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My Tip for Productivity: Tear Up the To-Do List

Nov 18, 2008 • general

Have you ever thought of tearing up your to-do list?
Have you ever thought of tearing up your to-do list?

A couple of weeks ago I started listing all of my to-do's in Outlook. Soon the list grew so long that I felt I would never be able to do it all. We all lead extremely busy lives. We have goals, commitments, and an almost endless amount of tasks to complete. Are there any productivity tips that work for you?

Here's how my friends on Twitter responded:

DeeElling: Take the work and go elsewhere -- a park, cafe, or any place where no one you know will interrupt you. Planes are good too!

krug95: Take down the Internet.

okeefe_scr : Stay away from Twitter. :-)

michelleschoen: My biggest tip for being productive is creating Project Plans with milestones and deadlines. Do with both clients and partners.

DrChaos: Be an inspiration to those you work with. The synergies created will benefit all!

Kristil: Before bed, list the 6 most important tasks for the next day. Identify the most important one. Even if you only do that 1, in a year you have accomplished 365 important things. Got this from Michael Clouse, and it really helps me focus:

rjhoughton My biggest tip? Get a good night's sleep.

heidilhansen: Productivity things I do: headphones with classical music to drown out voices, email closed, some meetings skipped, and big mug of water handy.

Whataboutmom I start a list, prioritize the list, and then start on the first items. If I think of additional things while I'm working on the first, I add the new items to my list rather than giving my attention to them at the moment.

I don't have any earth-shattering advice for being productive. For me, good sleep is probably what makes me most productive. I listen to music when I want to write and skip meetings when I think my presence isn't needed. I focus my energies on one task at a time rather than trying to do five at once. I usually tackle priority items first, going along with the big-rocks-little-rocks metaphor. I also alternate tasks so that I stay fresh.

But sometimes I think we clutter up our lives with things that, in the end, don't matter. A few weeks ago while cleaning I came across a list of a dozen or so old tasks that I'd written months ago. Everything that was important had eventually been done, without my crossing them off one by one.

It amazes me that the truly important activities I need to accomplish often never make it on to my to-do list. For example, time spent with my kids, dates with my wife, the slow walk along the countryside on a sunny day. These are things that matter, yet they are often written out of my schedule with errands and other to-do's.

This weekend I ignored my growing to-do list, and did what I wanted. On Saturday I attached a child carrier on the back of my bike, put my two youngest in there, and then rode alongside Avery, my oldest daughter, five miles out to Eagle Mountain's City Center and back. We stopped at her school playground, the library, and walked our bikes up the steep hills. It was wonderful, and not on my to-do list.

However, as a result, I skipped working on a project that I needed to start on. Now Monday morning approaches, and I have nothing to show for it.

My feeling is that the best productivity tip is not a neat way of organizing yourself, or waking up early, or making sure the lights are fully dark while you sleep. The best productivity tip is desire. For example, when I woke up, I did what I naturally desired to do. I know this sounds odd, since I didn't finish what I thought I needed to do. Instead, I finished what I really should have done.

If you truly want something, you find a way to do it. Nothing can substitute for this inner drive. If you feel yourself moving in a natural direction, based on your inner compass, I say follow that, and not your to-do list. The important to-do errands will get done without a detailed strategy for them. But if you let a list of to-do's drive you, they can smother inner movement and exploration that may ultimately be more productive in the long run.

I found a similar expression of this strategy on The Lazy Man's Guide to Getting Things Done. In a list of unconventional wisdom, the author writes,

Allow things to happen: Trying to force things to go your way is not only stressful, it's not very intelligent. It's better to guide things along, than trying to marshal them in like a dictator. Try to let things happen, instead of making them happen. Remember that a small rudder directs even the most giant ship.

I love his advice -- let things happen, instead of forcing them to happen. I know this doesn't fully address the subject. There are tomes of books written on productivity. But time and again I find myself shackled down with a list of to-do items that become burdensome and frustrating. Many of the tasks don't reflect what I truly want to do. When I remove the list and move in a natural direction, I often end up using my time in a more personally productive way.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.