The Old Blog Archive, 2005-2009

Against To-Do Lists

I always have problem with the various methodologies that teach you organizing your own to-do lists. I often wonder what the to-do list of an achieved artist, architect or designer looks like. I even wonder if they ever come up with to-do lists at all.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t make to-do lists or I suspect others don’t. As a programmer I can’t value the tools too much. Many professions, software development included, require team work and project management. You need all kind of techniques and measurements to ensure the things get delivered.

But I sometimes really question the philosophy of compartmentalizing your core activity, what to-do lists or what the more sophisticated (and widely marketed) schools teach you.

The problem is many activities, creative ones especially, are not the ones you can desire. There are, if you listen to yourself careful enough, I believe, moments in life when you don’t feel the pressure that you have to do this and this in order to reach the goal. There are moments when you just feel the urge to do something. And there are, sometimes, those very rare moments when you just do something, and only after its accomplishment that you realized you did it. When such moments come, be they the “feeling the urge” mode or the “post hoc realization” mode, any to-do item becomes self-evident and natural, and there is no such “I have to do this” pressure on it.

That’s why I wonder what people’s to-do lists look like. I’ve tried a few personal organizing tools and methodologies, and I was very bad at adopting them. Sometimes I even felt I was adapting myself to them, that is, by definition, modifying my own modus operandi–even though I wasn’t sure what it really was–to fit in their molds.

It turned out that I’m an organized but indisciplined person. That’s such an oxymoron. I’ve tried, twice successfully, to run a period of my life waking up every day at 7 am, jogging for 3000 meters, and starting to working in the morning, and calling it a day by sunset, to my benefits–I did a lot during those two periods. To get things done. There were a lot of to-do lists. But I wasn’t very happy because of that. Later on, I found myself organizing best when I oscillate between paper to-do lists, post-it notes, OmniOutliner, text editors (and I use four: SubEthaEdit, TextMate, TextEdit and vim) and on my iPod Touch. Usually I run my “to-do app” on one of those tools for a while, then move on to another in the next period, and the cycle goes on. That’s what I mean by “indisciplined organization”: I’m not bound by an overarching methodology to run my own life. And I am happy with it.

But there are sometimes those periods of life where I was occupied entirely by one project, or sometimes the situation became that I was so busy and I didn’t even have time to do to-do list. I was knocked out of doing them. And many times the post hoc realization has been that I was even happier because I didn’t need to be driven by to-do lists.

That’s how I start to wonder if there are differences between “having to do”, “wanting to do” and just “doing”. In any case I become more skeptical about the promises that organizing methodologies make, because they probably don’t work well for everyone.

Yea, perhaps I’m an oddball.

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