To Do or Not To do — Mastering Action Lists

All of us begin our lives in a state where our days are free of responsibility. There is absolutely nothing a baby has to do except be a baby. Nothing is expected of her and she may pass the entire day feeding, playing, smiling, cuddling and sleeping. Of course, if she did not any of those things, a doctor might be consulted to ascertain that all is well with her.

The baby’s parents, on the other hand, have a thousand things to do and remember, from bathing her, feeding her, making sure she has clean clothes, and enough toys to play with. Put in the language of this chapter, a baby has no to-do’s, while her parents feel like there are not enough hours in the day for all the things they have to do.

Take a young man of about 35 years. From the endearing freedom of babyhood, he has grown into a man who has to struggle to find time to cook his own food, spend quality time with his wife and children and squeeze out two weeks for a holiday in the Seychelles. He has literally a thousand things to do and not enough time to do it in.

Another example will illustrate this further: a beggar sitting by the side of the road has only one major thing to do through his day: put his pan out and repeat a few sentences to passing pedestrians. An unemployed youth may have only a couple of things to do — search for new work opportunities, and apply for new jobs. Of course, this is in addition to other things he has to do, such as eating, bathing and so on.

The more successful you are, the longer you to-do list will be. And the more things you have to do, the greater the chances that you will forget some of of them. Making a list of things to do is the simplest, most effective way of ensuring that you complete all the things you have to do during a day, a week, a month, a year or a lifetime.

And voila — you have the birth of a new and powerful tool for being productive and achieving the life goals you have set for yourself using your Vision, Mission and step-by-step Goals.

Specially over the last few years, the To Do list has emerged as a powerful new productivity tool, and different professionals have applied their minds to it, coming up with one system after another, each one claiming to be the system that works best. As people began to reflect on the nature of the things we do in our lives and think about ways to get things done effectively, insights emerged and from them there came systems.

Why To-do lists are important

Before answering this, let us note the obvious. Most people get through their lives without making to-do lists. Your parents probably never made a daily to-do list of all the things they needed to do for their newborn baby — you. Your school teacher probably had only one simple list — and that was of the different classes he or she was supposed to teach that day. None of them felt there was a big gap in their lives or a big problem with getting things done. To suggest to such a person that they need to form the new habit of making a To-do list would be an invitation to be rejected instantly.

But then you remember that your mother actually did make a to-do list, usually scrawled on a slip of paper with a pencil. It was a to-do list of groceries and vegetables to buy. She might have described it as a ‘shopping list’ but it was nevertheless a list of things to do once at the grocery. Because the list was long, she did not trust herself to simply remember every item, and made a list.

This lets us draw our first few conclusions —

1. To-do lists are important but not to everyone and not all the time.

2. The more successful you are, the longer will be your list of things to do — and the greater your need for a way to manage your to-dos.

3. The more active you are, the greater your need for managing your to-dos. In general, successful people tend to be more active.

The Source Code To Success suggests that the best time to form a new habit is when you don’t need to so that it is available when you do. A to-do list may feel unnecessary in your early ____ (days) when your list of things requiring your action is shorter enough to remember in your head. This is precisely the best time to start forming a habit of making to-do lists because they will be easy to make and won’t feel like an imposing new habit. Once you train yourself to work with to-do lists, you will realize how much easier they make your life.

You will also realize what a tremendous sense of accomplishment they give you at the end of the day when you look at your list and see check marks next to each of them. A completed to-do list is its own reward, giving you a sense of being in charge of your life and future.

We can take inspiration from the words of Richard Branson, the eclectic, adventurous founder of the Virgin group, which houses more than 400 companies and gives him a net worth of over US$ 5 billion. In a blog post, Branson squarely attributed a good part of his success to his “love of writing lists”, which he discovered at a younger age.. He shared a to-do list from November 6, 1972, when he was . The list featured not only the big tasks ahead of him that day but also smaller, simpler tasks such as cleaning up, and inviting more people to his record studio, The Manor.

“Lists not only provide a structure for getting things done,” said Branson, “but they also help us to set goals and achieve our dreams.”

Sounds familiar? It should have because the The Source Code To Success has guided you in creating your own precise statements of Vision, Mission and Goals. Like Branson did, you now need a powerful tool to make those dreams come true, and the habit of making to-do lists is right there, just waiting for you to pick it up.

