Making a list, checking it twice
August 9, 2021 7:54 AM   Subscribe

Hundreds of Ways to Get S#!+ Done—and We Still Don’t : "The question is, why? Not just why it’s so hard to make a to-do app that works, but why people often feel so distraught by their hunt for the perfect organizational system. I’ve written about software for years, and I can tell you that people often have surprisingly deep feelings about their apps. But rarely is a category of software linked to such vistas of despair." By Clive Thompson in Wired.
posted by carolr (42 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
Another problem that the article only touches on is that a lot of tasks on our todo lists are tasks that require a bunch of subtasks. Say, you have "Write the Henderson Report" on your todo list. That's a big thing to do, you know it's a big thing to do, and that's going to scare you into procrastination. But if you break it down into smaller chunks: "Find the information on the Henderson account," "Review the information on the Henderson account and identify key information," "Draft the introduction to the Henderson Report," "Draft the first section of the Henderson Report," etc., it creates more tasks, but they are smaller, more manageable tasks.

Of course, that process of breaking things down, as the article does mention, is a double-edged sword where you can keep breaking things down into smaller and smaller parts, tweak and finagle and reorganize things at the cost of actually doing the work.

The real problem in task management isn't the apps or the methodology, it's the human brain that Does Not Want To Do The Thing. And perhaps we need to reconsider, as a society, just why we have all this shit to do and what purpose it serves.
posted by SansPoint at 8:15 AM on August 9, 2021 [56 favorites]

Good article.
My todo lists expire: I make one every 2 or 3 days, using the date in the title, of things I have to do now. Then I do them. Or not. Important unfinished items might get added to a new list on some other date, but I don't go back to old lists or keep a list active more than a few days.
TLDR: my todo lists are tactical, not strategic.
posted by signal at 8:24 AM on August 9, 2021 [11 favorites]

The article touches on procrastination, but isn't the answer obvious? It's just another form of procrastination, in the same way you might decide you really need to clean and organize your desk before you can get started on a task, and the whole room is pretty messy, and that reminds you that the laundry needs to be done...
posted by star gentle uterus at 8:36 AM on August 9, 2021 [4 favorites]

I think a lot of it is because so much of what comprises a modern work day can not be stuffed into the box of a To-Do app no matter how organized it is. I suspect that "multi-task" culture ie lets hire the least amount of people to do the most amount of job means a whole lot of jobs where shit is just thrown at you over the workday and prevents you from doing The Henderson Report, regardless of whether you've shrewdly broken it up into smaller tasks and put them in a fancy app or not.

If The Henderson Report was the only project going on, or perhaps one of two projects, then sure. But that's never the case - you have the Henderson Report due friday, you have another report due Wednesday, you're also getting one email every few minutes and 1-2 of them are going to be calling out something that's gone wrong and requires immediate attention, 1-2 are going to be urgent questions from a client or exec-level person or something that can't just sit until the next day; on top of this a calendar filled with meetings every other half hour, which you won't pay attention to because you'll be working through them. "Sorry uh I missed that, can you repeat the question?" Don't even talk about the ongoing flood of interruptions that will take place over the course of the day from chat IMs or people calling or popping by your desk with questions.

There was a post here a few weeks ago talking about the concept of "Slack" and how it's needed in an organization to react to things quickly and actually, you know, do your damn job and how there's no Slack anymore for anyone so everyone is just perpetually frazzled and miserable and overwhelmed. Perhaps I'm speaking for myself but I'm sure there are others out there who share this experience. I don't think *any* To-Do List app is going to fix that.
posted by windbox at 8:37 AM on August 9, 2021 [37 favorites]

> The student took undergraduates through a guided meditation exercise in which they envisioned themselves at the end of the term—meeting that future self. “Lo and behold,” Pychyl says, those people “developed more empathy for their future self, and that was related to a decrease in procrastination.”

This is a thing I do sometimes, in a much simpler way: when I do something I really don’t wanna do but know I need to do, sometimes I say “you’re welcome, future me”. And sometimes when I realize I am enjoying the benefits of having done one of those tasks, I say “thanks, past me”.

Seriously it sounds really stupid but it seems to help A LOT to do something dull like “exercise” or “clean the toilet” when I know how grateful Future Me will be for me having done this.
posted by egypturnash at 8:38 AM on August 9, 2021 [55 favorites]

The majority were tasks that users had just, well, remembered.

This is my method. I keep a list in my head, pick something (usually) at random, do it, forget about it. Very rarely, if if I know it's going to be a particularly hectic day or I got a lot of requests the day before, I may write three or four things down on a physical piece of paper, keep that paper until those things are checked off, and then throw away the paper. These checklist items are never more complicated than "upload document" or "email so-and-so."

I despise to-do apps, productivity tools, and any "working to work" BS. The main program I work on recently discovered that we have the Atlassian suite and now I'm forced to spend a significant chunk of my work hours updating Confluence pages and filling out Jira tickets.

