a production line) has multiple options for what they might choose to do each day. They might read and respond to emails. Or schedule a meeting with their team. Or write a presentation. Or simply go for a walk to think.

In this way, a knowledge worker’s day is not set in stone, but shaped moment by moment by the choices they make.

At least, that’s the theory!

In reality, we find that many people don’t feel empowered to choose what they do each day. Their calendars are fully booked with meetings. They are bombarded with emails, overrun with information, constantly interrupted and driven by other people’s priorities.

In this environment, a killer to-do list becomes essential to help you define everything that’s on your plate. It clears your head and allows you to objectively define whatever is competing for your time. This clarity is very important. When people are clear about their commitments, they are much more capable of making proactive choices about what they choose to do (and not do) each day.

The alternative is to juggle a bunch of vaguely defined commitments in your head and then allow someone else’s agenda to determine your day.

3. Reduce stress

Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night with a head full of stuff?

If so, chances are that you wrote your ideas down (created an ad hoc list) to help you get back to sleep.

David Allen, pioneer of the to-do list system Getting Things Done once stated:

“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”

According to David Allen, most of us live with a head full of ‘open loops.’ These are unclarified thoughts, ideas and internal commitments that go round and round in our heads because we haven’t yet clarified them. Open loops come and go, causing stress and worry over time.

These thoughts are often quite random. A short term to-do might enter your consciousness (like ‘don’t forget the recycling bin’), followed closely by a long term commitment (‘book a trip to Paris next year.’) The brain also mixes up important tasks (‘see dentist about my painful tooth’), with unimportant tasks (‘download the next season of Game of Thrones.’) It’s quite a strange phenomenon!

The problem is that most of these to-do’s cannot be done at the time when they pop into your head. And so you remember-forget again and again, feeling overwhelmed by all the stuff in your head.

By “capturing everything that has your attention”[2] into a trusted to-do list system, David Allen suggests that we close ‘open loops’ and gain the ability to think clearly again. Long and short term, important and unimportant commitments all become objectified.

The result of this clarity is that your brain can stop focussing on just ‘remembering’ stuff across your work and life. You can reduce stress and focus on doing!

4. Boost creativity

Everyone wants to be creative. Yet creativity often comes at a cost.

I remember a conversation that I had with my manager a few years ago. My job involved problem solving and developing health services, so my discussions often started with: “Hey, I’ve got a great idea… ”

Some of these ideas were ordinary. Some were gems. Yet on this occasion my boss stopped me mid-sentence and sighed (with a smile):

“Daniel, every time you come up with a new idea, I groan inside, because I know that it just means more work!”

It was a good observation. When a person keeps everything in their head, their brain becomes psychologically resistant to new ideas. Every new idea (kept in the head) equates to more work — and we avoid more work!

Remember our ‘open loops?’

The brain can’t tell the difference between an idea that needs doing today, verses one that’s ‘just an idea’ for the distant future. When it goes round and round in our heads, it all feels the same.

Remember, forget. Remember, forget.

When you capture new ideas into a list, you create an objective distance between yourself and the idea. This allows you to become creative. I use a someday/maybe list to brew on ideas such as “write a book,” “raft the Gordon Franklin river” and “invent a board game.” I might never do any of these things, but I read them every now and then and find that over time the best ideas grow.

Make it happen

A killer to-do list can transform the way you work — forever.

A well designed list can help you remember stuff, clearly define your work, reduce stress and increase creativity.

If you need help getting started, contact us to discuss List Assassin training or coaching. Browse our other blog posts. Or pick up a copy of David Allen’s landmark book, Getting Things Done.

Do you need a killer to-do list?

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Peter Drucker quote, cited by David Allen:
  2. Allen, D. (2001). Getting things done: The art of stress-free productivity. Penguin Books, London

3 comment

  1. Great article Dan. Franklin has been on my to-do list for over a decade. I was aiming to do it when I turn 40 – so still a few years to go yet – although still have to convince Pen!

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