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Case Study: I Want A List, I Don’t Want A List

Case Study: I Want A List, I Don’t Want A List

| On 19, Apr 2020

Darrell Mann

I admit it, I’m a list-demon. I have a quadruple-hierarchy list structure: a day list, a month list, a year list and an ‘important, but doesn’t fit anywhere yet’ list. The system has evolved over the course of the last thirty years, so in my mind it ought to be pretty good by now. Imagine my horror, then, when I’m reading one of my favourite newspaper columnists reviewing a copy of Mark Foster’s new book, ‘Secrets of Productive People’ and I learn that any kind of list is pretty much bad news when it comes to being an actual ‘productive person’.

I thought I should dig deeper. We only make progress when we find a paradox, right? And this looked like a good one: I want a list and I don’t want a list. It mapped something like this:

Figure 1: I Want A List And I Don’t Want A List

On the ‘don’t make lists’ side of the contradiction, Mark Foster’s argument – which applies equally to back-of-the-envelope to-do lists, complex productivity systems, or “bucket lists” of life ambitions – is that lists are flights of fancy. Maybe they give you a feeling of control, but it’s a fake one. It’s far too easy to add to a list: an idea pops into your head, or a request into your inbox, and on to the list it goes, without your being forced to ask if it truly matters, or whether you’ve the bandwidth to do it. The ever-expanding list “refers to a never-never land where you magically get time to do all this work”, Forster writes. Worse, it’s out of date the moment you create it – a record “of what you might have done or could have done at a point of time which is already receding into the past”, regardless of what’s possible, or important, to do now.

Hmm. I think I can picture a bit of that (as I sit here looking at a 2015 ‘year-list’ that really hasn’t had many things crossed off).

But I also know that the real issue here is not about which side of the contradiction is right, it’s about how to solve the contradiction: I want to be in control, and I don’t want to allow myself to embark on any (more) flights of fancy.

Here’s what the Contradiction Matrix has to tell me about that:

One of the solutions then looks very similar to Foster’s suggestion. For us Principle 15 fans, Forster proposes a minimalist ever-dynamic system: On a piece of paper, write down only the five most important tasks you can think of. Then do them, in order, crossing them off as you go. (If you stop before completing one, add it again at the end.) Once the list is only two items long, add three more, to bring the total back to five. Then repeat.

The point of this austere approach is that you’re regularly required to ask what really needs doing, since there are only five slots. With a conventional list, there are unlimited slots – and it’s hugely tempting to plough through inessential tasks, just to cross them off. But what if you forget crucial things, using Forster’s method, because you didn’t write them down? His response: they probably didn’t matter to begin with.

I decided to replace my ‘day-list’ with this solution for a while, and have to say it almost worked. Almost, in that I found myself reverting to ‘don’t lose that thought’ mode very quickly. That’s when ‘Nesting’ came into the story: all those ideas need to get put on the fourth category list.

That made things a bit better, but it still wasn’t sticking as well as Foster said it should. So time to bring in a spot of the rather more radical Principle 13, The Other Way Around. Now, there are many ways I could’ve interpreted this, but the one I decided to try related back to a previous mind-jarring read, the amazing ‘Art Of Procrastination’ (Issue 133 of the ezine), which told me that the real secret of productive people is that that they do everything on their jobs list apart from the most important thing. Or, put more practically, if I allow myself to write down something at the top of my list that I’m very likely to procrastinate over, while I’m procrastinating, I busy myself with the next four things on the list, and cross them off.

So now the solution looks something like this: at the start of every day, I write down the thing at the top of my new list that I’m allowed to procrastinate over. Then I write down the next four items according to Foster’s advice – four important things that I’m going to do today. The next day, I do the same, only I might choose another job to procrastinate over – to keep lots of procrastination jobs bubbling away in my subconscious!

I tell you, so far – three months down the road – and it’s still working like a charm.

So now here we are towards the end of the year. Time to reflect on that largely uncompleted 2015 list. Time to move my list innovation story to the next level. I still haven’t used Principle 24, Intermediary, and I still haven’t used Principle 7 enough. So the next level of evolution is looking something like this:

  1. keep the four hierarchical lists
  2. Not just the day list, but also the month and year lists are only ever allowed five things on them… each gets operated as Mark Foster’s method tells me
  3. Top of each of those three lists is a procrastination-appropriate item…
  4. …It gets chosen by (Principle 24) someone else who’s been through List 4 and I trust to see the bigger picture I can’t see.

I expect big things for 2016.