I am a person who lives and dies by her to-do list. And right now, I'm dying.

I'm dying because I am following all the prescribed rules except one.

Here are things I'm doing well:

1. I clear my inbox. I deal with each email the second I read it—by responding, deleting, or transferring to my to do list.

2. I have a single list. I have A's, B's, and C's for my priorities, so I can tell what is most important to do on any given day.

3. I make sure I have long-term goals. And I put them in my list of A's. I identify the items I must get done before the end of the day. But I also add at least one non-deadline-based item that helps me reach a bigger, life-changing goal.

4. I rewrite the list every day by hand. Because if something on the list is not worth taking the time to rewrite by hand, it's not worth taking the time to do.

5. I make sure I get all the A's done first. Only then do I move on to less important items. Just kidding. I don't do this. But I should. Honestly, I can tell that it doesn't really matter if I follow all the other rules when I'm not doing this one.

There's a book by Michael Stainer titled, Do More Great Work: Stop the Busywork. Start the Work That Matters. I know I have a problem sticking to stuff that matters: as soon as I typed the title, I thought, “Why is the word that capitalized?” I checked back on Amazon twice to make sure. It doesn't seem right to me.

Then I tell myself I need to look up the AP Stylebook to see what the rule is. I think the is never capitalized in a title and that is optional, but I think, in this case, it looks better as lower case.

Then I tell myself, look, I just really need to get this post done. If I look up the AP Stylebook, and find an answer, which is probably not going to be easy to find because honestly, I'm not the queen of Google searches. Even if I manage to do that, I will not feel like I have accomplished something important today. But if I finish this post, I will feel like I am meeting an important goal of writing a post each day.

Also, I tell myself that the best work I do is when I am not constantly distracted by randomly interesting searches. Like, the last time I remember doing this was, in fact, last night, when I got stuck looking up soporific. It means sleep inducing. But I thought maybe I was missing a nuance of the word because it was in a picture caption in a movie review. Who puts a word like that in a picture caption? So I thought it had another slang meaning or something. And then, when it turns out that it really does mean sleep inducing I didn't feel accomplished. It was not on my to-do list. And I can't even figure out how to slip it into my own writing. Unless you find my paragraph about soporific to be soporific.

Stainer’s book has a chapter written by me. Which, I'm sure I wrote only because I put it on my A list 400 days in a row, sending it to him, finally, ten days late. Or something like that. And he has chapters by other luminaries who I am convinced do their A list before they even eat breakfast: Seth Godin, Chris Guillebeau, Leo Babauta. The important thing about reading a book like Stainer’s is that if I read people telling me that I should not do bullshit work all day, then I am more likely to hold myself accountable to my A list.

This problem comes down to my struggle with self-discipline. I think everyone struggles. I think there's a Maslow hierarchy of self-discipline. First you have to get out of bed in the morning. Then you have to write a to-do list every morning, and write a schedule to accommodate it. Then you have to have the self-discipline to start giving stuff up because you don't have time for everything — the highest form of self-discipline is admitting that you will not be doing some things in the day.

I have done all that. So what I'm left with is stuff that is easy to do. But it's usually B's. And some stuff that's hard to do. Those are the A's. Today I told myself no surfing. No staring at the wall. No reading my book. (I’m reading Bonk, by the way, which is scintillating, and thank you to Jens Fiederer who recommended the chapter about pig orgasms that last ten minutes.)

But then I saw a GChat link from Michael Roston about the Dutch parliament. I had to click. It turns out that there is a group trying to make sex with twelve-year-olds legal. So they formed a political party in order to get the laws changed. But the group dropped out of the election because they found they are spending so much time campaigning that they are losing focus of their main goal, which is to legalize pedophilia.

And I thought: Dutch pedophiles are more focused on their long-term goals than I am.

My problem is that I cannot write my own long-term goal in as clear a way as the pedophiles. I coach so many people who tell me they can't move forward because they don't know where they are going. And I tell them, make something up. I tell them to commit to a goal, any goal, and move toward it until you think of a better one. The act of moving toward something helps you crystallize where, exactly, you want to be moving.

