The Problem With My To-Do List (And Yours, Too)

by Randy Murray on November 1, 2010

As much as I talk about productivity, there are times when I shake my head and wonder if any of it makes sense. I’ve come to believe there is one fundamental rule: every system fails.

Last Saturday my wife and I were doing some household chores. My job was to help her with the ladder while we cleaned some windows outside. Move the ladder, wait, move it again. While I was waiting I pulled out my iPhone and among other things, took a quick look at my to-do list, then went back to playing Angry Birds.

So here I was, standing outside right beside the bird feeder, flinging digital wingless versions at pigs, when Diane says, “Weren’t you going to fix the squirrel thingy on the bird feeder?”

Er, hmm.  Yes I was. And more than that, it had been in the “Overdue” section of my to-do list, which I had just looked at. It had been there for over two weeks. It took me five minutes to fix the baffle and another couple to fill the feeder. I also spent that time kicking myself for such a blatant failure of my system.

You might be thinking that the system didn’t fail, I did. But I am a part of my system.  And I’ve been putting too many daily placeholder tasks, like “Process Inbox”, into my list so that opening the list and checking things off by automatically has become commonplace. I haven’t been using my to-do list to store tasks and discover things I can do. It’s just become a part of my unthinking routine.

Ideally, I should have organized and used my list in the good Getting Things Done manner using contexts. The household chore of “prepare the bird feeder for winter” was set as a chore and it repeats yearly. But I didn’t think, “I’m doing chores, what’s on my list to do?”

In fact, while we were cleaning the windows, my wife mentioned at least two other chores we should do, but I failed to capture them on the spot (I have since corrected that oversight).

The failure point was me.

And I’m betting that’s your failure point, too (No, I’m not to blame for your failures. I’m talking about you!).

GTD or even the simplest form of list making is often just a delaying exercise. Moving the deck chairs about (even when the ship’s not sinking). You have to grow a mind set dedicated to doing things. That’s where you have to start. I do things all of the time, but most of the time I don’t stop and think, “It’s time to do chores, what’s on the list?”

What’s the answer? Mindfulness. I need to ask myself each time I change from one task to another, or one time of day to another, one simple questions: “What am I doing now?” That simple thought is enough to help me set into motion the steps that will let me take advantage of my systems. If I stop and think, “I am now doing chores,” then I can more easily remember to look at my to-do list of chores and select the one, just one item that I want to do at that moment. Only then will my system be complete.

Many people complain that using lists and systems feel like they’re becoming mechanical and that trying to capture, process, and execute is too restrictive and mindless. I’ve discovered that it is the exact opposite. Capturing a task and processing it into a context can be freeing. I no longer have to worry about it or try to remember what needs to be done, but only if I am mindful enough to ask myself what I am doing at that very moment.

The The Problem With My To-Do List (And Yours, Too) by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Iain Broome November 2, 2010 at 8:15 am

Great post and all sounds VERY familiar. I find that having a system - however simple or complex you want to make it - relies entirely on your willingness to be part of it. And that’s the hardest thing - anyone can make a list of bullet points, but it’s another thing entirely to make sure your thinking is similarly ordered.


Randy Murray November 2, 2010 at 8:23 am

Thanks, Iain.

I try to keep my system as simple as possible and I still find the hardest part is just to be present, to stop and think. Not about all of the things I have to do, but what KIND of thing I wish to do at that moment. I believe it will be a life-long process.


Ann Janzen November 2, 2010 at 8:44 pm

Somehow this post brings to mind the old rule about “one should pick up a piece of paper only once and make a decision as to what should be done with it”… same applies to the “to do” items. I still pick up that paper more than once and haven’t decided what to do with it and I still look at things to be done even more than just “more than once” to decide what I should do first… and I say to myself “JUST DO THE WORK!” My son talks about what he has to do for school and I tell him the same “Just do it”! Wait, is that a Nike commercial??


Randy Murray November 3, 2010 at 7:22 am

One of the basic principals of GTD is when you process your inbox, if the task will take 2 minutes or less, just do it. But some tasks can’t be done right now, take too long, need preparation, or most importantly, you don’t have the interest or energy to do them right at that moment. That’s why you need both a trusted system AND the mindfulness to be a part of the system yourself.

But failing that, Just Do It!


Ann Janzen November 5, 2010 at 5:08 pm

You may like my latest post that I linked to your “Divide your attention- You’re a genius.” Hopefully my readers will read more of your posts… but I only get 20-40 page reads a day… not quite the hundreds you already enjoy. I do have some facebook friends though that have sent notice to their friends and they have quite a large following. Hope that helps. Oh, by the way, I almost had a heart attack when I saw your title “New subscription pricing for this blog”. :-0


Randy Murray November 5, 2010 at 7:43 pm

Thanks for the link, Ann. I do appreciate it and I like the fresh approach you’re taking with your blog and recounting your life with a new focus on living with less.

I’ll try and hold down the subscription costs, especially to loyal readers like you!


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