Understanding to-do lists

One of the early insights into to-do lists came from James Covey’s best-selling 7 Habits of Successful People. He said that most people get through their lives never getting around to doing important things because the things that really matter seldom feel urgent. For example, you may know that spending time with your wife or children is really important, but your day-to-day business or professional responsible may feel more immediate and urgent. The result? Late hours in the office and deteriorating family relationships.

Covey suggested that to-dos could be classified according to their importance and their urgency. He proposed a simple table to make this concept visual —








Even making this simple classification suddenly makes you realize how many things you are doing that are neither urgent nor important (the bottom right square). Equally you suddenly realize that you are preoccupied with some things that feel really urgent but have no importance in your life.

A simple tool like the Urgent-Important grid alone suddenly gives your life’s tasks a brand new perspective. However, the productivity experts were just getting warmed. Over the decades that followed Covey’s book, many others have analyzed the world of to-dos, and more insights bubbled up.

One of the most popular to-do list systems is known simply as GTD, an acronym for Getting Things Done. Its founder, David Allen, has built a veritable industry around GTD, including training courses, online and offline tools, apps and seminars. He says, ” I’m often identified by my description of a relaxed balance of perspective and control, known as “mind like water.” This is not an empty mind (it’s impossible to have nothing on your mind, if you’re conscious); it’s a mind that is operating at a more productive and creative level. GTD helps you achieve and maintain that optimal condition, by using your mental energies to think about things rather than think of them.”

Thinking about things is different from thinking of them. David Allen’s five step formula for GTD is —

1. CAPTURE: Collect what has your attention — Use an in-basket, notepad or voice recorder to capture 100% of everything that has your attention. Little, big, personal and professional — all your to-do’s, projects, things to handle or finish.

2. CLARIFY: Process what it means — Take everything you have captured and ask: is it actionable. It not, then trash it or file it away as a reference. If yes, decide the very next action required. It will take less than two minutes, do it now. If not, delegate it if you can; or put it on a list to do when you can.

3. ORGANIZE: Put it where it belongs — Put action reminders on the right lists. For example, create lists for the appropriate categories, such as calls to make, errands to run, emails to send etc.

4. REFLECT: Review frequently — Look over your lists as often as necessary to determine what to do next. Do a weekly review to clean up, update your lists and clear your mind.

5. ENGAGE: Simply do — Use your system to take appropriate actions with confidence.

Despite its great popularity, the GTD system is only one of many systems and ways of looking at to-do lists that are currently available to you. However, no matter which system of to-do list management you adopt, you will find two common threads — making categories, and setting priorities. Organizing your to-dos into meaningful groups and then deciding which ones have higher priority are key processes in any to-do list management approach.

Understanding now and then, before and after

Perhaps two of the most useful thoughts in understanding and organizing to-dos have been the realization that many action come with a specific time requirement, while some are time-independent. Think of these as ‘now-and-then to-do’s’.

Similarly there are to-do’s that belong within a sequence. To take an example from air travel, you cannot get to Immigration in an airport until you have passed through the security check, and you cannot board the plane until after that. Think of these as ‘before-and-after to-do’s’.

This perspective suggests several categories right away: Today, Tomorrow, This Week, This Month, This Year, Sometime, Anytime. These could be further sub-grouped under Importance and Urgency, using the initial letters, U and I. Thus you could have sub-categories such as I-not-U and U-and-I.

It also suggests that you could group some of your to-do’s as projects, with multiple small steps that must be done in a certain sequence for ultimate success.

Do you see how this links now with your step-by-step Goals and actions? You have set goals for yourself in 11 important areas of your life, including Health, Wealth, Relationships, Spiritual, Personal Development and so on. The to-do list allows you to treat each of these as a lifelong project and analyze them into by sequence and priority. This will generate a daily list of to-do’s for you in each area of your goals.

A To-do system of my own

The To-do list management system you use will finally reflect your own priorities and preferences. However, I want to share with you a simple method that has served me and my organization very well indeed for many long years. I understand that developing a habit of creating and using to-do lists itself is an important and difficult to-do. By following my three-step system, I hope that you will be able to gradually the consolidate the habit of to-do lists in your own life. The three stages you will follow are —

1. General To-do List

2. Priority-based To-do List

3. To-do list aligned with your Vision, Mission, Action Plan and Values

Let’s look at each in turn.