My wife uses a to-do app, and all it does is fill her with anxiety. She sets up recurring items for things like house cleaning... which doesn't get done... and now she has thirty identical "clean the house" items on her list. How is that helpful?
posted by backseatpilot at 8:39 AM on August 9, 2021 [4 favorites]

I love-hate using Trello. So much energy is spent on messing around with lists and cards, trying to optimize small things when I should be reading or studying a billion Anki cards. Yes, I am a procrastinator and Trello, like most tools, seems to make my procrastination worse.

Tool-oriented productivity systems always disappoint but I'm not sure what the alternatives are or if they even matter that much. Maybe we're asking too much of our tools and should focus on fundamentals instead, like fixing our procrastination or nuking Anki from orbit.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 8:43 AM on August 9, 2021

when I do something I really don’t wanna do but know I need to do, sometimes I say “you’re welcome, future me”.

Why should I help future me? What have they ever done for me? Exploit my labor today to enjoy the fruits tomorrow? Forget that, the future oppressor can do their own damn work tomorrow, I want to enjoy today. They are a complete stranger to me, one who might never even exist if something happens to me now. Why toil for some future phantom's theoretical benefit?
posted by star gentle uterus at 8:43 AM on August 9, 2021 [41 favorites]

The real problem in task management isn't the apps or the methodology, it's the human brain that Does Not Want To Do The Thing. And perhaps we need to reconsider, as a society, just why we have all this shit to do and what purpose it serves.

Right, what could be more demotivating than an overwhelmingly long list of things that are unpleasant to do and largely pointless? When, as windbox points out, everyone is constantly exhausted and overwhelmed and miserable?

My "organizational system" consists of post-its because my memory is juuuuuust good enough to retain things like "when roughly did i send that email, where do those files live" etc. I actually am pretty good at crossing the stuff off. But every day I write out the list for the next day and the conclusion is just, "my god, this job is stupid." I succeed because I have a very high tolerance for boring, stupid shit.

(Now we're supposedly switching to JIRA so that we have "accountability" for our "tasks" and "subtasks" because apparently nobody except me ever did anything on the last project? So now my life has to get infinitely more annoying because of some Bartleby-lookin' scriveners and their nonsense. Not helping to reduce my perception that this job is stupid.)
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 9:12 AM on August 9, 2021 [8 favorites]

This is a thing I do sometimes, in a much simpler way: when I do something I really don’t wanna do but know I need to do, sometimes I say “you’re welcome, future me”. And sometimes when I realize I am enjoying the benefits of having done one of those tasks, I say “thanks, past me”.

I do this a fair amount, but mostly for cleaning. Apparently future work-praemunire is a ruthless, gratitude-free shark.
posted by praemunire at 9:14 AM on August 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

So now my life has to get infinitely more annoying because of some Bartleby-lookin' scriveners and their nonsense.

"I prefer not to use JIRA."
posted by warriorqueen at 9:16 AM on August 9, 2021 [16 favorites]

The only thing Jira and Trello are good for are making sure you can see who is responsible for other tasks. It's to hold other people accountable.

Or if you want to be really optimistic about it, it can be used to hold yourself accountable by ensuring everyone can see the tasks for which you are on the hook.
posted by nushustu at 9:47 AM on August 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

> And perhaps we need to reconsider, as a society, just why we have all this shit to do and what purpose it serves.

Yesterday I met up with a friend I hadn't seen since last year. Pretty much all he talked about was his (software coding) job; how he had to constantly answer emails and phone calls throughout his weeklong vacation, how stressed out and exhausted he is all the time, how he has dreams about working almost every time he falls asleep, the already long hours made worse by the pandemic and working from sounded awful, and the whole time I was thinking "All this crap, and for what? Some software or app or whatever." He gets paid well, relatively speaking, but it sounded like his job is ruining his life.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:54 AM on August 9, 2021 [6 favorites]

I was surprised to get through the article and see no reference to Mefi's Own™ Oliver Burkeman. I think his latest book (Four Thousand Weeks, out soon) is on precisely this topic.
posted by peacheater at 10:17 AM on August 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

The only kind of to-do list I've ever actually wound up using more than once is my own dead-simple checklist system.

Here's a blank. It's two pages for double-sided printing.

Each page has two columns, within which each row consists of a label box and ten blank checkboxes. When I'm making a list of things - like a packing list or a shopping list or a task list - I write an item name in a label box and put a Need It / mark in that row's leftmost unused checkbox. As I pack a thing or buy a thing or do a thing, I add a Got It \ mark over its Need It mark to make an X in the checkbox.

Next time I need to use the list, most of the labelling will already have been done and all I need to do is add Need It marks, which is super quick.

It's those Need It marks that make this work for me, because they allow me to re-use the same printed sheets for related but not identical tasks simply by not adding Need It marks for things that don't apply this time around. Also, walking through the labels serves to stop me forgetting things that could potentially want Need It marks.

