Though Time-Consuming, To-Do Lists Are a Way of Life
For John David Herman, to-do lists are an effort to alleviate clutter in his brain. For years, the telecommunications-brokerage founder used thousands of 3-inch-by-5-inch index cards to manage everything he had to do and when he had to do it. All of this took an immense amount of time, particularly because it often involved copying information from business cards.
His system also had imperfections. Sometimes he would lose track of a card or, worse, lose it altogether. “Then you have to reinvent the wheel,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many times in 25 years that happens.”
Finally, back in 1996, Mr. Herman dumped his cards. By then he had duplicated the contents of every card in a database program, FileMaker, which synchronizes with a calendar program, which synchronizes with a hand-held computer. “I spent a couple of family vacations” copying the data, he says.
Spending vast quantities of time to ensure that you don’t waste any of it may not seem to make a lot of sense. Certainly some of that time could be better spent doing some of the things that are being put on the list. But anyone familiar with agendas knows that getting things done is rarely on them.
For some aficionados, a to-do list is a talisman to ward off the steady creep of forgetfulness. For others, it’s a method to boost self-esteem or reduce clutter. Whatever its purpose, some advice for the uninitiated to avoid getting trampled: Never stand between a hippo and water or a lister and his list.
Oftentimes, list makers scorn the laggards among us whose failed efforts to become listers are symbolized by all the furry balls of illegible paper that get left behind in the washing machine.
"It’s almost impossible for me to trust a nonlister," admits Ilya Welfeld. "It’s hard for me to believe that anything will get done." She’s so committed that she has made lists of lists to organize her work as a communications consultant. She even shanghaied her three-year-old son’s easel to assemble her "priority list," which isn’t to be confused with her main to-do list, which she compiles in Microsoft Outlook’s Tasks.
If Alan Friedman, a 24-year-old mortgage broker, wants his wife to pick up orange juice, he makes sure to add it to her list. “After three or four times of not getting orange juice, I finally wrote it down,” says the nonlister. If he ever made lists himself, he adds, he’d need a list just to know where he put his lists. (Once, to try to become a lister, he bought himself a Palm hand-held. How did it work out? “I lost it,” he says.)
In fact, to-do lists often aren’t the key to productivity they’re cracked up to be. Harold Taylor, a time-management consultant in Keswick, Ontario, says lists can become a procrastination tool. “The name of the game becomes getting as many things done as possible as opposed to getting the most important things done,” he says. He claims to know people who add tasks to their to-do lists after they’ve completed them just so they can cross them off. He adds that pocket computers can make things worse. “If you’re disorganized,” he says, “all this technology does is speed up your disorganization.”
Julie Morgenstern, a professional organizer and author of “Making Work Work,” estimates that as many as 30% of listers spend more time managing their lists than completing what’s on them. “It can be a sign of being overwhelmed,” she says. “They are more comfortable in the pause mode than the action mode. It’s safer to be planning than doing.”
Nonetheless, Rick Sonkin says his to-do system has been running smoothly for 25 years. “I’ll make the note in the office so when I get home, I’ll be forced to relieve my pockets of the notes,” he explains. “So then I’ll be forced to read the note, at which time I’ll execute the note, at which time I’ll throw the note out.” (In the event a task isn’t done that night, Mr. Sonkin puts the outstanding note in his wallet, which reminds him to put it back in his shirt pocket the next morning. “It’s a carry-over system,” he says.)
Deanna Brown, publisher of Breathe magazine, makes her list each day to improve her self-esteem. “The more things I get to cross off, the more accomplished I feel,” she says. “Sure, I could probably accomplish a handful more things every day if I didn’t write the list, but they might not be the right things.”
Ms. Brown devotes 30 minutes a day to creating her list — and not, say, calling her mother, a to-do item that has been on her list for about a month. The fact that her mom “made the list means that I’m thinking about her,” she notes.
Stan Collender, managing director of the business communications firm Financial Dynamics, is a recovering listiac. He used to make extensive lists each night for the next day, marking the high-priority items with a star and the highest of the high-priority items with a double star. He says he became “a slave to them,” missing more important priorities that emerged during the day.
But he couldn’t quit cold turkey, so he kept making lists but downgraded his expectations of how many of the tasks he needed to accomplish. His lists today are a reminder of things that need to get done “at some point,” he says.
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