I’m the master procrastinator. I only pride myself on this to cover up the frustration I have with myself. I have more on my plate and to-do list then I could ever accomplish and I find myself not only failing to finish things, but not even starting them in the first place. I have lists for everything but I rarely cross anything off these lists.
You, my friend, are suffering from an age-old problem. The truth is, we’ve all felt this way. We have lots of items on a list, and when we finally get some time to “get things done,” we pull up the list and feel so overwhelmed we do almost none of it. For most people, the main thing they experience as a result of their to-do list is fatigue. Let me give you some ideas of how to remedy this at work and at home.
Plan to Procrastinate
Due to the sheer number of tasks that are likely on your list, there are some items I’m going to encourage you to procrastinate. Yes, that’s right. But I won’t call it procrastination—I’ll call it incubating. Procrastination is not doing something and then feeling bad about it. Incubation, on the other hand, is not doing something and feeling good about it.
There are a lot of items on your list you may want to accomplish at some point but you aren’t committed to any immediate actions or timelines. You should put these items on a separate list. In Getting Things Done®, we call this a “Someday/Maybe” list. You can call it whatever you want. But if you are going to decide not to decide about some items, you need to have a “decide not to decide” list or folder where these things reside. I would look at them about once a month to see if you are in a place to take action or have the mental capacity to take them on. If you aren’t or don’t, then your mind can let them go without you losing track of them. Saying “no” for now, doesn’t mean saying “no” forever.
Just because you have to-do lists, doesn’t mean you won’t procrastinate—as your question suggests. In my experience, the reason most people’s to-do lists are ineffective is because they are unclear. Therefore, it’s time to rethink your to-do list. In my last article, I shared some counterintuitive, but very efficient, ways to organize lots of actions. Let me explain.
If you look at most people’s to-do lists, they say things like: “Paint wall,” “Mom birthday,” “Oil,” “offsite,” “Cat Video Conference.” It’s great we’ve identified something we need to give time and attention to, but the meaning is muddied so our mental gears spin when we look at our lists. Instead of doing, we have to figure out what to do. It’s the difference between writing “Off-site” and writing “Email meeting invite to marketing team to brainstorm plans for 2018 Off-site.”
Remember this: everything on your to-do list is either attracting you or repulsing you psychologically; there’s no neutral territory. You’re either looking at something and saying, “Awesome! When can I mark this off?” Or, you’re saying, “Yuck! I don’t even want to think about this because there is so much involved it’s overwhelming.”
When you have a whole to-do list of these unclear, overwhelming tasks, you have a tendency to look at them again and again. Scientists have proven the reality of the term “decision fatigue.” The idea is that the more decisions we have to make each day, the more we diminish our brain’s ability to make decisions. This ultimately results in bad decision-making and a drained psychological fuel tank.
The solution is to only decide on stuff once. Meaning when you put an action item on a list, you clearly identify what the next action is—the very next physical, visible activity you need to take to move things forward. Your to-do list should be only next actions so that when you decide to do one of those actions, you can be confident it’s the right thing to be doing.
So, “Paint wall” becomes “Chat with my wife about the paint color for Ethan’s room.” “Mom’s birthday” becomes “Text my siblings to see what they want to do for Mom’s 70th birthday” and “Oil” becomes “Google search for oil mechanics near my house.”
Recently, a GTD® training participant asked, “But why be so clear? It’s not like I need to hand my to-do list to a stranger who needs to decipher the next steps.” While that may be true, I asked him how much time he wasted deciphering and remembering what really needed to happen next rather than actually getting things done. He quickly agreed he only wanted to make those decisions once. Also, if you don’t capture the details of the next action, you are likely carrying them around in your head. And as David Allen likes to say, “Your head is for having ideas, not for holding them.”
The ideas expressed in this article are based on the skills and principles taught in Getting Things Done®. Learn more about Getting Things Done.