Eyeballing such a checklist for uncompleted Need It marks on the right-hand end of the checkbox rows is surprisingly reliable and easy, even if many of the rows have been used many times and are crawling with completed X marks from previous uses.

Once any row fills up with X marks I edit a new version, transcribing my handwritten labels and rationalizing their ordering a bit, before saving it and printing a fresh copy.

I like this simple paper and pencil system in large part because using it does not require me to interact with a fucking touch screen. Oh how I loathe and despise touch screens.
posted by flabdablet at 10:18 AM on August 9, 2021 [6 favorites]

i just plain love the conclusion, "the black-metal nature of task management". the bit about generating compassion about future-you seems useful and practical, too. I'd like to see an article from that perspective that then ties in planning systems that attempt to apply those sorts of principles.

(on preview, in the next bit, i sound just as arrogant as anyone who thinks their approach is *the way*. leaving it to generate some humility for myself)

ancient franklin planner training wisdom, valid for paper and apps, and whiteboards, and post-its: there are only three priorities.
a, important
b, pretty important
c, not really important

anything that's rescheduled 3x slips out of priority into: waste of time right now. it can come back later. you decided not to do it or didn't do it(reschedule).

where paper and electronic systems fail is 'why do those particular things not get done?' 10 answers for every human on the planet, all the psychological root-of-procrastination problems that planning systems can't solve. basically tfa's closing paragraphs.

where systems themselves fall down is too many options - many priority levels and too many status categories. I've seen eight status columns in trello. ugh. 1-10 priorities? ugh.

don't put shit on your todo app until you need it. one week out max. to borrow from dev, ron jeffries' famous principle of yagni: you ain't gonna need it.
"Always implement things when you actually need them, never when you just foresee that you need them."
Even if you're totally, totally, totally sure that you'll need a feature later on, don't implement it now. Usually, it'll turn out either a) you don't need it after all, or b) what you actually need is quite different from what you foresaw needing earlier.
so, ABC, 3xreschedules, YAGNI, KISS...thanks for coming to my ted talk.
posted by j_curiouser at 10:54 AM on August 9, 2021

In my current role I end up having to keep track of loads of "to do's". These are almost always documented and tracked in our in-house ticketing system, but pulling those out of the ticketing system and into a comprehensive view is a daily task that often ends up being more energy than it's worth.

Ultimately I I have found, much like others described here, that the best list is the disposable list that I can immediatley grab whenever I need to check something on it. But! My working/short-term memory is pretty terrible so I do have to have that list in an actual place other than my head.

After trying lots of different dedicated apps with varying degrees of failure, I finally figured out that the only thing I really truly need is a way to very quickly pull up the same text file so I can manage my notes in plain text with a very simple format, where I put two square brackets on the left side of a short sentence about the thing.

There are 2 possible states, DONE or NOT DONE. A thing can only be considered DONE when it actually says "DONE" inside the square brackets. Any other value inside the square brackets indicates some form of still being NOT DONE, and the value becomes a free-form shorthand reminder of why it's not done yet. Examples:

- [] this is an NOT DONE item (because there's nothing inside the square brackets)
- [DONE] this is a DONE item (because it says "DONE" inside the square brackets)
- [WTF?] this is an NOT DONE item that I have no idea what I need to do next (I usually put a question mark on the end to remind me that I need to dig deeper)
- [LATER] this is an NOT DONE item I'm not going to deal with today, but I want to remember it for later
- [WALLIS!] this an NOT DONE item because I'm waiting on somebody else (in this case it's my coworker)

By agreeing with myself that the only way a thing can be closed is when it actually says "DONE" inside the brackets, I gave myself permission (and freedom) to use whatever values I want when I need to keep a thing open for the next day. And because it's all in plain text, I don't have to fuss around with categories or cards or whatever. It gives my ADHD brain the leeway to type whatever I want to in that box instead of spending precious minutes trying to figure out what category it's supposed to fit in. When there are only 2 real categories - DONE or NOT DONE, any other value beyond those simply becomes markup. It's the only process I have been able to stick to in all my years of trying different methods.

This system works well with any text editor, but I use a free windows app called FlashNote (developer's website) expressly for this purpose. I like FlashNote because it's extremely basic, can be configured to float on top of all windows, and is easy to set up a hotkey to call it up at any time so I can add or update a to-do (I use [ALT] + "s" to call the app, and [ESC] to minimize it to my task tray). The application let's you manage your notes with folders and subfolders if you want, which I sometimes do for little snippets of text I want to re-use, but the main thing I use it for is maintaining my single daily file of to-dos.
posted by Doleful Creature at 11:07 AM on August 9, 2021 [12 favorites]

I use a to do list not because I'm trying to "hack" my productivity or whatever, but because my brain is swiss cheese (even more so during the pandemic) and if I don't write things down they will fade into nonexistence in my brain with a worrying quickness. It's also why I am a compulsive note taker.

