abandoned truck overgrown with plants

To-do lists should be so easy and useful: keep a list of things that have to be done, do them, then cross them off the list! And yet they are not: undead items return from one week’s list to the next; we focus so much on recording the things to do that we forget to do All. The. Things, and within a few weeks our to-do list is a source of fear and dread rather than reassurance.

For those academics who have a summer break, the summer can be a time to refocus on one’s list, to keep the halycon days of early June from sliding effortlessly into the OMG-where-did-it-all-go of early August. (See Natalie’s great idea for a summer no-do list, too!)

Last week, Kourosh Dini, a physician who wrote one terrific book on using Omnifocus, and another on building better workflows in general, proposed a key idea for keeping your to-do list as monster-free as possible: the “principle of completable lists.”

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Dini argues that, for any list, there are two basic questions: “Do I intend to complete this?” and “if so, how often?” Failing to answer those questions, he suggests, leaaves us with those undead items mentioned earlier: “As soon as one task starts to stick around though, other tasks tend to stall, too, and soon we’re wading through cobwebs.”

His principle, then, is:


Lists that are sensed as readily completable within an easily envisioned time frame are more enticing, readily done, and resistant to procrastination.

This principle amounts to a justification for focusing your to-do list on next actions, rather than on goals. As Natalie quipped last April in her excellent post on giving your to-do list a makeover, “‘Submit travel receipts’ is only a clear directive if you already have all the receipts and necessary forms ready to go.”

If you find yourself stalled on your projects, then, or if you’re avoiding making eye contact with your to-do list, revising with a focus on completion may help. How do you keep your to-do list from turning into an overgrown garden where terror lurks? Let us know in comments!

Photo “A little scruffy” by Flickr user liquidcrash / Creative Commons licensed BY-SA-2.0

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