The tyranny of lists

Crazy ListsI’ve got a confession to make. I’m addicted to lists. The problem is, my addiction can be a bit overwhelming at times. You may ask, what do you mean an addiction to “lists”? Well let’s just say I’ve got more todo lists floating around than aliens at a trekkie convention. And it’s just as silly too.

I’ve got a todo list in the admin section of each website I maintain (4), I’ve got a todo list on my desktop at work, I’ve got a todo list on the stikkit webservice (well actually more than one todo list), I’ve written simple text files that contain todo lists for various coding projects I do as a hobby, I maintain a todo list on my Palm Tungsten E, and last but not list (err least) I have a nice fancy todo list on a pad of paper in my home office desk drawer (albeit it’s been sitting there since…well a long time).

I’ve tried to convince myself that I keep all these lists for the right reasons:

  1. De-clutters my brain to help me focus on what I am doing rather than wasting precious bio-computing power on remembering what I’ve got to do.
  2. Provides a way of marking milestones and tracking tasks achieved. (There’s nothing like looking at a list at the end of the day and seeing a bunch of checks, or stroked out lines!)
  3. Prevents me from forgetting something (see point 1)
  4. Organizes my life and helps me plan what to focus on – saving time because I’m not trying to figure out what to do next.
  5. Multiple lists are for multiple streams of activity – I do try to put relevant information on the lists that matter (for instance my blog lists only have todo items related to that blog, I don’t use them as reminders for my appointment with the dentist).

Even though these are great reasons for keeping a todo list I think it’s possible to go overboard and become a list-aholic. I think I’ve crossed the threshold into the realm where I have so many lists, and so many todo items that,

  1. My brain is cluttered with all things I want to add to a list.
  2. I’m adding items faster to lists than I am completing – the checks and crossed out lines are dwarfed by the enormosity (hey is that a new word?) of unfinished tasks.
  3. I’m starting to forget things because there’s lists I’m forgetting to check.
  4. There’s a point at which the organized lists start to cost time rather than gain time. In the realm of a list-aholic the number of todo items becomes so overwhelming that choosing what to do becomes a brain exhausting feat.
  5. Multiple lists are like leaves in the fall. On the tree they look pretty – but once they start to fall it’s just a big pile.

Here’s the thing. I really think that the more dependent you become on lists, the greater risk you have of becoming a list-aholic. What’s worse, you start to lose your ability to remember anything! It’s true! I really believe that if I continued down the path I’m on I will eventually have to have a list that has my name, my address, my phone number, my PIN, my wife’s birthday, our anniversary… aww man, I’m writing a list again!

O-kay here’s the point and the question to discuss: Too many lists (todo items) actually decrease productivity. Do you think that’s true?

As for me and my addiction? I’ve decided to start changing:

  1. I’m going to try consolidating various lists I make (stikkit looks good right now)
  2. As much as possible keep a ratio of completed to new items at 2:1
  3. Practice remembering more instead of relying so much on writing it down/typing it up.
  4. Keep shorter lists – don’t add anything to todo unless it really really needs to be added.

Shucks, I just realized I’m writing another list – now I’ve gotta go and get 8 things done…

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My name is Darren Ethier. I'm the owner of I'm the father of four children and husband of the most beautiful woman in the world. My passion is technology and it's strategic use in ministry. I also love anything to do with leadership and the wise use of words. I'm also the developer of the popular WordPress plugin Organize Series. Since THAT'S not enough to keep me busy I also work as a core developer for a great plugin called Event Espresso

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