Oliver Burkeman on to-do lists

I am astonished afresh each time I'm reminded that there are people who don't use to-do lists. They get up, do things all day, then go to bed. At no point in this process do they cross off tasks in a notebook, fill in timetables with coloured felt-tip pens or organise complex systems of Post-its. They just do things. The notion of dedicating time to time-management strikes them as perverse, so presumably the idea of weighing the pros and cons of different kinds of to-do lists, as I've been doing recently, would trigger paroxysms of horror. Obviously these people are freaks and should be shunned. This week's column isn't for them.

For those of us who do keep a to-do list, whether sporadically or religiously, it's often a cause of mixed feelings. Writing a list provides a sense of control. But if you fail to complete it - or even end the day with a longer list than you started with - the feeling is one of defeat and of losing control. We use lists to help us focus but, then again, we value spontaneity; we don't want to feel governed by the list. We're also dimly aware that making lists can be a form of procrastination: you feel as if you're taking constructive action when you're not.

Is there a way to use to-do lists happily, without adding stress or killing spontaneity? There's an absurd amount of writing on the topic, but only a handful of key points:

1 Don't use one list for multiple purposes: are you using a single list both as a reminder of everything you're committed to doing, and as a menu of tasks for one specific day? That's a recipe for stress - plus you'll never get the buzz of crossing the last item off a list, which all anal-retentives treasure. So keep two: a "master list", which you should never expect to "finish", and a daily list, created by selecting tasks from the master list.

2 Use "will-do", not "to-do" lists: When making the daily list, don't pick 20 things you hope to do and that you think will add up to one day's work: you'll overestimate your capacities. Instead, pick the three or four most important things, and really commit to doing them, even if you think they'll take you only a couple of hours, suggests Luciano Passuello at litemind.com. Keeping promises to yourself like this is exhilarating; if you find you have time to spare, pick more items from the master list.

3 The daily list should be a "closed list": new work floods in constantly, but don't add it to the current day's list unless it's an emergency: keep that list "closed" and add the incoming items to the master list. (Mark Forster takes this principle much further in his absorbing book Do It Tomorrow, but that's the gist.) Oh, and you know how you sometimes add a task to a list even though you've already completed it, just for the thrill of crossing it out? (Admit it: you do.) That's allowed. We tragic list-makers must take our pleasures where we can.


Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.