To-do Zero: To-do lists without to-do lists

Ending the to-do list’s reign of terror

Can something be done without doing it?

The problem with to-do lists is that they prioritize getting started over getting finished.

As a result, plenty gets started, less gets finished, and therefore little gets done.

The fantasy is that we’ll go from item to item on our list; diligently finishing them one at a time. But that never seems to happen. Instead the incentive is to jump to another task once the current one gets hard; usually when it’s time to actually finish.

The real tyranny is that after an item is crossed off, the same (or a new) list gets repopulated with new tasks. The concept of to-do lists is by definition interminable. We’re never done.

Luckily the solution is simple: stop using to-do lists.

You might be wondering: OK, but what about prioritization? Or working on what’s important first? The 80/20 rule? Doing things in the right order?

By finishing more, we end up starting more, and priorities tend to work themselves out. We naturally gravitate to what’s important. And as long as we’re finishing, order usually doesn’t matter.

This isn’t a radical idea. Inbox Zero popularized the notion of “action-based email” by arguing that acting now is better than acting later. With emails our tendency is to read now (get started) but reply later (get finished). Sound familiar?

We all feel like we need to be more productive. Organized to do lists and priorities with goals seem like they’ll help, but they end up causing list bankruptcy. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the answer is to forget the to-do list.

Instead, try a list with only one item: do one thing. And do it until you finish.

Nothing to do except to do.

PS — This short essay was written over multiple sittings. Go figure.

Messi never dives, and Feynman is surely joking. What was Euler’s Erdos number?

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