Monday, September 27, 2021

P.S. Why your master running task list is so long, and why it doesn't matter

In my last blog, I waxed eloquently about the virtues of the master running task list. I stand by everything I wrote.

But I failed to address one important issue that often causes people to avoid or give up on this method:

"The list will be so long."

So this is a postscript to explain why that is, and why it does not matter.

So first the facts. 

Your master list will be long.  David Allen, of Getting Things Done fame, says his master list typically exceeds 100 items. Today my list has 102.

But here's the thing. Your list will be only as long as all the work you've agreed to do!

Not putting tasks on the master list does not make the tasks go away. Putting them on the list does force you to face the reality of how much you have taken on.  

This leads to another benefit of a master list: If you decide you have taken on too much, you are all set to prune.  (A topic for another day.)

The good news: You'll never need to do everything on the list.

You will be thinking "What? (or something more colorful...) I thought the master list was supposed to include all the tasks that I have committed to do?"

Correct, but with one important "rider:" All the tasks you have committed to do at the time you recorded them."

You are saved from doing them all by reality. Your priorities, day-to-day work requirements, and life situation are constantly changing, and thus your task commitments must necessarily change as well.

Last week you were committed to buying an electric car. You create a list of tasks related to finding a dealer, exploring financing options, followed by the purchasing process. This week, you discover that due to a computer chip shortage it may be years before these cars are available. Because you need a car now, you instead buy a used 2016 Subaru Outback with low mileage. (If this sounds like a true story, it is!)

Last month, you planned to grow a sourdough starter from scratch. Yesterday you discover that a family member does not like sourdough. (Also true...)

In essence, the master list is a database of all the tasks you think you will do, based on current conditions. This means a functional master list requires regular review and updates. Weekly would be ideal.

You use the list as a database from which to select the tasks you will do in real-time, such as this week or today.

Oliver Burkeman, my current favorite time management thinker, describes this interplay this way:

"...Keep two to-do lists, one "open" and one "closed." The open list is for everything that's on your plate and will doubtless be nightmarishly long. Fortunately, it's not your job to tackle it: instead feed tasks for the open list to the closed one - that is, a list with a fixed number of entries, ten at most. The rule is that you can't add a new task [to the closed list] until one's completed... You'll never get through all the tasks on the open list - but you were never going to in any case, and at least this way you'll complete plenty of things you genuinely care about." (Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, p. 256).

If it has just occurred to you that the daily MIT List is such a closed list, you are correct!

So don't pay any attention to the length of your master running task list. Instead, focus on the relief of not having to remember anything and the benefit of having the full list of task options from which to pick the best ones to do now.

Call to Action: (every blog is supposed to have one, but mine often don't....)

Start your master running list!
  • Begin by taking some time to record every task you can think of, as well as any already listed in some other location.
  • As new tasks occur to you:
    •  If you can do them immediately, do that. 
    • If you can't, record the task on your master list.
  • Review the list regularly, examining each item in light of your current situation. Revise or remove items as appropriate.
  • Use the list to select the actual work you will do in the near term - during the week, and each day.

And, discover Oliver Burkeman!!
  • Read his blog posts. If you like them, subscribe to get the new ones delivered to your doorstep... well, email inbox.