Is it Time to Retire the Never-Ending List?

One afternoon, earlier this year, as I was scanning a long list that I was adding to endlessly, I realized, I’ll never get it all done. That’s probably just fine. But this endless list and this feeling of being completely scheduled’s not working right now.

I met some friends for dinner and put the question out: Do you have a never-ending list? Do you manage your time? Do you manage minutes, tasks, and lists? Do you start each day with a list that has more on it at the end of the day than it did at the beginning of the day, in spite of how many items are completed and crossed off?

Or do you manage your attention? Do you manage emotions, intention, and make choices about what will and will not get done? What are your favorite ways to do this?
I got such an interesting set of answers, that, these last few months, I made a point of asking a variety of people: office workers, surgeons, physicians, artists, parents, and CEOs. Here’s what I’ve learned.

In the cases where people reported managing their time, they more often reported experiencing burn-out, they didn’t know how much longer they could go on at their particular job or lifestyle. There was often a sense of helplessness and overwhelm. The endless list, the one that gets added to and never completed, at the center of it all, left them with a heavy heart and a burdened sense of tomorrow. There was no celebration of what had been accomplished, no kick back and enjoy after a day well done. Office workers with schedules packed with meetings, projects, and overflowing email boxes reported best efforts to manage time; best efforts that left them breathless. Physicians, rapidly cycling through appointments and report writing, focused on time and efficiency. Time. Efficiency. Lists. Tasks.

What did surgeons, artists, and CEOs have in common? Most of them reported that they managed both their time and their attention. In surgery, in the studio, and in the time carved out to think through strategies and issues, these professionals reported shutting down the devices and endless inputs (email, phone, interruptions), at scheduled times, and claiming those moments to focus. In almost every case, these professionals reported experiencing “flow” (a la Csikszentmihalyi) in their work.

We think we know what attention is. In fact, today’s dictionary will tell us it’s the “concentration of the mental powers upon an object.” This definition assumes our attention can effectively be everywhere, all the time. We haven’t always thought of attention this way.

In 1890, when the psychologist, William James, gave a definition of attention, he described it as, “taking possession by the mind in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”
How to switch from managing time to managing attention?

Here are some of the suggestions I’ve collected so far and I hope you’ll comment to let me know your suggestions:
1. Each evening or morning before you start your day, make a short list of your intentions (the result and feeling of something you want) for the day and by each, write the related to do’s for that day. Try to keep your list to 5 intentions. Consciously choose what you will do and what you will not do. Keep a different list of what you will review for inclusion on other days.
2. List only what you really expect to do that day. As other things come to mind, write them on a separate list. By putting these items on a separate list, you are creating the space to be in the moment with each of your day’s priorities. Review that list as you plan for the next day and determine how they fit in to your plans. Give yourself some down time, enjoy your successes at the end of the day.
3. Give yourself meaningful blocks of uninterrupted time to focus on each intention. Turn OFF technology each day during those blocks and focus on your intentions.
4. At home, be clear about what technology you’ll use and where. Computer in the kitchen? Maybe not. A friend of mine just removed the computer from her kitchen and said she is now far less likely to stop to constantly check email or news. In the kitchen, she pays attention to her family and prepares food. Sometimes they do group family activities at the kitchen table. When she heads into her office to work on her computer, her children know not to disturb her while she works.

Untethered technology gives us the freedom to do nearly anything, anytime, anywhere. It can also enslave us – we feel compelled to use it where ever it is. Technology is neutral. How, when and where we use it is up to us.

How about you? Do you manage your time? Your attention? Or both? How? What advice would you offer?

This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

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  • The more efficient my organisation system, the more efficiently I add things to my lists. Help!

  • Sachin

    Very nicely articulated. Time management is not the key, attention management is. There was a time when I used to feel I would be more productive if I worked from home rather than from my workplace, where there were frequent interruptions and just too much going on around me that made it difficult to focus. On the occasions when I worked from home, I was far more efficient in dealing with the tasks I had to complete.

    Then I had the opportunity to work solely from home for an extended time period. Soon the boundary between work and spare time dissolved. I found myself greatly dissatisfied with the results: I was not satisfied with the output and there was never a feeling that the work day had ended.

    To my mind, it is very important to have a certain amount of discipline in time allocation to key outcomes. My personal experience is that if you did that and stick to it more often than not, you are more satisfied. Regarding how to deal with the encroachment of technology in our lives, there are no universal answers, it is personal.

  • Kevin Eves

    There’s a really good book, The Power of Full Engagement (PoFE), that looks at this in a very effective manner, not at the tactical level of calendar/to-do list management (that’s more a GTD domain), but at the attention level, and it’s relation, energy levels. 15 minutes of focused, high-energy attention may be work more than 2 hours or distracted, burnt out time, accomplishing a task better and faster. PoFE addresses this by asking people to take a careful look at how they address energy expenditure and renewal across physical, mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions, and provides a framework for helping someone address all of them.

    I’ve been developing a personal approach that combines PoFE for an overarching framework, Getting Things Done for tactical organization skills, some aspects from the Driven to Distraction and related books on ADD for nutrition and focusing exercises, and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work on mindfulness.

    I do keep a long list, but I also make sure each day starts with a short lists, and I’m working managing my tasks by when I’m going to START them, not when I need to finish them. PoFE reports that numerous studies indicate much greater success in task completion when the time to start a task is planned, not just when it’s due. So far, it’s helping.

