do lists make your head hurt, too?

This week I write a perfect list.I find there are two schools of thought on to-do lists. The first says they’re a necessary dumping ground for shower inspirations and must-do minutiae (“fix rear-vision mirror”, “buy Napisan”)…all the noisy guff that swirls unanchored in your head. Ergo, lists are liberating devices that free the mind and help us Finally Get On Top of Things.

The second says lists are annoying. They stall the free-flow fun of life. Folk in this camp might point out that lists are not an inevitable part of the human experience. They emerged in the 1920s after the CEO of a steel company held a competition to find a snazzy new technique for getting more done in a day. The ten-item, tick-as-you-go list was the winning tendor. Mind you, a non-list writer probably couldn’t share such a factoid having failed to jot it down for later reference in the first place.

To-do list or not to-do list? Which is the happier path? It’s a question with far more water-cooler weight than you might think.

Indeed, I find it’s a metaphor for contemporary life. Or at least for the struggle many of us face balancing a need to be in control, with a visceral desire to let go. And flow. And trust everything will get done as it needs to.

Me, I’ve been looking for perfect list balance for years. Here’s what I’ve found most list experts (yes, it’s a thriving industry) agree upon, bullet-pointed for list-y effect:

  • the two minute rule: can it be done in 120 seconds? Don’t list it, do it straight away.
  • list in concrete to-do language (not “set up meeting”, but “email Sven to book room 203”). Former heroine addict David Allen became a multimillionaire off the back of his list-obsessed blog Getting Things Done. He says a list is not a depressing reminder of everything you haven’t done. State things as an action, and action is what you’ll get. It’s about intention, he says in an oddly spiritual way.
  • bucket and regroup: Allen says dump everything down as the thought occurs. Collate into sub-lists, or folders, at the end of the day. He works to 43 folders. Which kind of hurts my head to think about.
  • your email inbox is not a to-do list device because it’s not presented in actionable language.
  • write lists at night. Or first thing, before you start the day.
  • Have a mind-like mush list for when you can’t cope with life and need that nigh orgasmic satisfaction of slashing a line through stuff.

I’ve tried most list tips and techniques. I’ve even tried online devices, such as rememberthemilk and todoodle, for the sake of research.

By way of a cool update, I just stumbled on this cool online to-do list: teuxdeux. Simple. Clean. Fun. And FREE!! Try the demo here:

[vimeo]http://www.vimeo.com/8080943[/vimeo]

But this week I realized I rarely stick to one technique. Few of us do, right? Instead we oscillate between control (stringent list systems) and flow (entering the day with a vague outline of our aims), trying to find where truth exists, trying to find perfect list balance.

We have list fits, where we say, I’m Finally Getting On Top of Things, and we buy a nice new moleskin and glide-y pen and tick things off smugly. But then two weeks later we swap to PDAs, or flagging-for-follow-up in our inbox. Until it all hurts our head because it feels intuitively to be going against nature, like trying to contain the garden with fence-to-fence pebblecrete; invariably the hardenbergia creeps back in.

So, me, I’ve given in to the following process, which I won’t bullet-point, or punctuate, for effect: I dump my shower thoughts etc on random shop-a-dockets, serviettes and so on which every few days I collate into a list but sometimes I work with one post-it note with three things on it because I like the number three and stick it to my phone and then every five days or so I chuck out the Whole Bloody list and find I get so much done by just leaving the house and thinking hey there’s the supermarket I’ll buy Napisan.

Because that’s how life flows. It needs to be tamed at times, but sometimes it’s more fun to be dragged along. If I’m kind to myself, and attuned to where things are sitting right now, this chaotic list balance works a treat.

Have your say, leave a comment.