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BOOK REVIEW: To-do lists that really work

Jun 28 2016 07:08
Ian Mann

How to Love Your To-Do List: A Simple Guide To Stress-Free Productivity, by Sam Uyama

LET me state the purpose of this column upfront. On innumerable occasions I have wanted to recommend a book to people who are overwhelmed, extremely busy, and in desperate need of being in control. The best book on the subject is David Allen’s “Getting Things Done – the art of stress-free productivity” (revised edition 2015), but it is 228 pages long. The problem: few of these people would take the ten to 15 hours necessary to read the book.

Then I stumbled on Sam Umaya’s very slim book (about 50 pages), available free on Kindle, which bears a striking resemblance to Allen’s method. I have reviewed this below in less than 1 000 words to make the key ideas as clear as possible – and able to be read in less than five minutes!

This is the key question: what would you be able to achieve if all your commitments were completely under your control? Add to this, that you have your commitments to your family, career, friends, health, and spiritual life clearly prioritised? (Please pause and reflect for a moment. If you don’t have time to reflect on this question, read ahead as fast as you can – you definitely need this information!)

The problem is that something always seems to get in the way, and you feel like you are making only the slightest dent in what you need to do. Which raises two questions: why weren’t these items on your to-do list? If they were, why isn’t your to-do list effective?

“The reality is that most people’s to-do lists don’t work for them,” Umaya explains. Producers of the productivity app iDoneThis found that 41% of those who use the app never complete what they have listed. Of course, this doesn’t include what never made it onto a to-do list in the first place.

I am presuming that most readers of this column have achieved significantly to date, but could do better.

Dirty secret about writing lists

There is the dirty secret about the ancient technique of writing lists (the oldest is probably the Ten Commandments), and that is that they don’t actually help you get anything done. You have to get it done. This creates stress, through the Zeigarnik Effect.

In 1927, Bluma Zeigarnik measured the recollection people had of tasks they had completed, compared to tasks they had not completed. Unfinished tasks were recalled far more often than finished tasks. It seems that our minds are programmed to see tasks through to completion. The unfinished is pushed to the forefront of our minds to keep us alert to them. The result is that if you don’t have an external system for tasks, the unfinished will create stress.

Only a productivity system that you can trust will relieve this source of stress and allow you to focus. Clearly, different people work best in different ways and have different obligations - there is no one “best way” of organising your life. Your personalised system needs adaptation to the roles you play in life – mother, daughter, sister, CEO.

Keeping separate lists will ensure your to-dos don’t get lost in clutter and can be prioritised. “Imagine confidently knowing that whatever task you’re working on at any given moment is exactly what you should be doing,” Uyama points out. Yes, just imagine!

The to-do list productivity process has three parts: Capture, Filter, and Organise.

Idea catcher to capture your tasks

Capturing starts with an ‘idea catcher’ which could be a note on your phone or, better still, a note in your Evernote or OneNote, because these can be accessed from your various devices. There it stays until you are ready to do something with it, freeing you to get on with what were busy doing when the idea came up, undistracted. Then you check your ‘idea catcher’ a few times a day.

The second step is to ‘Filter’ your ideas into the 4 Ds. The first ‘D’ is to Dump anything that shouldn’t be done. The second D is ‘Do It’. “If you can finish something within two minutes, do it now. The time it would take filtering it through a system isn’t worth it,” Uyama suggests.

The third D is ‘Delegate’ it to anyone who can do the task for you, as well as it needs to be done.

The fourth D is ‘Defer it’. Rather than dealing with things as they come up, you defer them with this system.

It is necessary to distinguish between a project and a to-do. A project has multiple steps, and a to-do is a single, next action. “Plan Vacation” isn’t a to-do item because there are so many steps involved. Specifying the exact step you need to take next will make your to-dos much simpler. You might even create multiple lists for the different contexts you have in your life, and a list of your projects.

Apps such as ToDoist (the one I use across all devices, but there are many, and some free) allow you to identify to-dos as part of your project list.

It is good practice to think in terms of your calendar and your to-do list combined, so you can schedule when to work on the to-dos.

The last step is having a way of staying organised and maintaining control of projects and lists through a scheduled, weekly review. “Every Sunday evening I spend about 30 minutes reviewing how the previous week went, and preparing for the week ahead,” says Uyama. It is during this session that you can set three things you most want to do each day - a basic, but necessary prioritisation process.

The value of using Uyama’s system is the comfort you have that nothing will get lost. It’s simple and effective, but if you haven’t been using something like this, it will take some getting used to. If you have a system, there may well be some useful tweaks you can make.

Two thoughts: don’t overestimate how much you can get done, so build in a buffer. Don’t stress over your incomplete to-dos - remember that no one dies with an empty to-do list.

Readability:    Light +---- Serious
Insights:       High ----+ Low
Practical:       High +---- Low

* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Strategy that Works. Views expressed are his own.

ian mann


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