Stage 1 – General To Do List

In this, you list down everything that comes to your mind which needs to be done. Don’t overthink; just make a quick and long list, and do this preferably just before you wind down your day’s work. Plan the following day, listing everything that need to be done. For one month, do nothing more than try to create the habit of executing this simple to do list, with undue pressure on yourself. Don’t go too hard on yourself if you don’t complete all the items in your list for a day. Now organize your to-do list into a plan.

1. Decide what you want to do

2. Write it down

3. Organize your to-do list into a plan

4. Execute your PLAN

Stage 2 – Priority-based To-Do List

Now that you have a list for the day, you can prioritize the items and implement them in that order. For example, you may have 50 things to do in your to-do list out but have now prioritized the top 10 most essential items in that list that you must complete by the end of the day. Spend a complete month implementing this system and making it a habit.

Stage 3 — To-do list aligned with your Vision, Mission and Values

You are now ready to start implementing your To-do list according to its alignment with your Vision, Mission and Goals.

Let’s say you had over 50 things to do in your General To-do list but have prioritized the seven most essential things among them. Right then, you receive a call that a potential candidate is eager to join your company and is ready to be interviewed at your office right away. You know that your team is your power and your asset and will accelerate the progress towards your Vision. In accordance with Value, you will now amend your To-do list on the fly to add the candidate interview as your new #1 priority.

The Stop-doing List and the Not To-do List

Most books on this subject will talk about how to organize the things you have to do, but the The Source Code To Success places great importance also on the things you are doing that you should stop doing. I call this the Stop-doing list. It is the list that removes activities that have served their purpose and are now merely hindering your progress. To make your Stop-doing list, you must ask yourself certain key questions —

1. What are you currently doing that do not align with your Vision, Mission and Values?

2. What current activities are unnecessarily dividing your attention and focus? Is it wiser to focus on ten different things or a few important things?

3. What are the few activities that you need to do continuously to progress in life?

4. What are the things you need to stop doing in the 11 areas of your life (Health, Wealth, Relationships etc)?

Equally important, if not more so, is the Not To-do List, which includes things you must not do so that your focus remains like a laser on the essential and the important. The Not To-do list gives you a way to weed out the irrelevant diversions that take up time and energy but do not contribute in any significant way to your success in life.

A word from Mr Buffett

It is said that the difference between successful people and very successful people is that the latter say no to almost everything. And who better to show how this works than the billionaire investor Warren Buffett, one of the world’s most inspiring and visionary individuals. The anecdote emerged almost by random chance through Mike Flint, a man who had been Buffett’s personal airplane pilot for many years. Flint was a seasoned pilot, having flown four US presidents in his career. Flint remember that while in conversation with Buffett about his career and priorities, he was asked put through a simple exercise consisting of three steps.

First, Buffett asked him to list his top 25 career goals. After some reflection, Flint made up his list.

Next, Buffett asked him to encircle his top five most important goals among the 25. Once again, Flint did as instructed. The five circled items were his A List and the remaining 20 uncircled items were his B List. Flint told Buffett that he would obviously be working on his A List right away.

This was the moment when Buffett unexpectedly asked him, “What about the other 20?”

“They’re still important,” Flint replied, “so I’ll keep at them as and when I have the time. I’ll give them dedicated time when I can.”

Buffett smiled and replied, “You’ve got that part wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Costs list or the Not to Do List. These things get no attention from you until you’ve completed your top 5.”

The reason why Buffett’s idea was pure genius is that he was asking Mike to eliminate 20 things from his list that he actually cared about. It’s no great feat to get delete clearly wasteful and irrelevant activities. It’s a different thing entirely to remove things that actually matter to you. Buffett had the brilliance to recognize that the things that slow you down and derail you will be tasks you care about but that aren’t truly important.

You can do this Buffett’s 3-step exercise in the privacy of your room. Your list may have more than 25 items. If you go through the 11 life areas one by one, you should not find this very difficult. Take your time, and be sure of yourself at each step. Remember, you will be asked to ruthlessly strike out whatever is not on your top five to-do’s list, no matter how much it matters to you.

As James Clear, writer on habits and human potential, put it, “The most dangerous distractions are the ones you love, but that don’t love you back.”

Or to paraphrase another famous writer Michael Hyatt -, “To do or not to do, that is the question.”

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