I am a sucker for nice-looking notebooks. So I was thrilled to see a snazzy Èccolo model in a bag of speaker swag I was handed at a conference recently. Then I read the little note from the Èccolo company accompanying the notebook: “A typical day in the life of an Èccolo Journal. Things to do:
Travel to every continent in the world
Make a perfect chocolate chip cookie
Run for office
Oh, I know, it’s supposed to be funny. But it struck me as pretty much a catalogue of every sin people make with to-do lists.
A small list of them:
Including more things than can actually fit in one day. I suppose that “travel to every continent in the world” does not appear on many people’s to-do lists. But plenty of to-do lists suffer from grandiose ambitions. All activities take a block of time. There is only so much time in the day. You cannot fit 26 hours of activities into a day. You can’t fit 24. Heck, you probably can’t fit 18, because there are transitions, and stuff comes up, in addition to one’s physical body needing sleep. Putting more activities on a daily to-do list than can actually fit in a day means you won’t do them. Not because of a lack of willpower or intelligence but because of physics. There is no virtue in putting something on a to-do list and then not doing it.
Listing activities for which success is unclear. What is a perfect chocolate chip cookie? As judged by whom? One can certainly plan to make chocolate chip cookies. But “perfect” requires more detail.
Listing multi-step activities as one item. Take “run for office.” This more practically involves checking the filing rules with your local officials or state secretary of state, getting whatever signatures or party approval is required to appear on a ballot, etc. Those are the sorts of steps that can go on a to-do list. Not this. Likewise, unless you only need to hit print to finish your dissertation, this is another entry that needs to be broken down into multiple items. The problem is that often people don’t know what the constituent steps are. But that’s a recipe for these multi-step items being procrastinated.
Failing to take into account energy levels. I’ve run a marathon. It was fun! But I didn’t really feel like doing much else the rest of the day. So that’s probably an item to put on its own day, and leave the rest for some other time.
Being wishy-washy. Rule the world? Why the question mark? Something should be either on the list or not. If it’s on, it gets done. If it can’t be done, it is immediately pushed to another time in the near future that has been identified as spillover time precisely because things come up. This is how a to-do list becomes useful: when you actually hold yourself accountable to doing it.
How do you make to-do lists?
Photo: Could this notebook rule the world?