Three ways to do your to-dos

With Clara off at school every day and me home alone, it’s all down to me to decide when and how I’ll get stuff done. I have always struggled with procrastination and lack of willpower, so I’ve been thinking a lot about what sorts of systems I can put in place to make getting work and chores done more automatic. On reflection, I realized that most systems are built from approaches that fall into one of these three categories:

  • Opportunity-based
  • Goal-based
  • Time-based

Here are my thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of each approach, and how I’m incorporating what I’m learning into my life.

Opportunity-based

This is the approach taken by David Allen in his famous Getting Things Done (GTD) system. In it, you create a master list of the tasks you need to do, and check them off as you do them one by one in order. Tasks that require certain equipment (like the internet or a telephone or another person) are kept on separate lists and done in batches.

The reason I call this opportunity-based is that each task is only accomplished once an external condition is met: the previous tasks all being completed, for example, or having access to a phone. There’s no set timeframe of when you’ll have worked on something; the GTD philosophy is to put on your calendar only the commitments whose times you have no control over.

A dimension neglected by the GTD approach is energy: sometimes the next thing on your to do list is just too daunting. (I would love to get to the point where making a simple phone call is not something I have to spend a half-hour gearing up for, but honestly, I’m not there yet.) A very different sort of opportunity-based system would be to work on stuff only when you feel like it—I try not to use this approach for anything important, because a couch potato and someone who runs to relieve stress both run whenever they feel like running.

But for strictly optional things, going with how you’re feeling can be a nice strategy. Somewhere between my childhood—when I went to sleep with the six books I was reading piled at the end of my bed—and finishing college, I had completely lost my love of reading. Dating an English Literature scholar made me want to fix that, so I started trying to pay attention to any small feeling of wanting to read and nurturing that. Eventually, I started to love it again, and now I read more than ever.

On the other hand, in the last few years my desire to knit has dropped off dramatically—as we say in my family, I’ve lost my “knitting mojo”—and the family advice is not to force it, but to wait for the desire to come back on its own. If the winters in Minnesota are as cold I hear they are, I may not have to wait long.

Opportunity-based pros and cons

The main upside of an opportunity or energy-based system is that you don’t spend a lot of attention on deciding what to work on, just on the work itself.

The two major downsides are:

  • By choosing to spend less time deciding which tasks to do, you are losing any distinction between what’s important and what’s unimportant. Instead, all tasks are treated in order with equal weight.
  • Sometimes opportunities don’t manifest themselves as often as they need to. When I was taking a GTD-style to my whole to-do list, I was adding things to the list faster than I was taking then off, and the gap between when I’d put something on the list and when it would get done was growing longer and longer. Eventually I stopped trusting the system.

Goal-based

A goal-based system is one where the focus is on the outcome. Whenever a task comes with a deadline, or you make a to-do list for the day or for the week, or you’re, you know, setting a goal, you’re using a goal-based system. I’m assuming this is a pretty familiar idea, and I’ll concentrate on the upshot of using such an approach.

Goal-based pros and cons

Using a system that takes deadlines into account solves the problem of making sure things get done on time. Furthermore, reaching a goal is satisfying in itself, and the desire for that satisfaction can be a powerful motivator.

The downside: it’s hard to set good goals. The SMART criteria (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound, or variants) can help, but sometimes you don’t know how long something will take or how hard it will be. If it’s a bigger job than you expected, that can be discouraging enough to sabotage your efforts in unrelated areas. On the other hand, if you set goals and they’re too easy, it’s kind of deflating: you might not want to set any more in case they’re harder. And for something you want to do indefinitely, reaching a goal can actually defuse your motivation.

Time-based

If goal-based systems are focused on your output, time-based systems are focused on your input: how much time you put into a certain task. When you say “I’ll spend an hour a day working on my thesis,” or “I’ll start cleaning up for company at four-thirty,” you’re using a time-based system.

Time-based pros and cons

The biggest advantage of using a time-based system is that you never take on more than you can fit into a day. This makes it easier to carve out time for those important-but-not-urgent things like exercise and caring for relationships.

A time-based system also breaks down big jobs that don’t otherwise have suitable milestones: just spend a reasonable amount of time on it on a regular basis and it’ll eventually get done.

And limiting your time commitment can make an uncertain task less daunting. I’m in the process of getting my health insurance set up, and I have no idea how long that will take, so I’m hesitant to put “set up health insurance” as a goal for today, or this week, or whatever. But if I schedule a half-hour to work on it, after which I’ll put it away for now if I’m not done, I’m making progress without accidentally tying up a whole day or getting discouraged by not crossing it off the list.

