To-Do Lists

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”
Start Word
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.


Filed under More on Structured Procrastination and the like

8 Responses to To-Do Lists

  1. I found this post very helpful. Thank you.

  2. Sophie Duke

    Love this blog entry. Could have written it. I get a lot of things done, especially the things I do not want to do, through conscious self-manipulation. “Okay, you don’t want to swim, but just walk to the physical education building, you don’t have to swim if you don’t want to. Now that you’re here, just put the swimsuit on. You’re not too tired for that. Okay just get wet, you don’t have to swim lengths if you don’t feel like it.”. And so on and so forth. I usually end up swimming my regular times and lengths. But my TO DO lists are to die for!! I’ve been using them (preparing them the evening before) as you write about here for decades. Now, as a retired person, I still use them. The “projects” are voluntary in nature, some to do with things I love to do (making glass beads at a torch), and some not (cleaning closets), but the more important they are, the more likely I am to create to do lists that include things like “call doctor for appointment”, “shower” or “roast garlic.” Thanks for this insightful interpretation of to-do lists. Bang on!

  3. Natalie

    My to-do list is my school agenda. Every day I write down homework and various tasks I need to do for that night. But I almost never do them. No matter how neatly I write them, no matter how much time I have, they just don’t get done! Perhaps I ought to give this “structured procastination” theory a try and do all the far less important and somewhat easy topics first. I really like this other “to-do list” idea, it seems much more applicable than what I’m doing.

  4. fd

    thank you for writing these blogs every now and then. I read them when the structure has gone from my procrastination. They’re the only self-help tool that doesn’t make me feel like I’m reading advice from aliens. I’m going to try out your get up in the morning to-do list.

    The only hitch in my structured procrastinator life has been that the guilt that I used to deal with so well one day turned into an anxiety disorder, but I’ve learned that despite that I cannot become anything other than a procrastinator. I just have to work my pyramids a bit better… 😀

  5. To do lists can be a great form of breaking procrastination if used properly. Another important thing is that the items on the list should be discreet. Eg one of your items was “Dummett Review”. I would have broken it up into “Create Overview of Review”, “First Draft of Review” etc so that you have definite items you know when you’ve finished. Otherwise it is easy to do a lot of work but not quite be able to tick items off yet and that can be a real hit to motivation.

  6. Stef

    I was actually laughing out loud as I read this! It reminded me of a friend getting ahold of my to-do list and finding it hilarious that I had written ‘eat breakfast’ at the top of it. We still laugh about it. I slept in today….now it’s 1am….and after reading this post I realize perhaps I have to go even further than placing ‘eating breakfast’ at the top of the list and start with ‘don’t go back to sleep’. I read your ‘Structured Procrastination’ years ago (while procrastinating by googling ‘procrastination’) and I’m delighted that this time I went a little further and found your blog. Thanks!

  7. Mark Wallis

    There certainly is something satisfying about crossing items off your to do list. I’ve found the flip side of that is having items on the list that are ‘too big’ and take too long to get done make me start avoiding my to do list. In other words when I’m not getting that ‘crossing the items off’ satisfaction I have less desire to even open my to do list. Breaking big tasks down into many smaller ones definitely helps and I really like your idea of putting some ‘easy wins’ on there too 🙂

  8. “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.”

    I’ve been having some severe problems with my snooze-button – to the point of walking in my sleep across the room, turning it off, and then going back to bed…

    Putting an alarm clock next to the coffee machine is an awesome idea 🙂

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