Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Todo List Insights

by Asim Jalis

The todo list should contain goals, not the steps to achieve them. It should define "what" not "how". It should present a picture of the world as it will be after the goal is achieved. Think of the todo list items as little tests. It should be easy to check whether a test passes (the goal has been achieved) or whether it fails (the goal has not been achieved). Here is an example of a bad todo list: [ ] buy watering can The question that arises here is why do I want to buy a watering can. To figure that out we apply the 5 Whys. I want to buy the watering can to water my backyard. I want to water my backyard because the grass is turning yellow and I want it to be green. I want the grass to be green because my neighbor's grass is green. The grass is always greener on the other side. So the real goal is: [ ] make grass as green as neighbor's The advantage of writing down ultimate goals instead of intermediate steps are: 1. Goals can suggest other solutions. Instead of buying a watering can I can buy a sprinkler. Or I could look for products that allow grass to stay green on less water. Or I could read about how to keep grass green without watering it. 2. Goals can be re-evaluated and re-prioritized. It's much harder to evaluate and prioritize tasks. Upon re-evaluating this goal it might occur to me that maybe I should just accept the grass as it is and wait for the rain in August. 3. Goals can only be checked off after they are achieved. Let's say I buy the watering can, check off the item on my todo list, and then forget about it for a week. That does not really help the grass very much. If instead I use a goal I am not able to check it off until I have solved the problem. 4. Goals are more fun. Goals are more like a game, or like play, than todo lists. Todo lists are like work. Todo lists are constraining. They prescribe too much. They constrain creativity and fun. Imagine a manager who defines for you the end-result and lets you figure out how to achieve it, and contrast him with a manager who tells you exactly what to do. Goal lists are like the first manager, and traditional todo lists are like the second one.