Pi Of Life : Break Free From To-Do Lists

To DoThere are to do lists, and even more to do lists. There is pen and paper, spreadsheets, desktop, online mobile apps of every kind that promise productivity and the ability to finally keep track and prioritize. You move from the current one to the next, mesmerized by a small feature in one, a wonderfully easy user experience in the other. You’ve tried RTM, and the whole set of tools around GTD, and Asana, and Do.com, and even Google Calendar!

Do They Work?

Eventually, and pretty much always, it comes to naught, doesn’t it? For most of us, most of the time, at least.

Let me share some common reactions from a straw poll we did for this:

“No they never work :(“

“I dont even make them. ‘Panic’ is what works” :)

“When i have a lot to do, i tend to lose track. So i make a to-do list on my laptop and look at it occasionally.”

“I tried. What works is letting the most important priority bubble up.”

You get the drift. Right?

Of course, for some the tools do work, especially in the context of team-wide collaboration. However, that is a very different use case, and by and large, most feel defeated by the lists when it comes to personal productivity.

This is even worse for entrepreneurs. Why?

For starters, you don’t just have “tasks”. You have tasks for the immediate must-dos. You have networking to catch up on. You have many ideas at different stages of their lives. You have thoughts you want to discuss with you co-founder, mentor, investor. You have many good reads you’ve bookmarked. You also have accounts, recruiting, admin and even personal stuff to get done.

And everyday, you add many many more of these.

A typical to-do list approach would merely add a dozen new things to the list and you’d get 3 or 4 done everyday. Imagine the manageability of a list like that. Imagine its impact on your morale. And imagine its real utility, and useful lifetime.

So what’s the way out? Yes, priorities do bubble up, one way or the other, but that would mean you’re always catching up and reacting. Proactive stuff will pretty much never find time or mindspace.

Enter “Got Done Lists”. With a twist.

Many have used these, and swear by the Got Done Lists. The positive reinforcement it creates is a huge win, and helps you track and analyze your work and productivity patterns very well. Every day, you actually remind yourself of what you accomplished, and its a good health check for the next day.

What can really help is following this in the context of goals.

After all, as a startup, you do not follow a particularly set path or have a neatly defined workday. Serendipity is an important part of your life, and the unexpected and unplanned often leads to a major movement forward. There is a fair bit of randomness to your plans, work, meetings and this chaos is not just a fact of of life, but crucial to a startup getting somewhere!

What’s important is to have a set of goals – both individually and organizationally – at any point of time. These should be clear enough not only inside your head, but put down on a whiteboard, or a wiki, or a piece of paper. And everyday, or at least every other day, your effort needs to add up to move forward with respect to at least one of these goals.

So as you jot down what you got done, also try and write down which goal it help or might help, and its impact. Also manage an overall goal-wise effort list. This will help you track effectiveness, not just busy-ness. And automatically point out course corrections as needed. If you’ve been attending one meetup or event too many, it’ll show up on the list, and remind you to do something about the other goals as well.

And most importantly, you’ll get focused on what you are doing, can and should do, rather than get into a guilt and regret trap that the undone stuff on a typical to-do list usually set up for you.

Start right away. Its easy, and feels good.

Update:

Here’s a template of a simple spreadsheet I’ve started using to try the above out. Do leave comments – will update as improvements happen to this.