I have definitely fallen victim to the "the right tool will save me" mentality, though. However, I've realized as I mature in my career that the problem I am trying to solve is the one I don't have the authority to solve: my time is over-accounted for in terms of the many needs at my organization that I and my team are expected to fill. (I run the marketing team in an org with a broad scope of programs, products, and services.) There are large chunks of my own time that I don't really have control over, and between the constant new and ongoing projects I am expected to manage, not writing anything down would be a true recipe for disaster. A to do list is a natural function of that.

Lately I have settled on what this article ends with: a weekly to-do list on paper, in a notebook and with a pen I enjoy using, that gets re-written every Monday (ish). I used to color-code the items by department/project but that became too visually cluttered and didn't help with perception and selection. The author is right that at some point after you've transferred the same to do item for several weeks in a row you start to question if it's really that important after all. What the written paper to do list doesn't always do well is ensuring the items on it are manageable tasks. It's often the case that the big, not time-bound, or poorly defined tasks are the ones that tend to hang around too long, but that's because the very act of breaking them down takes time I don't have and/or is the easiest for my likely-but-undiagnosed ADHD brain to procrastinate. I will OFTEN procrastinate on the big projects by tackling as many of the small things on my list as possible. Could be worse (could be writing metafilter comments...) but doesn't make for the most strategic approach to my work if the criteria for "does this get done" is "can I knock this out in five minutes with as little thinking as possible required".
posted by misskaz at 11:26 AM on August 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

I really don't think I would want an app for a to-do list. I don't even like the word 'app'.
I do need to write things down or I will not remember them, but I have tens of thousands of punch cards lying around asking to be used.
posted by MtDewd at 11:32 AM on August 9, 2021

I have a pretty simple system, though in the last few months with a new job I've lapsed and am having to restart. Field Notes sold some to-do books with "screw heads" next to list items. Empty means not touched, half-filled-in means "I did whatever I had to do to hand it off to someone else, but I'm still responsible for further steps" (e.g., I sent the draft to a colleague for comments, I sent an email about the outstanding information I need to proceed on something else), filled-in means done. I leave an extra line below in case I need to add a follow-up task or note. Every time I finish a page (there's only room for ~8 items on a page), I draw a diagonal line across it. If an item starts to look pretty lonesome three pages back surrounded by completed items, I recopy it. Sometimes I try to recopy weekly, but...that doesn't always work.

This is just to keep track of discrete tasks at a fairly granular level in multiple projects that don't necessarily have to be done in a particular order. That fits my much of my workflow (and my necessary resistance to elaborate organization that might be fun to set up but I won't maintain), but obviously won't work for many.
posted by praemunire at 11:41 AM on August 9, 2021

"The question is, why? Not just why it’s so hard to make a to-do app that works, but why people often feel so distraught by their hunt for the perfect organizational system.

Honestly, I think the major fail here is the assumption that nothing can possibly be accomplished without an app.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:52 AM on August 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

fwiw I felt this way until I started using trello. I think most todo apps just suck, because each person's situation is a bit unique. A company using JIRA to track tickets is not solving the same problem as a college student trying to study or a parent keeping track of childcare.

What made trello different for me was:
1. Any number of categories per board, which let me design my own system with support for things like blocked tasks, things I want to remember vs things I want to complete and forget about, etc.
2. Fewer button clicks and new windows/menus per action. Things like being able to delete by right-clicking are extremely underrated compared to having to open the task then click a delete button.
3. Adding a checklist to an item without subitems taking over the task view

My life got much better when I found a todo list app that worked for me, so I think it's really worth being picky and unsatisfied until you do.
posted by hermanubis at 12:40 PM on August 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

I just realized that I've been using a form of time-blocking in my to-do lists for years and never had a name for it.

Starting from the time I wake up to the time I (think) I'll be going to be I use one sheet of paper and outline my day like this:

8:00am - Wake up, brush teeth, shower, get dressed (I know this will take about 30 min total)
8:30am - Grab breakfast, log in to work (This will take about 20 minutes)
8:50am - Catch up on emails while eating
9:00am - Working! (Work stuff get's it's own sub-section of tasks on the to do list)
Noon - Lunch
1pm - Working! (Cat gets treats at 4pm)
5:00pm - Log-off, start dinner
5:50pm - Set out dinner, light clean up
6:00pm - Dinner with family
6:30pm - Clean up after dinner
6:45pm - Set 15 min timer, tidy up the house
7:00pm - Scoop cat litter, start a load of laundry (tasks vary depending on the day)
7:15pm - Duolingo
7:30pm - Catch up on Episode of X show
8:00pm - Play with cat, give her insulin shot
8:20pm - Put the laundry in the dryer
8:25pm - Household chores (anything from balancing the checkbook to coming up with next week's menus)
8:50pm - Play some video games
10:50pm - Put away the laundry!
11:00pm - Get ready for bed. Maybe read a couple chapters in a book.
11:30pm - Bedtime

So now you all know about how my daily life ran before Kid Objects was born!
Having a small child means that just trying to keep THEM on an even keel and a firm schedule of meals and bedtimes is basically all I have brain-space for after work anymore.

