What Gets Left Behind

There’s a mistake we often make when crafting our goals, schedules, and TODO lists, and it’s a surefire way to be both overwhelmed and ineffective: Making tasks the point.

The power of constraints

I attempted an experiment last week, with the goal of exposing any unnecessary bloat in my current productivity system: Each morning I would copy tasks for the current day from my electronic task-management system onto a one-sided sheet of paper just slightly larger than a credit card.

My goal was to take advantage of the power of constraints, using a limited size to thus force myself only to focus on the most meaningful and valuable tasks for that day. Any additional tasks that cropped up during the day would have to fit on the front side of the sheet, or be written on the back of the sheet for scheduling later. The experiment ended up accomplishing my goal of leaning out the task list, but not for the reason I was expecting.

The problem

On the first day, almost immediately after writing down my tasks on the sheet of paper, I felt a small twinge of panic: If I’m tracking tasks only on paper, how will I be sure to log that I’ve completed them in my electronic system? The sensation of panic was surprising to me, and when I stopped to examine why I felt it, I realized my error: I was making the tasks the point.

Diagnosis

I was getting lost in the minutia of focusing on tasks rather than goals. In my electronic task system, I had been making sure that every single task or action I had done on a given day was logged, no matter how small or insignificant.

In addition, I was making sure to capture everything, and then schedule or prioritize it later. I was afraid of something slipping through the cracks, and so I had amassed a huge backlog of tasks.

When I inevitably had too much that I believed needed to be done, I would pack the schedule too tightly and tasks would end up rolling over from day to day. This created an ever-growing snowball, culminating in a huge mass of guilt-inducing tasks—most of which simply continued to get postponed.

Getting lean

I realized that there were two important principles which I was failing to put into practice:

Principle 1: Not everything that you could do is something that you should do.

Life is a firehose of potential items for your task list. Each one of these things will fight for a spot of importance on your list. But only a fraction of the items on your list truly need doing.

You will almost always have a legitimate reason to convince yourself that a task needs doing, but remember the following: When everything is urgent, nothing is. There is a limit to the amount of things you can do. This was made evident to me when I realized that a large number of tasks on my list would simply roll from one day to the next.

The solution here is to be brutally honest with yourself: Does a task truly need to get done? Is it the best way to advance progress on the small set of goals that matter most to you? Would it really matter if you simply deleted the item from your list?

If you need additional convincing, simply look at how many days a task has rolled; is a task really urgent or important if you can repeatedly postpone it?

Principle 2: Focus on the goal in order to determine the appropriate action

Once we’ve successfully convinced ourselves that 50-90% of the tasks on our list are of false importance, we must get ruthless with our selection of which tasks we actually do. And to do this, we must be goal-oriented, not task-oriented.

If you spent 2 hours today writing down a list of business ideas, the only thing that will make that effort worthwhile is if it effectively moved the needle forward on your goal of starting a business. In 6 months, a log of all the tasks you did today will be worthless, and the only thing that will matter is whether or not you are any closer to achieving the goals you have set for yourself.

Takeaway: Leave the right things behind

An inescapable fact of life is that something will always get left behind. There’s no way we can do it all, and so we have to be okay with loose ends. The trick is to choose the right loose ends. If you take a passive approach and do not purposefully choose what gets left undone, then it will be chosen for you.

Instead, take the proactive approach: Focus on only the most meaningful goals, and then aggressively pare down your task list. Delegate and delete all items that are not in the small set of actions which most effectively move you closer toward your goals.

You can do anything, but not everything.

David Allen, Getting Things Done (2001)

You don’t get the option to choose your goals and everything else. By failing to remove the things that do not advance your goals, you are choosing not to advance your goals.