Many procrastinators use to-do lists. And indeed they can be useful. But what exactly are to-do lists for?
The structured procrastinator will have in his mind, or perhaps written down somewhere, a priority list; the things he needs to do, at some time or other. The seemingly important tasks will be at the top, motivating him to do tasks further down the list as a way of procrastinating. So far so good.
But it is also useful to have daily to-do lists. And here is where it is easy to be confused. One might think the purpose of such a list is to remind one what to do. And they can be useful in that way. But that is not their main purpose.
The main function of the daily to-do list is to give the procrastinator the experience of checking off tasks as they are finished. Putting a check in the box next to the item, or crossing it out with a flourish, gives one a little psychological lift. It helps us to think of ourselves as do-ers, accomplishers, and not just lazy slugs. It gives us psychological momentum. Thus the to-do list should be of a type where the task that has been completed remains on the list, with a check mark in a box to the side, or perhaps crossed out. (So computerized to-do lists in which the task simply disappears when you check it should be avoided at all costs.)
I try to make up a to-do list before I go to bed, and leave it by the alarm clock. It starts like this:
1. Get out of bed
2. Turn off the alarm.
3. Don’t hit the snooze button
4. Don’t go back to bed.
5. Go downstairs.
6. Make Coffee
By the time I sit down with my first cup of coffee, I can check off six items. This feels good and looks impressive. My day of accomplishment is off to a flying start. I didn’t need reminders to do any of these things. But I need a little pat on the back for doing them. The only likely way of getting that pat is by having a to-do list, so I can cross them off.
To repeat, the to-do list must be distinguished from the priority list, the one with the important items on the top, that one seldom gets to, and all the other useful things one can do as a way of not doing them below — the list that is the key to structured procrastination. This list may be written down or it may be just in your mind; it can even be on your computer. The list shouldn’t be ordered temporally. Picking any task on the list as a way of not doing something higher up is good; picking the ones at the top , if the mood should hit you, is terrific. You can’t go wrong. This is a long term list; the projects that will occupy you for a day or a week or a month or longer, perhaps your whole life, if you have something like “Learn Chinese” at the top.
The to-do list is what you hope to get done in a day or two; it should include some of the ones from the priority list, but not all of them. If you make up a to-do list that has everything on it you are supposed to do, it will be a frightening object, and you will immediately lose it, or figure out some other way of never looking at it. If you are a horizontal organizer (see below), you will probably file it in a folder marked, “Urgent Business” and never see it again.
As I’ve illustrated, the to-do list also has to be much more detailed than the priority list. Each task should be subdivided, with easy tasks at the beginning to get you started, and to get the feelings of accomplishment flowing. They must include “do-nots” as well as “dos”. For example:
Pour a second cup of coffee
Sit down at the desk, not on the couch
Start the computer.
Do not check email.
Do not google, “Meg Ryan”
Go to documents and select “Dummett Review”.
This is my list for today. I made it through “Start Word” successfully. Then I hit “Dummett Review.” Michael Dummett is an important philosopher who has written a little book on a big topic with the title Thought and Reality. I have agreed to review it for Mind, a fine British philosophy journal. I’ve read the book through several times, and have started on the review. But reviewing an important book by an important philosopher for a top journal is pretty daunting. It’s high on my priority list. It’s way overdue — but in the philosophy business, the top journals seem to be used to missed deadlines. I think I’m not the only structured procrastinator they deal with. At any rate, I couldn’t finish it again today. So instead I am working on this essay, something I plucked from a fairly low position on my priority list. Structured
Procrastination at work!
The list should be completed the night before or at least a half day before you hope to start the tasks it lists. You should spend a little time thinking about how the process can get derailed in the early stages — things like checking email and googling “Meg Ryan,” in my case. You will find when you have these reminders before you that it provides just enough extra motivation to overcome the derailing thoughts that are sure to come:
I’ll be more comfortable on the couch, as long as I don’t lie down….
Some urgent email may have arrived….
Looking at pictures of Meg Ryan, reminding her of all her roles in fun movies, remembering how youthful and energetic I was when I first saw “When Harry met Sally” might inspire me, …
And so forth.
Follow this advice, and to-do list can be helpful. They won’t cure procrastination, but they are part of the strategy of self-manipulation that can help make the procrastinator into productive human being.
I want to emphasize that one must make the to-do list the night before, or even earlier, although not so early that you lose it before you have a chance to put it by the alarm-clock. You must write the todo list at some point when you can imagine yourself doing the tasks. Don’t wait until the alarm goes off to start thinking about what you want to be committed to doing for the day.
And one final note about alarm clocks. Us structured procrastinators may be inclined to turn them off and roll over and go back to sleep. Many now come with snooze buttons, which make this even easier to do. But if you could reach from your bed to hit the snooze button once, you can do it a second time. It’s best to have a second alarm clock, a very loud one, set for two minutes later than the first one, which you put near the coffee pot.