No, this isn't a post about the "Getting Things Done" method, although I suppose the principles apply.
Recently I received a new (to me) MacBook Air. It is my first Mac in quite some time, and I am delighting in all the interesting things they have done with OS X. Sure, there are quirks and more than a little "un-learning" from a lifetime of Windows work. But overall it is a pleasant experience and my inner geek is reveling in learning new things.
So, one of the first things I did with my shiny new toy is to start working out applications on the new platform that would make me as productive as I have been on my old HP. You know, email clients, office applications, video playback, calendaring and to-do lists. The first items in that list are not all that difficult - you find visually appealing programs that do what you need them to, and after installation you see if you can live with the oddities the application brings. That last item, though, has created for me the perfect firestorm. I could not decide where to begin, so I started a to-do list to evaluate which app to choose, and then another list to decide what I really wanted the app to do.
Yup, I created to-do lists to manage my to-do list. My to-do list became the worm Ourobouros. The process was feeding on itself. How did I end up here? First, there is the obvious. Do you have any idea how MANY to-do applications exist? And how many to-do philosophies there are? All of them fairly scream at you that unless you do it their way, you will be unsuccessful and probably also suffer from the heartbreak of psoriasis. And while each looks slightly different and encourages you to "think" differently, at the heart they are really all the same - the goal is to get you to write a sentence or two about the things you want to get done.
It was at this point I started to question my goal. Did I want help managing what was important to me to accomplish or was I looking for a new way of doing something that already (and clearly now) was not working for me. Did I want to get things done or did I want to feel like I was getting things done. And that was when the clouds parted, the light shone through and in the stillness, the small voice spoke. Ok, that was needlessly messianic. It was more like a sudden stop on the bus whacked my head into the seat in front of me and as my vision blurred my thoughts cleared.
A to-do list only gives the appearance of actually getting things done.
Go with me on this. Generally, people make to-do lists because they want to prioritize the life tasks they think they are required to do. The important things - like finding a good doctor or ordering flowers for your wonderful wife - are not things you need to put on a list. A list is to help you figure out which thing you don't want to do but think you must do next. And when you are done (and tick the item off your list), you have a sense of accomplishment, albeit a short-lived one. While in the strictest definition of the word "accomplishment" you have achieved that goal, I would argue that in fact you have not actually done anything because - and here is the key point - because the items people have on their to-do list are generally more about some mundane task than about the things that excite or drive your life.
In short, the list is meant to spur you into action about the things you don't really want to do in the first place and are not critical life-drivers. It is an artificial way to feel like you have done something when you probably haven't, and a way to beat yourself up when the items aren't checked off fast enough. It is about managing the process in lieu of actually doing things. It is about giving an air of responsibility to an arguably minor task so that you feel guilty enough to do it.
Look, no one has trouble remembering to do the things that interest them or that matter to themselves or their family. If you enjoy your work, you remember that you need to get this bit of code done or that you have to get a report out - and you do it. If you have a significant other, you remember that he/she has a need and you look for ways to fill it. These are the things that matter in life. And these are the things you never need to put on a to-do list.
Does this mean that I have no lists at all? Nope. I make notes about things I want to follow up on, like a web site or something I see on TV. I have a calendar to remind me that I have a doctor's appointment 3 months from now. To one degree or another these are important lists. My calendar serves to remind me of a fixed place in time where I need to be to further my own goals (I plan on being here a while, and the visit with the doctor is probably important). My "follow up" list is for my downtime - when I want to play around and follow any given idea down whatever rabbit hole it leads to. And while one of those is certainly a necessity, the items themselves are not things I dwell on. I put them out there to remind myself at the appropriate time, and then I promptly forget them.
Yes, this can lead to things not getting done. But in the end I have to ask myself - is it really important that it IS done or am I doing it to make myself feel like I am doing something? If I had to write it on a list somewhere, it is probably not the former. Once I let go of the notion I had to micromanage my life, i felt more freedom than I have ever known. Am I less accomplished today than I was before? Nope. I am just better focused. And that is a feeling no to-do list can ever bring.