On The Todo List

(Epistemic status: Endorsed, a thing I actually do. Reframing of a common, basic productivity tool)

I hate todo lists.

I don’t mean that I hate todo lists because I have to do things on them – I love doing things on a todo list. What I mean is I hate the platonic ideal of todo lists. They’re backwards. You’re trying to move towards a goal by frontloading day by day without considering the bigger picture. The minute I realized this, I reinvented how I tried to arrange my days. It turns out, when you align to outcome, life becomes a lot easier to figure out.

The best todo list is the one that writes itself. How do you have a todo list that writes itself? You have a clear strategic vision and trickle down from there. If you get too caught up in the tactical view, you’re going to miss the bigger picture – worse still, you’re going to fool yourself into feeling like you’ve been Productive the entire time. You’ll find yourself a few months down the line confused as to why nothing seemed to happen that you expected, despite having cutting edge productivity technology. Therefore, the first question you ask when writing a todo list is not “what do I want to accomplish tomorrow?” The first question you ask is “What kind of person do I want to be by [timescale]?” What [timescale] means for you is something you have to ask yourself as well. The question I personally have to ask myself is “What kind of person do I want to be by August 31?” The answer to this question is your Mission – this is the overarching intention of your productivity toolset.

Next question you ask is “To be that person, what do I need to accomplish?” This is your strategic view. You want to give broad descriptions of measurable outcomes. In my situation, it’s what skills have I acquired to what level. I’d likely measure this in terms of “what am I capable of in a given skill” – for parkour, maybe I want to be able to handle advanced classes. For hypnosis, maybe I want to have a certain amount of experience under my belt. For programming, working knowledge of Python and JS syntax might be the benchmark. That’s the strategic view, being too specific is bad – you want the shape of the thing.

Next question is “What would I need to achieve in the next month to move towards this goal?” This is where your tactical view should be. At this point, you know the general idea of what you want, so you can start being more specific. In my case, I’m looking to accomplish a certain programming project within a month – maybe I also want to take 4 parkour classes and regularly practice at the local parkour gym – maybe I also want to make sure I take on at least four hypnosis sessions to practice fundamentals. This is where you start getting to nitty gritty.

Next question is “What would I need to achieve in the next week to move towards my monthly goals?” You’ll notice, the list starts writing itself here – you’ve reached operational view. Obviously, I need to have 25% of the project done – I need to have taken a parkour class – I need to get in at least 1 hypnosis session. You have numbers and specific measures, it’s just math from here.

Last question is, “What would I need to achieve tomorrow to move towards my weekly goals?” The breakdown is automatic here, you prioritize what you’ve done the least of, respecting time constraints around some activities. The resolution at this level is so sharp that you could probably write my todo list for me from the information I’ve given – that’s what I mean when I say the todo list writes itself.

Overall, this isn’t new technology – businesses run on a mission, with views at the strategic, tactical, and operational level. People who play strategy games at a high level also understand this. When you start from your day, you aren’t moving in a consistent direction – when you start from an outcome, the path writes itself. I do a few other things with my todo lists for accountability, but this is the basic framework. The traditional todo list is obedience to your past self – a proper todo list is obedience to your future self.

Discussion questions: Have you ever stopped using todo lists because you didn’t seem to be getting anywhere? Have you ever been trapped by using productivity tools that weren’t serving a specific outcome? How does this reframing affect your approach to outcome orientation?


One thought on “On The Todo List

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