I loved my time-blocking system. I miss it. I actually got almost everything on my lists done, and it was pretty much impossible to overload the list, because the timeline was a visual reminder that there really wasn't anywhere to shoehorn in even one more task. All you needed was a good idea of how long it would take for you to finish up a routine task, chore, or errand. Now I just have a list of all the daily things that need to get done, and a huge list of things I'd like to get done stewing about the back of my mind, waiting for the day my kid can entertain herself for more than 30 min at a time.
posted by sharp pointy objects at 12:42 PM on August 9, 2021 [4 favorites]

don't put shit on your todo app until you need it. one week out max.

Hah. I just last week decided to use my todo app only for things more than a week out. The computer’s advantage over paper is reminding me then so I can quit thinking about it now.

Ordering seeds and bulbs, for instance, which is best done exactly when that plant is least visible (the propagation nurseries have just harvested or lifted propagules and I should order them now to be sent later, at planting-time.)
posted by clew at 1:02 PM on August 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

Let's face it, nobody really wants to do this stuff, especially if it sucks or it's hard or multi-stepped like the Henderson report.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:48 PM on August 9, 2021

In most cases my use of To-Do apps / systems has been motivated by, “I need a place to store things that need to get done but which I will lose memory of or attention for because some other person who does NOT use an “app” but who uses ME and other humans as outsourced task-completion bots will suddenly dump on me some task I will work on only so I can get it the fuck out of the way ASAP and return my attention to the To-Do app which feeds the lies I tell myself of how I’ll accomplish any one thing I’ve told myself I WILL.”

So really the striving up the corporate ladder is driven by the desire to no longer have to use any app/system for To-Do tracking. “I have people for that.”

Coworker once said: “My email inbox is a to-do list built for me by other people.”
posted by armoir from antproof case at 5:20 PM on August 9, 2021 [8 favorites]

My life is messy in all the ways that aren't ultimately important right now so this is all grain-of-salt, but I have found that I require a buncha different systems depending on how well my brain's cooperating that day. I place them here in the hopes that something will be useful to someone. I'm a non-parent with some pretty wild, medicated inattentive ADHD. (I say the parent thing to make clear that I have no idea what y'all are dealing with, but you're all champions.) Also, hormones mess me right up monthly, so I'll have a couple good weeks and a couple of weeks where my focus wanes like the very moon.

- When it's, like, pandemic and I can't think straight even a little anymore, I tell myself I'm gonna do one thing for that day. Sometimes I do that one thing. Sometimes that one thing is so odious I do other things so I don't have to do that thing. If it's a good day, it'll be three whole things.

- In general, I have to write things down on whatever size piece of paper my brain needs that day. It has taken a long time for me to understand that I don't take pixels as seriously as I take ink. Pixels are annoying and pokey. Ink is lovely.

- Sometimes if something seems so impenetrable I could never do it, I'll finally consult my emotions about what's going on there. Usually there's a lot going on there. Please see later references to the Wall of Awful.

For home tasks:
- If things are a huge mess, it's time for eighteens, when you clean or toss or recycle or put away eighteen things and great job, you did it! Eighteen is an arbitrary lucky number.

- I got a visual timer that just shows a colored block of time that slowly goes away. It vehemently does not tick. I set the end beep to loud and I set it to a weird time interval and then I launch myself at whatever in my environment is most annoying. When the beep says I'm done, I'm done. This is mostly to prevent the paralyzing mindshittery of perfectionism.

- I consider staging things a completely separate step. I'll stage a sink full of dishes so they're ready to get washed and put into the rack in the right order and that is a whole step and I get full credit for that step. I used to think this was embarrassing, but nah, it's just how my brain needs to do stuff. Putting dishes away is another step and small win.

- Similarly, lots of things you need to do are secretly four steps: get your equipment together, do the thing, clean everything up, put everything away.

For computery work tasks:
- If something is so complicated with just all of the steps, I spend a little bit thinking of who I'm doing the thing for. My colleague needs these horrible spreadsheets because he is gonna do excellent things with the information I suss out for him. He is a good human and I like him and I like his ideas and his mission and I want to help him.

- I keep my change jar on my desk and when something is just gonna take forever, I put a little stack of pennies near my computer like I'm claiming the next round at the arcade. When I do fifteen minutes of work (based on the visual timer, natch), I drop a penny in a smaller dorky little jar that pings. It makes a little sound and it is a little cog of work and I did it. Even if the fifteen minutes was just trying to get the stupid printer to network, I did it. This is also useful later on for billing hours and feeling proud of putting in the time.

