The Failings of Todo Lists

When I was writing the March things post, it occurred that there is an emotional component to todo lists that can be discouraging.

When I am writing a todo list, I often put something like “write todo list” on the list, so that when I have finished making the list I have something I can cross off immediately. This seems healthy to me, a way to get a quick win and boost your confidence about accomplishing the rest of the tasks.

Those kinds of daily todo lists are also healthy in that you can see the whole thing at once, usually. A daily todo for me will be a single small sheet of paper, not usually as small as a Post-It but maybe a 3″x5″ index card, or a quarter sheet of Letter or A4 paper.

But the weakness with the task lists I use in my writing is that they are either too big to apprehend in one go (eg revision plans) or they are too verbose to fit into the window I have for them on screen. That means that I cannot get a clear visual sense of what the state of the tasks is, which means I have no immediate feedback when I do make progress.

An added complication with Three Things as a methodology is that the Things themselves above the daily level tend to be fairly coarse: they will include discovery, design, implementation and verification of something, for example. If I were putting them through an Agile methodology I would break them down into smaller, more bounded tasks with definite completion criteria.

In my day job task lists, I have tried to to mitigate this by listing my sprint tasks (which are bounded and measurable) in a window which fits them. They are always visible, and they can be marked complete easily so I can see my progress.

I need to find a way to do that with my writing tasks too.

Leave a Reply