Working the List

I am currently reading the book, ‘Getting Things Done’ by David Allen, reviewing major points about it. I have read quite a lot of advices about the GTD method in various blogs/ articles/ videos. The book is giving me a more comprehensive look at it both as a system and a practice.

Two points stand out for me:
– Next action
– Capturing (as mindsweep or braindump)

While on one hand, I am awed by the thorough detailing of the system in the book, on the other hand, I am also getting overwhelmed by the sheer weight of executing it in practice.

To escape out of the pain, I have started reading and re-reading posts by Richard Branson and James Altucher.


Because they take a completely contrasting views when it comes to ‘to-do list’. While James considers to-do list as evil, Richard attributes his success of him being an ardent list maker – that he build his empire (literally) out of the list in his notebooks.

My position – using a list to write your thoughts, ideas, questions, tasks is useful in and of itself. Using a pen and paper, I found, also aids my thinking process either by making a list, mind mapping or freewriting. I like the cuteness of maintaining a personal dairy – tasks included.

The classic argument by David Allen is that the power of externalizing one’s thoughts and committing it on paper frees one’s mind up for more creative endeavor and sharp attention to the work at hand. As he is famously quoted saying, ‘The mind is for having ideas, not holding them!’ In the recent 2015 edition of GTD (the book), he dedicates an entire chapter to note recent development in cognitive sciences that validate this hypothesis. Though with its shortfalls, I think there is merit in capturing thoughts in written format. Knowing that ‘the stuff’ is on my list, in my notebook assures that it will not be lost and will be attended as and when appropriate.

Now that brings us to the next big question, how to engage that’s written and act on it.

No To-do List Week!

I did a small experiment to live my week without using a to-do list – neither a catch-all/ master list not a daily/ dynamic list. The constraint I placed on myself is to work from brain literally – to use only my mind to remember and recall my tasks for the job at hand.

I, of course, took notes, made mind maps of things, but I also learnt something useful.

Lessons Learnt

For a to-do list maker, it may seem odd how one can live without a list, but mind it that most of us work and getaway without using a task list. On the other hand, as warned by Mark Forster, since most use it doesn’t mean it is the most effective or efficient.

Not using a to-do list is, however, effective when one’s job tasks are fixed like any physical intensive work like farming for example. The tasks are defined and confined to set of seasonal activities. Though it would involve planning, but the definitiveness and more so the lack of choice of doing other things makes it easier to follow.

Consider a hypothetical ‘to-do list’ of a farmer:

  • Wake up
  • Go to the farm
  • Do plant and animal husbandry work
  • Return home

Similarly, my wife, except for making a grocery list, doesn’t use a to-do list. She has almost all her work for the day scheduled to every minute (like feeding my daughter, bathing her, reading, etc) and sticks to it religiously.

But on the contrary, one of the fundamental task of a knowledge worker is to create his/ her own tasks which markedly differentiates itself from other work.

The to-do list needs to be ‘created’ by a knowledge worker, not just given. More so, most of us the knowledge workers work from our laptop with internet connectivity and most of activities might have deadlines are not hard stops. They are more human contracts rather than constraint of the job itself.

This said, it also perpetuates the sense/ lack of direction thereof. Hence the emphasis on planning in knowledge work.

To-do list, I believe, to be a subset of planning and engagement. So, the last week, wherever there was meetings, defined outcomes, my sense of direction was clear or at least I wasn’t bothered by. But wherever I didn’t have it, I did feel a bit lost.

I tried creating ‘done list’, but abandoned as I realised the only benefit of it is reflection of day’s work, which I was not very excited about. A to-do list I reckoned will provide with me both the sense of direction and reflection on the day’s work done (by the ‘strikethroughs’ and ‘checks’).

On a simple note, I also missed the dopamine rush that I get out of crossing a task off. More importantly, recording ideas/ tasks/ whatever it might be, gave some reassurance that I get to attend to it at least later.

Experiment for the coming week

Mark Forster is currently writing about his experiments using a ‘long list‘. I am planning to do the same by using a catch-all/ master-list as my main list – rather than a dump list as I have been using it so far. I even migrated the list to the running pages in my notebook rather than recording it in last pages.

Though Mark says he is using a full scanning list, I am planning to use a ‘FIFO’ method of processing the tasks, which is creatively named ‘Another Little Method’.