- I think for me, computer tasks are the most likely ones to enter the zone of the Wall of Awful, and now I'll link to Jessica at How to ADHD on this front: "Why is it Hard to Do Something Easy?" I grew up around computers and to fail at any of those is just an exhausting emotional boring barrel. This means that dealing with the boring barrel is the same step as staging the dishes. I'm feeling the bodily feelings of the whole "ugh," and maybe have to wander off and sing a song or something for a minute. It is a step. It counts.

For physical work tasks:
I work as a handyman and painter. If I'm working under a boss on a fancy gig, I'm assigned jobs and I care about the boss and everything takes the time it takes. I'm sometimes in charge of a crew, in which case ADHD takes over and I'm good at planning and scheduling and diplomacy. I care about the whole crew.

- When I'm the boss of a bunch of people, my gears kick in and I get right back onto checklists. I think there might be some weird macho thing in every gender's brain about checklists, but they are the greatest best most healthiest things. I got you this book about it: The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande. flabdablet had a good argument for checklists which seems rad and it reminded me of it. I have checklists of things to bring to a wallpaper gig and checklists of safety checks for a crew. They are nerdy and they are fabulous and they should be laminated often and relaminated at a hat's drop when things change.

For any tasks: When things are piling up and overwhelming, I find value in listing tiny steps on those itty flag post-it notes and then crumpling them afterward and putting them in a jar. It is a jar full of wins. It is colorful visual wins. Sometimes the steps change and you move the small sticky notes around. Sometimes you have to add some steps and then you put more ink on more small paper. Either way, the jar gets more crumple bits.

On a meta level, for me there is great value in splitting myself up into two characters: The Thinker and The Doer. During pandemic and all the attendant stress, the Thinker doesn't show up as much, which is just a thing and is okay. In capitalist terms, the Thinker is the one that has to plan all the things, and the Doer is the CEO that follows the schedule made for him. This has been a joke about how capitalism is trash. Anyway, it's been useful in my experience to put pennies in the jar when I'm being the Thinker and then the Doer pennies come easier. The tasks that I find the hardest are the ones where Thinker and Doer have to alternate quickly, and they're usually things that are new. For me, a to-do list is something that should happen when the Doer gets swamped in feelings and the Thinker can step back and figure out what emotions or toxic thoughts are blocking the way.

It makes sense also to put "deal with feelings" on the list before you maybe stage something. Pacing or running around or stretching or eating or drinking water or a nap may be required in this step.

I'm not sure what I was trying to say with this comment. It's okay to have problems with executive function. It's okay to learn about what that means and to find ways to deal with it that work with your brain. It took me a couple of years of therapy to figure out that if I tried to make someone else's system work and it didn't, that didn't mean it was my fault. It's just not working with how you work. You probably work fine. You're putting something in jars and then putting them into recycling or into their normal jars again.

I am so good at getting things done. /s But I did for actual regrout my bathroom today, so that seems all right. Also, whenever my awesome mom made a list, she always put "Make a list" at the top so she could check it off once the list was done. This seems pro level.
posted by lauranesson at 8:20 PM on August 9, 2021 [18 favorites]

i have a paper calendar, i find it easier to look thru a week and a month that way, and a tactile way. I have a cheap steno pad where all the ideas go, and everything is planned.

My day is pre pandemic, email/phonecalls/writing/meetings/social. Social got cut post pandemic. Monday is admin day, and the day i see my therapist. I try to figure out how many words i need to get done in any given time, and try not to work past those days.

The todo task gets written on the steno, crossed over, and ever day, i rewrite it with new tasks on a new page, which usually works.
posted by PinkMoose at 10:27 PM on August 9, 2021

I am sort of perturbed by all the people sharing their personal productivity methods in the comments, when the original article is about how personal productivity methods allow us to avoid the kind of uncomfortable introspection that is probably going to be more worthwhile.

Edit: for instance, after I posted this comment, I reflected on the past 2 hours of frankly not very worthwhile activity in my life, and instead I shall make dinner.
posted by Merus at 2:44 AM on August 10, 2021 [6 favorites]

Just to call it out front and center, no app or bit of software is going to help if you have undiagnosed and unmedicated ADHD. I used to buy all the "stop procrastinating" books and every so often tried the latest organise stuff app as well, but it just ain't going to work if you have a lack of executive function in that regard. Adult ADHD is horrendously under-diagnosed and I really wish it was mentioned in those self help books as a possibility.
posted by invisible_al at 5:51 AM on August 10, 2021 [6 favorites]

invisible_al: And as someone with medicated ADHD, medication alone isn't going to fix things, especially if you're an adult who developed a bunch of ADHD coping strategies of varying degrees of effectiveness before you got medicated.
posted by SansPoint at 7:32 AM on August 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

I am sort of perturbed by all the people sharing their personal productivity methods in the comments, when the original article is about how personal productivity methods allow us to avoid the kind of uncomfortable introspection that is probably going to be more worthwhile.

