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moving some bits of information from one bucket to another. I may have eliminated 250 e-mails from my inbox, but now I have another 15 items on my to-do list, on top of the dozens of items left over from the previous day.
The very length of the list becomes a deterrent to completing any of the tasks on it. My impulse is to throw up my hands, ignore the whole list, and go do my actual work (which, in my case, is writing).
Which brings me to the core of my gripe about the cult of the to-do list. For the most part, the items that pile up on our lists are not actual work. They are distractions from work. Real work is the thing your boss hired you to do—or, if you’re self-employed or entrepreneurial, the thing you hired yourself to do. It’s your core personal project, whether that’s designing new things, or helping other people, or bringing your creative powers to bear on a hard problem that needs solving.
Maybe this sounds backward, but the way I see it, the to-do list can all too easily become a counterproductivity tool. Things would be okay if each of us only had two or three items on our lists each day. Then a to-do list would be a helpful little reminder.
The problem is that nobody’s list is that short. Thanks to our constant connectivity, there’s a never-ending flow of incoming assignments and requests from the other people in our lives. Each one is so small in itself that it would seem uncooperative to say no. But by the end of the day, the list of small things is so big that there’s no time left for our core projects.
The crisis is compounded by the seductive nature of the to-do list, considered as a piece of technology. There are some really gorgeous and elegant to-do apps out there (see the list on the previous page), and I am just as impressed by them as the next geek. (Currently I use Apple’s built-in Reminders app, because the to-do items I put there instantly show up on all my Apple devices.)
But I worry that all of the design innovations that go into these apps—all of the clever tricks that reward “engagement” and keep users coming back day after day—threaten to make the to-do list into an end in itself. Put another way: a sophisticated to-do app can make you feel like you’re being productive when, in fact, you’re just crossing items off a list of stuff that wasn’t important in the first place.
What’s the solution? I’m not suggesting that you throw away your smartphone or delete your to-do apps. We need them, if only as crutches. But even the best app or system can’t tell you, in the moment, what you should be doing. In the end, I think you’ll usually just know. It will either be that annoying thing that has to get done or your boss or your spouse will kill you, or it will be digging in on that bigger task that actually means something to you—the one that doesn’t feel like work because it’s your core project.
Here’s something telling. When David Allen finally gets to the question, in Chapter 9 of Getting Things Done, of how to decide what to do in any given moment, his answer has nothing to do with lists or systems. It’s this: “Trust your heart. Or your spirit. Or, if you’re allergic to those kinds of words, try these: your gut, the seat of your pants, your intuition.”
Obviously, your intuition will be more accurate if you’ve spent some time thinking about your plans and priorities. But there’s more than one way to cultivate a “mind like water,” and one of them is to spend less time grooming your task lists and more time immersed in whatever it is that you love doing.
One thing is for sure: that item sitting at the top of your to-do app is almost certainly not the most important thing you could be doing right now.
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