To Do or not To Do

I love lists. I love making lists. I love crossing items off the lists I have made. I love crossing items off the lists other people have made. I love completing lists. And I think lots of people do lists wrong.

There are, in my opinion, two types of lists: a To Do list, a Backlog.

The Backlog

Look, I’m a computer programmer, so often the things I say sound like programmer jargon. Anyway, the Backlog is an unordered, unprioritized list of every thing you’ve ever thought needed to be done or would like to do. There is no rhyme or reason, no focus, no goal. The Backlog is just a chaotic list. The only purpose of the Backlog is to help you not forget things. If you are trying to use your Backlog to accomplish goals, then you are doing it wrong.

I can say that with confidence, because if you are trying to work from a list that contains everything, you’ll just end up distracted. You’ll finish one item, then go check your list and be face to face with a scattershot collection of stuff. And you are just as likely to pick up a task that you don’t need to be doing as you are to actually correctly select the next task you should be doing.

You should definitely keep a Backlog, but you should never work from the Backlog. Except when you are making a To Do list.

The To Do List

This is where the real work happens. This is where organization and focus live. And if your To Do list is just copying over your Backlog, you are doing it wrong.

The first thing you need to do when making a To Do list is to define the kind of this you are making and it’s limited. The two primary ways to limit a list is to: 1) Set a deadline, 2) Set a goal/scope. Once you have defined the type of list you are making, give it a name, a specific descriptive name that tells you what it is every time you see it.

  • Examples of a deadline
    • “Things To Do Today”
    • ”Things To Do by Friday”
    • ”Things To Do before I go on vacation”
  • Examples of a goal/scope
    • ”Things To Do to clean the house”
    • ”Things To Do to organize my finances”

Once you have defined the limit of your list and named it, the very first item you should put on your list is: Finished making To Do list.

So if your list is ”Things To Do Today”, you brainstorm and peruse your Backlog for items to put on the list, and when you’ve got a solid list, you are done making the list, so you get to check off that first item. This serves two purposes. First, checking items off your list feels good, and it gives you momentum. Second, it gives you a little mental space to say ”This list is whole. So if something pops up that isn’t an emergency, I can’t add it to this list. It goes on the Backlog.”

By defining your list well, and then giving it a complete shape by ”finishing” the list construction, you’ll make more effective lists.

What About A Bucket List?

A Bucket List is the one list that makes sense to be a hybrid. It’s a defined list with a deadline, but it’s an ongoing malleable one.

When making To Do lists, the defining characteristic is, as stated, a deadline or a goal. But most successful To Do lists also should be relatively short. Either the deadline should be immediate or in the near future, or the goal should be one you want to achieve “soon”. Meanwhile, a Backlog is an unfocused container of ideas.

If you are defining a To Do list with a very long deadline or goal, “Things To Do Before I Die”, the first problem you may have is that you aren’t likely to be able to put that “Finish making this list” item on it, because you are going to come across things to add to that list before you run out of time. But this isn’t a list that should be buried within your Backlog of projects and chores and miscellaneous random thoughts.

Personally, I treat it like a Backlog, but I keep it separate from my normal Backlog.

The Lottery List

One other Backlog style list I keep is my Lottery List. It’s a brainstorming list of “Things I Would Do If I Won The Lottery”. I keep it separate because of the process I use to make it and maintain it.

You see, I buy a lottery ticket now and then. And when I do, I pull out the Lottery List and I re-read it, and I scratch things off, and I add new things. Most of these things are crazy or silly, and all generally require a lot of money. However, if an item persists on my Lottery List for a while, I start trying to disassemble it, break it down and chip off pieces that I can move to my regular Backlog, or even put on a To Do list.

For example, if your Lottery List included “Travel the World!” and after a few revisions it remained, perhaps you could break it down… Where exactly would you want to travel? What countries? What cities? Are there specific things you want to do in those cities? And of course there are things you can do to prepare for travel. Do you have a passport? Have you started a travel fund? Would being able to speak another language help?

Sure “Buy a yacht!” isn’t the sort of thing you necessarily want cluttering your Backlog, but maybe “learn to swim”, “learn to sail”, “go on a cruise” are things that could fit in nicely.

Location, Location, Location

The last thing to consider is where to keep your lists. And really, this is going to be very personal. Do you want handwritten sheets of paper? A moleskin notebook? Evernote? An email draft? Some other thing? The main thing is to pick something that works, and if it’s not working, then move to something else. But if you migrate from one form to another, do yourself a favor and really move. Shift all your lists to the new format. Don’t leave half lists in different media strewn throughout your life. You’ll only end up feeling LESS organized.

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