It's sort of like listening to someone describe a dream they had. Actually, given the aspirational nature of this stuff, it's exactly like listening to someone describe a dream they had, only without the lunch-chatter-killing mention of the coworker they had sex with in the dream.
posted by mph at 7:50 AM on August 10, 2021 [3 favorites]

Apps are a waste of time. I use reporter notebooks, write down my list of stuff to do , do that stuff, cross off the list. The physical act of writing on paper reinforces my memory. Science
posted by Ideefixe at 8:10 AM on August 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

We moved apartments a couple of years ago, after 18 years in the same place. Filing and organization of paper items is my personal nemesis, so preparing to move involved sifting through years' worth of unorganized paper piles. One thing I found a ton of was old to do lists, going back years. These were not lists that had been meticulously completed and checked off... these were lists I had made that got misplaced, buried under other piles of paper and crap, and never seen again until now. Or written in one of the 40-some mini legal pads I found, which never panned out as a to do system because I had 40-SOME IDENTICAL MINI LEGAL PADS living in the middle of various piles of crap and I never could find the one with the list I needed at the time I needed it.

However, there was one really interesting thing I noticed as I sorted through all this bullshit. Even though I rarely crossed an item off of one of these lists, every single item either got done anyway, or became irrelevant at some point. I eventually made all the doctor appointments and took the box of shit to Goodwill and called my dad and did the budget and bought the tickets and washed the dishes, at some point. There was not a single thing on any of those long-lost, long-forgotten lists where I saw it and went "OH FUCK I FORGOT TO..." and it was presently a big deal.

I found that rather comforting, to be honest.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 8:48 AM on August 10, 2021 [7 favorites]

I used to feel really guilty about all my abandoned "systems," then several years ago I had a useful conversation:

The VP of my group had just quit, and the CEO decided to name an interim "three-in-a-box" leadership team. I was sort of the low-ranking member: It included our chief architect, a senior director with a lot more experience than me, and me. So naturally my impostor syndrome was triggered and I went off and had a therapy session with our group's HR business partner during which we discussed, among other things, the fact that I had three productivity "systems," all in disrepair and so was simply not a fit member of the interim leadership team and was barely fit at managing my own scattered self so could we just not do this -- maybe two is all the box needed in it.

"And somehow," he said, "you always pick the thing that most deserves attention and effort and ignore the things that aren't really worth your time -- that's what everyone sees."

Since then, I've circled around a few "systems" and apps and none of them have ever stuck, but I've cared less. It's sort of interesting from a "play with tools" PoV, but it rolls off my back when I realize I stopped being, like, "an Omnifocus person" three weeks ago, or I get a prompt to renew my Todoist subscription and I forgot I even had one. Because I like Emacs, I use org-mode because it is really just a way to keep notes that I can then sometimes go back and prioritize, less because I will then constantly consult it and check things off and move things around or depend on it to put things in my calendar or send me reminders, and more because it is useful and focusing to think through what's most important every now and then, and to allow things to fall off, same way when I'm leading a team I might ask why that ticket is still there and what would happen if we CLOSED/WON'T FIXed it. Sometimes, if the pile of old work is high, I have someone tap a spoon against a water glass each time we CLOSED/WON'T FIX something to make it an occasion. It's good to remember the levity when you get that one person who believes you can't legally CLOSED/WON'T FIX their ticket without a treatise on your reasoning delivered with a lot of bowing and scraping.

I've got a moderate ADHD diagnosis, by the way, but a pretty good memory. I think my memory lets me get away with not being fully immersed in a comprehensive, deep "single source of truth" system like GTD in its assorted analog and digital implementations. And it's not natural for me to embrace things like my HRBP's observation, but I really am okay at remembering what's most important with little prompting. The periodic "prioritization exercise" is more about making a safe space for myself to do that kind of thinking.

All that said, I'm starting a new role next Monday and I am really looking forward to mass-archiving all my notes and starting a clean branch in my org-mode repository.
posted by mph at 12:16 PM on August 10, 2021 [3 favorites]

This is a thing I do sometimes, in a much simpler way: when I do something I really don’t wanna do but know I need to do, sometimes I say “you’re welcome, future me”. And sometimes when I realize I am enjoying the benefits of having done one of those tasks, I say “thanks, past me”.

I had to take the tumble drier down from on top of the washing machine so the gas engineer could have the access do his safety inspection of the boiler in its little cupboard. (Yay, cramped flat). Having it on the floor in the kitchen blocks access to the dishwasher and means I can't do laundry either. I've been procrastinating over putting it back up for uh, lets say 2 days, because that bastard is really bloody heavy and I'm always afraid I'm going to put my back out, despite lifting with my legs etc. So it really, really needed doing, but I've been putting it off.

I've literally just gone and done it as a result of your comment; 30 seconds of mostly swearing, and done. "You're welcome, future me." It's midnight, so I'm now going to bed, but we'll see if future me is grateful enough in the morning to pay it forward with the stuff I just enabled them to do without having to lift the drier first, or just find something else to procrastinate over, the lazy sod.