The downsides: Sometimes things do have to get done by a certain time, and you may not be carving out enough time before the deadline. Or inversely, I am finding that I’ve scheduled the time on paper to get everything done that I need to, but when the time comes, I often don’t have the energy. This suggests that I should cut back on my commitments and focus on those habits that yield benefits in one’s whole life, like diet, exercise, sleep, and de-cluttering.

And for repeated tasks that don’t have an end-date in mind (like, say, writing a blog post every Wednesday), without a goal the habit can just feel like a weighty column pressing down on you from the future. Do I want to keep doing this forever? Probably not. But if someday I’m just going to quit, what’s preventing that from being today? Maybe a better strategy would be to commit for a designated length of time, like a month or a year, and then reevaluate whether to continue.

My current setup

Right now, I’m using a mixture of all three approaches. Every week, I make a goal-list of things I want to have gotten done by the end of the week. Then I schedule in the time I think it will take, along with blocks where I let myself do whatever I feel like from a set of approved activities (reading, knitting, learning music, etc.).

I am having still some problems:

  • As it stands, there’s no place to record new to-dos when they pop up, so right now they’re still floating around in my head or being forgotten. GTD suggests having a trusted place to capture these for peace of mind.
  • I’m often not following through with my decisions for how to spend my time, either because unexpected things come up or because I just don’t have the energy or strength of will.

So this isn’t a finished project.

What are your thoughts? Do you have suggestions, or methods that have worked for you in the past? What are the areas you’re finding most difficult right now?


9 thoughts on “Three ways to do your to-dos

  1. In theory, I collect the to-dos and have certain points in the day/week in which I reshuffle if needed. Though for me your second problem is also a large issue.
    Are you working on paper or digitally?

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    1. The systems I tend to stick with the longest are the ones with the lowest barriers to use, so I do most of my planning on paper and most of my non-technical writing in plain text files that I can access from any device. Some of my to-do lists (groceries to buy, things to get for our apartment, gift ideas) I use a special app for, so that Clara and I can both add to them. And I use Google Calendar for any event that involves other people. But for the past year or so I’ve done all my daily and weekly planning on paper. How about you?

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  2. I really like using a fancy to-do list programme – I use one called `Omnifocus’, but I’m sure there are lots of others. I can create events with various deadlines and priorities, and there are lots of ways of sorting things which I almost never use. The key feature for me is the ability to `defer’ an item, so that it will not appear on my list until a specified day/time. That was I can avoid being intimidated by the huge list of all the things I currently know I need to do in the next few weeks/months, I just know it will remind me at the right time. If I start getting intimidated by the length of the list, then I just go and defer a bunch of things that don’t actually need to be done today, until the list looks manageable again. I might also try to cross a few things off it ;-).

    I also try to avoid adding things to my to-do list unless I am certain that I will definitely do them – for example, if I have an idea for a fun research problem to think about at some point, I try to add it to my `research problems list’ (a text file elsewhere), rather than let it clutter up my to-do list for weeks.

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    1. That “defer” setting sounds great. I used Remember the Milk for a long time (and still use it for shared lists) but there was no way to decouple the due date from the date it pops back up on your radar. Eventually it got clogged with things I felt like I should do at some point—”Learn to change the tires on your car!”—and stopped being useful. It sounds like I could have benefitted from your certainty criterion, too!

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  3. I’m curious what kind of paper planner you have? I kind of do a mix of all of these as well but it has helped me immensely to block off my day in general frames instead of trying to plan hour by hour- especially not knowing what kind of mood Desmond will be in/ what kind of unpredictables parent life will throw at me each day. My planner happens to have a good format for that (I’m kind of nervous to switch planners this year because the one I’ve been using is too pricey for us at the moment) I do write down specific times of meetings or outside commitments, but I stick to top 3-5 to do goals for the day that I write either at the bottom of the day (I have a vertical layout on my planner) or that I assign to “morning” “afternoon” or “night” and it helps me not over schedule too much. I add bonus goals (not important but possibly urgent or the things I feel most motivated to do that week) to the side of my planner as opposed to assigning them specific days. They don’t always get done, but then at the end of the week I decide whether I want to move them to the next week. Once a month I try to look back and see what’s working and what’s not to adjust for the next month. Or if it’s a month like all my summer months were, I look back and am just glad I survived that time! 🙂

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    1. Sounds like you’ve got a system that’s working for you! I like the way you keep your goals and priorities to hand without locking them into a specific plan (since you’re not in complete control of your availabilities). I’m also learning to be gentle with myself when things don’t get done, because I don’t react well to beating myself up about it.

      I use a week-at-a-glance planner (the Passion Planner), which I like because of the vertical layout of the days (it’s what I had been doing by hand for about a year) and the empty spaces for lists or thoughts or whatever. It has an area for “personal” and “work” to-do lists for each week; I subdivide these further into academics, household, friendship, etc., so that I really have to pick just a few tasks per category.

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