Wednesday, September 06, 2023

Six months knowing what’s going on

Six months ago today, On March 6, 2023, I used my sorta, kinda “to do” list for the first time. It was the first part of my personal organisation system that I used, and it’s been my most-used. This has surprised me more than any other thing about my new system. After all, this wasn’t my first attempt at such a thing.

I haven’t used conventional “to do” lists in decades, however, I could see how useful it was to have a way of tracking things I needed to do. This became more important in the past couple years as I found that because I had an ongoing inability to focus, I was forgetting things, sometimes important or even critical things—though forgetting things was actually a much older problem than that. I needed a way to keep track of what I needed to get done.

Over the years, I’d tried electronic “to do” lists because I wanted something I could use on my desktop Mac and all my devices. None of them ever worked for me. In 2015, I designed a half-sheet “to do” list with 15 lines for things I needed to do in that week. It was based on something I designed in the early 1990s at the last place I worked in Chicago, but by 2015, it just wasn’t useful because my needs—and I—had changed a lot since I left Chicago.

Then, in 2016, I ran across something called The Ivy Lee Method, and I was intrigued. The system is named for Ivy Lee (July 16, 1877 – November 9, 1934), who is considered the father of modern public relations. He taught his method to Charles M. Schwab and his senior managers at Bethlehem Steel, so impressing Schwab that he paid Lee the 2016 equivalent of $400,000 for the advice.

The system couldn’t be simpler: Each night, a person is supposed to list six (and no more than six) important tasks for the following day. The next day, one focuses on getting those six things done, in order, before adding any more. Any tasks remaining undone at the end of the day are put on the list for the following day. The underlying idea is that no one has unlimited energy or attention, and so, prioritising tasks is vital. In the century since Lee taught his method, many cognitive scientists have suggested that “multitasking” is impossible for humans, that we are only capable of focusing on one task at a time. I don’t know about the rest of humanity, but that’s absolutely true for me.

I next designed some forms for myself, one sheet with listings for each week day one one for the weekend (the rationale for combing the weekend—apart from meaning I only needed six blocks instead of seven—was that weekends were always more loosely run, so setting tasks for specific days didn’t make sense.

I tried using it for a week—and gave up. I tried again later (maybe a year), and failed again. Same with only a year or so ago. The method just wasn’t connecting with me or me with it. I only turned back to it when putting my organisation system together. The photo up top is a detail from this week’s page after I put the first item on it.

By the time I got back to the system this year, I realised what had been wrong for me: I didn’t need to prioritise tasks. This had been a problem for me because of duplication: I’d have to write down six tasks for the next day, then, probably, write them down again in order of priority. I was aware that I could just use the boxes to number the tasks, however, I wanted the large boxes to check them off. More importantly, I never had any intention whatsoever of using the list for tasks with priorities.

I’ve been using the Calendar and Reminders apps on my Mac and devices for years, and by the time I moved to this house, that’s all I needed for anything with a set deadline or some urgency—and they were very few. The Ivy Lee-style sheets were for things I'd LIKE to do on a particular day, including routine tasks like running the dishwasher, mowing the lawns, laundry, blogging/podcasting—basically anything that wasn’t time-sensitive or urgent.

The result has been better than I imagined. I haven’t missed a day in six months, and I’ve found that writing down routine tasks helps me remember when later on when I did a thing (like mowing the lawns or changing my sheets, for example). Among other things, this helps me make sure I’m not leaving routine tasks undone for too long. Also, as I found when I looked at my 1992 system, I kind of like looking back at what I did on particular days. It also turns out, I’m actually much busier than I realised, and, to be brutally honest, that’s been awesome for my sense of self-worth.

These lists were the second part of the “What’s Up?” section of my ring-binder, the first being a simple list of things I need to do “at some point”, a sheet I dubbed “The Waiting Room”. I’ve never used it. Instead, when I think of something I need or want to do “at some point”, I write it down on a list for a particular day in my week, and that works well.

Like many people, I sometimes write things on the list after I’ve completed them, and for numerous reasons. Most commonly, I’ll realise I need or want to do something right then, and stopping to write it down first would get in the way and be a bad use of my time. However, checking off something on the list is, as any regular “to do” list user knows, a dopamine hit, and that includes writing something on a list and immediately checking it off. I make absolutely no apology for using something so simple to stimulate the reward centre of my brain—no one should apologise for doing that. I’ve often repeated the phrase “success breeds success”, and when it comes to completing tasks, that dopamine hit is one of the main reasons for it: Completing a task leads us to want to complete another, that gives us another dopamine hit and we then want to complete another task, and so on.

In other words, my sorta, kinda “to do” list is working with my brain’s chemistry/wiring, and not against it. And that’s the precise reason my entire system, the “What’s Up?” section in particular, has worked better than I imagined it would—actually, better than I ever thought it could.

In the final post in this mini-series, I’ll talk in a little more detail about how I came up with things to specifically target the personal needs and obstacles I identified. I’ll also talk about the next steps—because there are always next steps. Right now, though, this is the important thing to know: This whole journey has been life-changing in some important ways.


"My new projected system" – My first blog post in which talked about the system.
"As if to prove the point" – My system hit a snag only days into it.
"Project failure" – The first post in this mini-series 6 months into using the system.
"Safe indeed" – The second post in this series, about a success.

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