Notes
Juicy and Useful Tidbit

You're approaching todo list the wrong way

Jul 14

What's fascinating about us, human beings, is the ability to create. Everyday we live to create a better life for ourselves. We build weapons to hunt so we could feed ourselves. We build houses to provide shelter for our families. We build farms so that we don't have to risk our lives to hunt and to be able to produce food at our leisure in a secure space. We are all naturally born creators. We are all action takers. Therefore, there's always something that needs to be done. Every. Single. Moment.

As trivial as it seems, todo list shouldn't be a taught skill. I shouldn't even be writing about why you're doing tasks the wrong way. It's such a strange phenomenon because it's so easy to do them - you come up with a list of tasks, then complete them one by one, yet it seems so hard to get it right.

There's so many methodologies of dealing with tasks - how to set priorities, how to overcome procrastination, how to focus, how to split your time, etc. Not to mention the large amount of todo list apps out there. Have you ever wondered why there are so many of them ? I don't think it's because they're easy apps to make. I think it's because the problems of productivity and achieving our goals have not been met. There's no one size fit all because completing tasks involve a lot of moving parts - psychology, experience, habit and personalities.

If you're a free will person, you wouldn't like John's hardcore deadlines in every single todo task. You can get your shit done without a self imposed constraint. So John's way of doing things wouldn't work for you. Hence, we shouldn't conform to the tools to help us do our tasks. Tools should adapt to how we do things individually and help us improve our weakness.

I was like any usual productivity freak, trying to hack my todos with productivity apps so I could be more efficient. I've used Google Keep, I've used Trello, I've used Workflowy and also WIP.chat to keep track of my tasks. Outside digital, I've used sticky notes, notepad, scrap papers, sketchbook - pretty much any medium I could write on. And I'd record everything.

Although it was a boatload of tasks spread out everywhere, I could get stuff done just fine. What was missing that I soon realized, however, was the big question of why I was doing what I was doing. Because I didn't have a clear why for each of the things I did, I ended up feeling overwhelmed. The tasks just wouldn't go away. More and more kept creeping in. Then you know what happened? I stopped working on them. And my todo apps were littered with unfinished todos.

That was when I decided to stop designing tasks from a what needed to be done perspective to a why I needed to do it. I approached it as if I had this grand vision of what I was going to do.

I needed to build a landing page to show how I solved this guy's problem. I needed to create posts to gain 10 more subscribers to my list. I needed to reply to this customer's email because serving her meant a better day for her, and a smile for me.

Incidentally, a lot of the todos became less important. When you know the why, the what naturally falls into place. You focus on the bare minimum in order to get to the result as quick as possible.

If there was a new task you wanted to add which might make the result a little better, then ask yourself if what you have left on the plate could get done in time? If not, don't add the new task. If it was really important, it'd come back subconsciously for sure because you'd keep thinking about it. The human mind is very interesting.

Therefore, you should make progress, and not movement. Tasks on a todo list are like movement - you can be spending a lot of energy and time on something and going nowhere.

Progress on the other hand has a set destination.

If you start with the destination, you can plan all the tasks that needed to happen in order to get to your destination. Then regardless of how slow or how fast you do them, each completion will set you closer to your goal.

So the best approach to coming up with your tasks is to think what you're trying to achieve. The more specific you can get, the easier it is to come up with the steps in between.

Think of your goals first and then use the todos as a vehicle to achieve them.

By approaching my work this way, I also felt I had more control. And I suddenly became more efficient because I could finally carve out the time to reflect on my progress. Completing each goal was like finishing a semester of school, so I was able to take a short mental vacation and reflect on what I've done. Was each task worth the energy and effort I put in? Could I have done any faster with the same result and same standard? Was there any shortcuts I could take?

In short, a todo list keep you busy, but they don't tell you the whole story. Todos focus on the current moment, but they don't describe the ultimate goal. For instance, what if some ground-breaking idea came in while you were working on something? Should you switch gears? Or could you postpone it to the next release?

You might think, "It's a ground-breaking idea, of course it should take priority!"

But if you knew why you were doing what you were doing in the first place, you would have known your decision right away. You could hold off the ground-breaking idea for an impromptu earth-shattering holiday release, or change your course and apologize to your customers for the shipping delay.

Each step of the journey should be marked with a goal. And you fill up each goal with the todos you think you need to complete to get to the goal.

Ask yourself now, what are you trying to achieve? It could be getting 10 new subscribers, it could be shipping that one feature you're customers have asked for, it could be holding a mixer event, it could be planning a 10 days vacation.

Tackle goals, not todos.

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Hello, I'm Kevin Yang and I write about how to make progress in design, app development and business.

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