Catherine Gracey

Living Life, One Misadventure At A Time.

The To Do List Experiment

on March 12, 2012

Two weeks ago I decided to try an experiment. Instead of rolling my to do list over from one week to the next, and managing to get less than half done each week, I decided it was time for a new tactic. I took a large piece of paper and listed out everything I could think of that I would either want or need to do. After this I categorised everything into projects or common themes. I looked at these areas and filled in the gaps to move from one step to the next.

I was testing two theories with this experiment. The first theory was that I had lost sight of the bigger picture. Without knowing where everything I was doing fit into my broader goals, it was difficult to see the next step that I needed to accomplish. My theory was that I would be less daunted by everything if it was carefully broken down and placed into chronological order. I would also waste less time trying to work out which step was next if I had taken the time to plan where each would fit in the whole.

The second theory came from disagreement with a point raised by Mel Robbins in her TED talk. She argues against the idea ‘I’ll do it when I feel like it’ on the grounds that we will never feel like it and we should do it anyway. I tried to embrace this theory for a few months, until I realised I was so busy doing things I did not feel like doing that I had no time to do the things I did feel like doing. Getting what I want is important, but I also want to be happy. My motivation for anything was dropping, and it was clearly reflected in my past lists. For the last two weeks I have instead looked at my plans, and selected tasks that roughly correlate with what I feel like doing. If I want to stay home, I pick tasks that fit with this. If I want to go out, I pick tasks that can only be done away from home. It has combined getting what I want with what I feel like doing.

As I decided on my next task, I wrote it on my to do list. I had expected that the lists would remain short, similar in length to the output of my previous weeks. Instead the lists were a similar size to previous weeks but, instead of many items carrying over, these lists were filled with completed tasks. There were other outcomes I had not expected:

  • My productivity had easily doubled with no noticeable increase in effort.
  • I went from seeing what I had not accomplished to what I had, and the corresponding sense of guilt and being overwhelmed vanished.
  • My mood improved as what I did closely mirrored how I felt.
  • There was increased opportunity to be spontaneous, and it was easy to fit in an unexpected activity without wondering what would need to be sacrificed to do it.
  • The time critical things were the first to be removed from the list, so now there is a sense of timelessness to everything remaining that leaves me feeling calm and ambitious.
  • Some of the large projects I had expected to take months longer are already finished.
  • I do not feel as if I am procrastinating if I add a new item to my list, or prioritise one task over the next, as I now feel confident that I will get to everything eventually.
  • Less time is spent entertaining myself, as I am no longer doing things when they are guaranteed to emotionally drain me.

I am very glad that I tried this new approach. It suits my personality, and each day I am able to feel a sense of achievement. I am curious to see if it will continue to work over a longer time period.


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