Here are it’s instructions:

“Another Little Method

1. Write down as many tasks as you want—but they must be done in the order they are written.
2. You can add and re-enter tasks at any time.
3. You can reschedule by crossing tasks out.
4. Experiencing resistance to the list should always be taken as a sign that rescheduling is needed.”

I will let you know how it goes in the next week.

172 days!

“Everyone should write a blog, every day, even if no one reads it. There’s countless reasons why it’s a good idea and I can’t think of one reason it’s a bad idea.” – Seth Godin

Three things happened tonight in a matter of one hour that led to this blog.

First, a friend of mine shared that he was writing a short story, ‘Vazhve Mayam’ (Life is a Delusion). He just shared it with me – I was the first one to read.

Second, I read an article about ‘Woody Allen: A Documentary’. ‘Writing is a great life,’ says Woody Allen.

Finally, I read the above quote by Seth here.

There is a beauty in expression. Especially for an introvert like whose tongue-tying moments are more often than expected, it is a mandatory exercise.

I have praised about freewriting earlier, but these days in the name of work, I forgot to indulge.

I am writing again and writing I will.

The savvy rational mind set a target in the beginning of the year to write 50 posts this year. I crossed writing 100 posts last year. Not a bad target for a crappy writer.

But thanks to Seth’s inspiration, what if I try writing everyday, a plip, a peep into my life’s process, a reminscence into my mind’s indulges… How I forgot to write for pleasure… do things for the love of it…

I got 172 days left!

What say?

Complex, not Complicated

Dictionaries define these two words synonymously. They are, in fact, very different.

Education is a complex issue1. Like any other human systems.

Complicated things can be explained by examining their individual parts. Complex ones cannot. They are always more than sum of its parts.

A jet engine is complicated. Mayonnaise is complex. People tend to describe themselves as complex and their spouse as complicated.2

Unfortunately, our analytical/ logical brain is unable to make this distinction. And many a clever people, despite having good intentions, do more harm than good3. There is even a term for this ‘iatrogenics’.

  1. Thanks to my friend(s) who suggested me to write articles on ‘Education’
  2. Thanks to Derek Sivers’ summary of ‘The Geography of Genius’ that inspired this idea on complex and complicated.
  3. ‘Want to Help Someone? Shut up and Listen!’ Thanks to this funny yet inspiring TED Talk by Ernesto Sirolli

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When Enough is Enough

I was travelling in a bus. I overheard a conversation.

It was heated, yet a philosophical argument between the bus conductor and a fellow passenger. A point came when the bus conductor was replied, “Except for ‘food’ man doesn’t say enough for anything.” It made sense.

I am on this quest for minimalism – an effort to reduce my wants and greeds of the material possessions and abstract temptations. On the other hand, I am also a productivity geek. It felt like I was contradicting myself, as the two ideas ‘minimalism’ and ‘productivity’ were at odds with each other.

Minimalism proposes to reduce one’s use of stuff and things and live the bare minimum that one may require. But the conventional definition of productivity suggests doing more in less – technically to improve efficiency with the least cost, time and resource.

I was wondering whether it would make sense to re-define my idea of productivity with the new insight I am having? By doing so, will it be possible for me to bring these two opposing ethos together in my life?

Introducing the Enough List

The answer came from one of my favourite bloggers, Joshua Becker of Becoming Minimalist introducing to me the idea of minimalist to-do list. The article refers to the interesting practice of Melissa Camara Wilkins using her ‘enough’ list. She talks about limiting one’s to-do list and not be overwhelmed by one’s every-growing to-do list.

Unrelatedly, I was also re-reading another of Mark Forster’s article on No-list systems. In that blog post, he basically presented to different types of lists and put an open question across stating which one do you thing will help be get more done. Not to say, Mark concluded that having a shorter list will increase more productivity than having a longer list.

And Why This Happen?

Our to-do list are usually our nice to-do list. The question I would want to pose to you is what if we draw an upper limit of things that we want to do, could do.

James Clear talks about setting this ‘upper bound’ in this article. It also resonated with me how it also matters to me to be how ambitious I can be. Not to be carried away by such irrational statements like ‘Nothing is impossible.’ It is the ability to say enough.

It also says about putting an upper limit for one’s lifestyle choices and it helps as well.

  • What are the areas you would put an ‘upper limit’ to?
  • How would you make your ever-growing to-do list and make it an ‘enough list’?

Try these suggestions for a week and let me know.