Management IT Mentoring & Coaching

Why “list” is a dirty word

An article by David Allen

What’s wrong with lists? Most people haven’t had a lot of success with lists, especially the ones they’ve tried to use to “get organized.”

You are either attracted or repelled by your lists and everything on them. There is no neutral territory. When you look at any one item you will either be thinking to yourself, “Hey, when can I mark THAT off?” or “Yuck! Back away!” My educated guess is that 98 percent of people’s responses are some version of the latter.

Why? Because;

1) they’re hard work and/or

2) they’re scary and/or

3) they’re disappointing.

1) Hard work

If you know your list of calls to make doesn’t include every single call you have to make about any and everything in your life, you will feel that you still should be remembering things that aren’t on the list. That’s low-level and hard work for your psyche, so it’s not really getting the relief from the list it is seeking. If you don’t have everything out of your head, it hardly feels worth trying to keep ANYthing out of your head. Also, most big to-do lists have things grouped together on them that cannot be done in the context you are in at the time, and a lot of repetitive re-thinking (wasteful mental effort) is required to figure out what you actually have the opportunity to do in the moment versus what can’t be done until another place and time.

2) Scary

If a to-do on your list is not the very next physical visible action to be done, there is a gap between current reality and what you are looking at, and it can trigger a subtle but very real sense of being out of control with what to do about it, every time you glance at it. Some part of you knows that there is more thinking and decision-making required, and you don’t feel you have the energy or capability to do that well, in this
moment. Simply having “Mom” on a to-do list reminds you that her birthday is coming and that you should think and decide about what you’re going to do about it… but, oh my… I don’t have the juice to deal with that right now!

3) Disappointing

Ever had to rewrite a list of things you didn’t get done when you thought you should? People who try to work daily to-do lists usually have undone things at the end of the day that create guilt and the trouble of having to transfer them to the next day.

So, to change your relationship with “lists” to a more positive one:
1) Make them complete, so your brain gets to graduate from the job of remembering; and organize your action reminders by context (phone, computer, errands, at home, etc.) so you only need to review that you actually can do at the time.

2) Make sure every actionable item has the very next visible physical action identified along with it, so you don’t freak out about unknown territory between here and there.

3) Only put items that cannot be done any other day on your calendar, and everything else hold in “as soon as I can get to them” lists.

I suppose “love your lists” could be a little too radical an admonition for some of you. But how about at least “be good friends”
with them?

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