More subtly, there was a big disjoint between the tasks people planned to do—i.e., wrote down on lists—and the tasks they actually did. Chen and Guzman found that when people reported their day’s accomplishments (the initial point of IDoneThis, you’ll recall), barely any of them had even appeared on a to-do list. The majority were tasks that users had just, well, remembered. Or maybe it was something that just popped into their head, or something a colleague had emailed them about.

I absolutely resemble this comment, BTW. After many, many experiments with to-do lists, my current system is a very short list of stuff that absolutely HAS to be done in the next few days, or if I need to break a specific complex task down into substeps just so I understand it. Everything else; if I remember it, great. If someone else reminds me when I forgot, it also gets done. If I put it on a tasklist, it literally makes zero difference to the above outcome. So now, I don't bother.
posted by Absolutely No You-Know-What at 4:09 PM on August 10, 2021

Basically, complex tasklists are pretty much where things that aren't important enough to actually do go to die a lingering death. For me, anyway.
posted by Absolutely No You-Know-What at 4:23 PM on August 10, 2021

Earlier this year I wrote a 7,700 word treatise on productivity for my blog. But the brutal reality for me is that no matter how organized I get -- and I am very organized -- absolutely no amount of slogans, time management tips, or organization hacks is ever going to compensate for my chronic fatigue issues. In my blog post I say I usually have four good hours a day, but for the past several months, I've generally had just two good hours a day, and I'm not even able to exercise at all.

All this talk of making to do lists, even my own, has come to have a "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic" feel for me. This ship is going down.
posted by orange swan at 6:41 PM on August 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'll mark this as a favorite as if I am going to read it later and do something about it. It will fit right in with the others I've similarly marked.
posted by swlabr at 1:20 PM on August 11, 2021 [7 favorites]

It seems my long comment pushed some people into a kind of cruel passive-aggression toward those of us who were genuinely trying to be helpful. I'm sorry to the people who were annoyed and I'm sorry for eliciting those annoyed comments to the people who were trying to share things that work for them. If it didn't come across before, my particular brain is nonsense for US society as it is presently, but I still hope to help solve big problems and make little cool stuff. I probably will continue to describe my dreams in this regard.
posted by lauranesson at 7:41 PM on August 12, 2021

Also, you did hurt my feelings some.
posted by lauranesson at 7:43 PM on August 12, 2021

lauranesson, I thought your contribution was lovely. I don't have AD(H)D and am made more sure about that whenever I read about someone's account of having it. But, I find it educational and helpful to learn how others think and what strategies they've developed to cope, some of which still resonate with me. I get a version of the Wall of Awful sometimes, but I call it the Shame Spiral. At work, it goes like:

1) I should ask so-and-so for help with Thing because I don't know where to start and I'm so behind.
2) If I ask, they'll know I [haven't started | don't know this thing everyone is supposed to know | am stupid].
3) Better try to figure it out myself. Maybe inspiration will strike later?
4) Procrastinate, surf the internet for a while, noodle around.
5) GOTO step (1).

I also think your insight about things actually containing more steps, like the set up and clean up, is bang on. My main issue with todo lists and productivity is outsize expectations for myself. Things take much longer than I expect them to, or my energy runs out before my ambitions do. Days go by quickly. Of course I also assume future me will be smarter, faster, stronger, more disciplined, etc. It ties into the mortality thing touched on at the end of the article: I don't want to accept that I may not ever get to it.

Right now I'm between jobs by choice, which is the biggest relief in the world, and clearing out every piece of obligation from my work laptop and work todo lists felt amazing. On the personal side, though, I have many virtual todo lists around, and they're not just the fancy apps. My inbox functions as a todo list of sorts, and I've sworn many times that THIS TIME I will hit that magical Inbox Zero before giving up somewhere in the double digits (I hover in the high triple digits right now). I have dozens of tabs open that I mean to read eventually. I have hundreds of bookmarks from when I closed a bunch of tabs that I still want to read eventually, years of them. I have a Google Tasks list with big hard life things like "make a will" and also lists of movies and TV shows I want to watch. Eventually. My Goodreads to-read list grows faster than I can read (and I read a lot), and it's been doing that for years. (Actually, that one I really do want to clear up a bit, but I might be tilting at windmills there the same way I do with my inbox.)

I'm no longer under the impression, though, that just finding the right system will make everything magically work and turn me into a Productivity Goddess. I accumulate little messes around the edges and have for my whole life, but I can do a better job deciding what really matters and saying goodbye to things that aren't worth my time. It's really hard, because all of that gets into aspirational self stuff, but that's the only way I can actually make visible the things that matter. I'm never going to have an empty todo list (and I don't even know what I would do with an empty to-read list!) but this article and discussion have inspired me to delete some many-years-old tasks, links, bookmarks, etc. that have been weighing me down. So it's something!
posted by j.r at 7:40 PM on August 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

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