  • Call the uberlist a manyana list; things you want to do ‘sometime’. Put it somewhere else and look back at it from time to time. then keep your to do lsit to things you’re actually going to do. if you can’t take enough things off the list to make it manageable, the problem is not your list system, it’s your job and your life ;-)

  • We find that making a list just before retiring for the night works wonders for the next day.

    The list should include as much as possible – from the time to get up, what to wear for that day and what first phone calls should be made during the morning

    It also helps getting to sleep faster and preparing for work faster

  • At first, David Allen’s dictum of get it all captured, get it all down was oddly reassuring–until I saw the magnitude of my lists–and their incompleteness. One of my mentors has a saying, “focus on the right things,” what lists lack is a clear sense of what merits focus. Can’t remember the citation, but it might have been in Being An Effective Executive, where Drucker writes about how good leaders focus on a single initiative at firm and discusses the importance of thinking. The immediacy and interrupt driven nature of today’s technology–from Twitter to IM doesn’t lend itself to deep thought and reflection. And while we’ve definitely gotten faster, I’m not sure it’s make us smarter or better at focusing on the right things.

  • Jim S.

    My reaction to GTD was about like yours Ted. I got off to a great start with it until I ended up with a list even bigger than I imagined that gave me no priority guidance.

    Anyway, there was a good piece in the NYT’s yesterday on the related topic of technology interruptions:

  • I’m not at all opposed to lists…. it’s the NEVER-ENDING list, the morale-zapping, road to hopelessness and despair list, the list that won’t stop LISTING… that’s the one to retire! Like Universe, I sometimes write a list before I go to bed; get it all out of my head so that I go to bed with a sense of freedom from trying not to forget something that might matter. I’ve begun to do the attention management piece that goes with that, though — it might include some “tasky” items, like: Prepare for house guest (do x, y and z), as well as something like, write 1000 words. I’ve found that when I have too many things on my mind or when I’m being directed by a never-ending list, I’m at the highest risk for losing focus and trying to do four things at once — almost always, poorly! When I have a sense of clarity about what my focus is in the moment and stay in the present, I both enjoy what I’m doing and feel better about what I’ve done and my day.

    Jim S., thank you for linking to the NYT piece. When I read it, I couldn’t help but think — oh my gosh, they may try to address this very directly with programs like email free Friday. I think there are really creative, out of the box solutions — for example, create games driven by breathing or pulse. These are calming and focusing. Breathing determines emotion and emotion determines breathing. MUCH easier to keep things in perspective when we’re not in “fight or flight.”

  • I am a compulsive list-maker–but I’m wondering what folks like Timothy Wilson, author of “Stranger To Ourselves,” and the notion of the adaptive unconscious, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in “Blink” and other folks like John Medina would say about the NEVER ending list. I think digital tools have a way of being persistent , insistent and subject to endless revisions with little tangible progress–just more digital bits shuffled. It’s part of what makes chores, as humble as weeding so satisfying–I can see what’s been done.

    I like what you said Lisa about having a sense of clarity of focus in the moment–it reminded me Csikszentmihalyi’s flow channel–the critical conditions being something not too difficult nor too easy.

    Really enjoyed the article and the conversation thread.

  • If you tried GTD and found yourself panicking at a list “even bigger than I imagined that gave me no priority guidance.” you haven’t understood GTD.

    The point of GTD is more as Linda and Mary describe it. That long list of everything is your Someday/Maybe list. By “getting it on the list” you get the thought out of your brain. It’s safe. You don’t need to keep thinking about it and you don’t need to do it now.

    The REAL lists are the ones you’re working on. What needs to be done today? What can you do in the half hour between meetings? Ensure that you make all of your calls during “phone call time” instead of flipping from call to email to errand to call.

    Linda’s “intentions” and “meaningful blocks of time” sound (to me) a lot like David Allen’s “contexts”.

    Linda, have you read “Getting Things Done”? I think it would resonate. :)

  • Excellent post, Linda, but one idea re flow missing from your list: ritual, that is, the conscious arrangement of physical and mental cues to get into and later out of the kind of focused, concentrated, highly-productive state missing in many of our lives.

    Examples: Steven Pressfield (The War of Art) talks about the rituals of how he writes. Other writers have discussed everything from “lucky” shirts and hats they wear only when writing.

    We create tools – and tools shape us. One area we’re sorely lacking good design is in how to effectively move from multi-communication (emailing/IM/Twitter/social network sites) to creative-productive (first draft of a chapter) to social engaged (f2f) and back during the course of a workday.

  • Jim S.

    @Vicki I guess you’re right, I haven’t understood it. I read the book, I bought the tools (Omnifocus is my post Kinkless tool of choice), and so on but it just doesn’t really work for me. I felt this great sigh of relief to have gotten the stuff out of my head and onto a list complete with context and project but then it didn’t help me one whit when I arrived at my desk and would have to figure out what to actually do. It also does little for the reality of the time space continuum thingy that leaves me with more list than time no matter what system I use.

    What seems to be working better for me is having one big important goal and then just work on it till it’s done. In the meantime I pretty much ignore everything else. Then, between big goals I use a little bit of downtime to do BS cleanup and placate all the people whose demands that I ignored for a while.

    By the way, I didn’t say I “panicked”, I just said it didn’t work. :)