Why fiddling with TODO lists is deeply unsatisfying

Everyone who is into “productivity” eventually changes their system up. Whether their system is a bunch of post-its or a self-coded, org-mode interface they will eventually try to optimize it or change it up. I am no different. I jump from paper to text files to Asana and back all the time depending on how much I have on the go and what types of tasks I am dealing with. We are moving house again so I just got my Asana account fired up again to deal with everything I know will be coming at me.

When I activated my account again I didn’t spend much time screwing around with it. I cleaned up old tasks and figured out how to get an IFTTT widget to send email from my phone to the My Tasks Asana inbox and then got back to work. The fact is that after an initial dump or when you are doing list reviews there is very little happening in your task list. It is not a news feed. You don’t need to keep checking it and tweaking it.

What you should be doing with your task list is:

  1. capturing ideas
  2. finding things to work on
  3. crossing off things you worked on
  4. periodically reviewing lists to cull them and add new items to your inbox
    None of these activities will require you to “check in” every few minutes and no amount of fiddling will result in emergent behavior in your task list. The only thing that will happen with tinkering is the creation on information hierarchies or workflows that make the system overly complicated and cause you to avoid using it. The task list should be effortless in the sense that adding to it is effortless. Selecting your next task is a workflow step that requires consideration. Automating so tasks “bubble up” or it “schedules your day for you” is not helpful and may never be until we have some significant AI breakthroughs.

    When people “try a new system” (or app, whatever) they tend to fiddle with it. Once this gets past the basic learning phase you should stop this and just work. You will get enough time in with your “system” when crossing things off and adding things to the list. No amount of tagging, contexts, and scheduling will be more efficient than list review. Keep it simple and do your work.