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Greg Brown
Greg Brown

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To do lists - you're doing it wrong

They have been around for ages and, if you are in development, you've probably seen a huge amount of people using them as framework showcases.

The common to-do list is everywhere, it comes preinstalled in most modern cellphones, you have them in all variants of name and colors, whether you know it as a "check list", "task list", "to-do list", "bucket list", and so many others, they all have a common concept: write a list of things you need to do, and go crossing them off as they get done.

What if I told you that you are most probably doing it all wrong?!

Surprise time - your list is probably pretty much worthless

If your list looks something like this:

[ ] finish email
[ ] search email delivery
[ ] ....
[ ] publish in production

Then, welcome to the world of inefficient To-Do lists!

OK, I was exactly in the same place a couple of weeks ago, and it took some creative "dot connecting" to realize that this model was doing more harm than good.

Take two steps back

I've been doing a lot of reading about personal improvement lately. Form the basic "self-help" books all the way to papers on how scientists try to map out human behavior. The goal is to try and understand how and why people function in certain situations (part of a bigger project I'm working on).

I had a plethora of information, most of which was seemingly unconnected or at most indirectly connected. Then, one night a couple of weeks back, I read an article draft I had written on personal organization and somethings started clicking.


OK, you're probably busy, so I'll give you the express version first. Feel free to explore below some of the reasoning if you wish.

The perfect to-do list

Each item on your to-do list should consist of two things:

1 - "raison d'être", a "reason why" or an outcome.
2 - a clear action to achieve this.

Let me give you a couple of examples:

  • [ ] - email for client approval - adjust email layout colors to match style guide
  • [ ] - email 2 email service quotes to client - search viable email delivery systems

You'll notice that those are a couple of the same items I had in my first to-do list, just written down in a clearer and less interpretation-possible way.

Besides being clearer and easier for you to share this to-do list with others (if you are on a team), there is a psychological aspect that is also associated with this that will help you improve your focus on the task at hand. (I try to explain this below if you want to read)

So... what changed and why?!

Let's break one of these examples down from the start:

"[ ] finish email"

Why is this bad? I mean, if you just wrote it, it probably has a great deal of meaning to you right? You know what it entails, where to go and look for things, and so on, but, what happens to this after you've spent a day in meetings, taking notes on another couple of hundred to-do items?!

It starts becoming hard to remember everything form pointers. If you are a master of the Method of Loci, you probably won't have all that much trouble, but to us mortals...

You need a way to keep your brain as free as possible, and changing the way you write down your tasks is an incredible way of doing so.

Part One of the task - Raison D'être

French for 'reason of existence' or 'reason of being'.
I like the almost spiritual aspect of the saying... it plays well into the importance of this part of the task.

What is the desired outcome, the deliverable, the benefit you expect to get from this task? Is it clear? Is it well defined? Is it an action, a tangible or intangible? Again... is it clear to you what is the reason you are writing down this task?

If so, great... you can go on to Part Two, if not, then you must break it down some more:

  • Too many outcomes? Break them apart into smaller tasks.
  • No outcome? Re-visit the task - does it require your attention? Is your understanding about the task clear?

Here are some bad examples:

Task: build site

This task says nothing, building a site is not trivial, even for an expert programmer. There are many moving parts and the outcome is way too generic.
You should break this task up into smaller tasks, with clearer deliverables and outcomes:

Task: responsive site header following style guide

Task: re-usable site header snippet

Are examples of a simple break-up of the tasks you could get from that.

What I want you to get from this? Please note that these "tasks" are deliverables. They are things that you can "touch" or "see". They are "real" things. This is an important aspect because of the way our brains usually function. (see "The brain" further down).

You might look up at the TLDR; section and say - WAIT A MINUTE:
email 2 email service quotes to client is not a tangible thing... it's an action... you are breaking your own rules!

Well... yes and no - some "things" come naturally to us - by looking at them we are instantly reminded of the deliverables and what they entail. Send quotes to client implies to most modern people, that you must send the quotes via e-mail or communication system of choice, to the client, and hence, you must produce an email, and send it. We've grouped two tasks into a single one, but the deliverable is still the email with the system quotes.

Part Two - A clear action

Now that you have a desirable "thing"... what is it you must do to accomplish this? What is a clear and simple action that you must do?

Please note that you don't need to go into the tiniest details of how to achieve this, just a simple general action you must take to ensure that your deliverable is done. That said, any point of importance should be here! Adjust layout colors to match style guide is a clear and direct instruction. It is not open to interpretation or does not require you to remember that you needed to match the style-guide.

In a nutshell

Your task list should be composed of a list of deliverables, with clear actions and observations as to how to achieve each one.

The Brain

The brain is a funny little thing. There are some well discussed and documented facts about it, specially with regards to how we store and retrieve information.

We work well with "images", "stories" and "feelings". If you try to memorize somebody's name; you are more likely to do it if you associate that name with an image or some funny story. It's the principle of the Method of Loci for one... you link a memory to a visual image, and it comes back to you.


Since I am no neuroscientist or psychologist or anything related to science of the brain in any way, please read this with a pinch of salt.

Loci states that one of the keys in memorization is to frequently re-visit the palace in your brain, in order to refresh the memory of things you have stored, and hence, sediment the memory into your brain. Inadvertently, we do that with our unclear lists. We are obliged to read them and "remember" what it was we needed to do.

You work at your best when you focus. Focus let's you center all your attention on a single task. If your brain is "free of clutter", you may focus with greater ease because nothing distracts your brain from the task at hand.

By altering the way you create your to-do lists into a more "non interpretive" model, you can quickly gain important information about the task without requiring your brain to do the heavy lifting.
Since your brain is not required to work so hard keeping all those "memories" alive, you are more free to focus at a single task.

As you go getting used to the idea of relying on an external system, you are less inclined to worry about your to-do lists and hence focus more on the task at hand.

Think of your contact list on your phone. A decade ago, we would have memorized dozens of phone numbers, nowadays, we seldom do, thanks to fact that we have a reliable and accessible system that makes calling somebody trivial.

A simple change, with a huge impact.

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