I wish I could tell you I’m doing that, but recently I’ve been writing about it more than doing it. Because I'm scared. It's so scary to commit to a goal when you know it's not the real goal. Success requires a leap of faith that goal setting is trial and error and the process of finding clarity — not the one-time process of immaculate conception of clarity.

When I was learning about to do lists, each step seemed too hard. And empty in box seemed impossible. Handwriting a to do list every morning felt absurd. But in each case, after I did it a while, it felt right and probably essential to me. So I guess I will just have to trust that if I force myself to choose a goal, my goals will get more and more clear, and the productivity piece will start falling into place.

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  1. ejly
    ejly says:

    Not soporiferous at all (A very interesting word btw; ‘sopor’ meaning sleep and ‘ferous’ meaning savage. In other words, not just sleep inducing but savagely sleep inducing. Maybe that’s the nuance you were trailing. HTH.)

    One flaw I railed at for years was the lack of creative, spontaneous unfettered time. When I heard my boys make the same complaint I realized it was childish. Now I schedule time to find connections, be creative, listen and daydream during each day, even if it is only for 15 minutes. It makes a huge difference in my productivity – definitely an A list item. Either the creative time is there for me as a ‘treat’ for accomplishing an unpleasant to-do item (dessert after eating the frog, if you like Brian Tracy’s approach) or if I start my day with it I’m in a better mood all day.

    Speaking of connections, here’s something more about the pigs: a comic I recently started following. Enjoy. http://theoatmeal.com/comics/pigs

  2. Alex @ Happiness in this World
    Alex @ Happiness in this World says:

    Maybe the problem in trying and failing to get your “A” list things done first is that these are all “shoulds” for you–things you think you should do first but don’t really want to do at all. I intermix my “shoulds” with “wants” as a way of rewarding myself for doing my “wants.” So I have to write that blog post before I’ll allow myself to surf Facebook…boy, I am WAY to connected online…

    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      I agree with you Alex regarding not being able to complete certain “A” list items. We are the ones that compose the list of things to do so maybe certain “A” list items should be reclassified as “B” or “C” or not on the list at all. We should be able to change/modify as necessary as certain life events change. I believe in self-discipline to achieve certain goals but yet not become enslaved to a to-do list for the sake of completion.
      Also a couple of ideas that may work for you Penelope – complete to-do list and schedule the night before and always start the day with a complete, nutritious breakfast.

    • James
      James says:

      I agree with alex that we can’t live a life doing everything that is needed to be done first. We must prioritize things but we also need to learn how to enjoy life even though it means that we might get a little delayed on doing “A” list things.

      Its not fun to do all the required things and when you don’t enjoy what you are doing the results of your work gets affected.

  3. Eduard @ People Skills Decoded
    Eduard @ People Skills Decoded says:

    I think all of this has a common point: simplifying life. I started using a similar system for clearing my Inbox a couple of months ago, and not only did it make it more manageable, it also took some of the emotional pressure of an overcrowded Inbox off.

  4. LPC
    LPC says:

    Ever since I took a webinar with Leo Babauta, who is a nice man, BTW, I have been reading a bunch of personal development/productivity blogs. For the most part they are dreadful. If I summarize, it seems to me that all of the human endeavour to have a happy life revolves around either a)figuring out how to have an intent and make it happen b)how to empty your desires and have inner peace. Pick one. Doesn’t matter.

    • Clumzy Hiker
      Clumzy Hiker says:

      I have been attending many Buddhist teachings lately, and they have been talking exactly about clarification for the second part of “Abandon desires to have inner peace”. It is more like ” Detachment to desires to have inner peace”. Buddhist philosophy says that if you detach yourself from the expectations of the final outcome, then you will have more inner peace and clarity. The reason is you will free yourself from the fear of the outcome turning out as expected or not. Once you are drama free, you could actually focus on accomplishing more goals. So hallelujah for courage and living drama free.
      (Sigh) Now if I could just follow that advise….
      Thanks for the post and all the responses.

      • Elena
        Elena says:

        That is really interesting, and although far from being Buddhist, I can see the logic and beauty of it.

        You stop placing an expectation on a thing, and you are more free and alive to actually enjoy it.

        Much like love….

    • Designer
      Designer says:

      So often Buddhist teachings prove to be so subtle and yet so profound. The peace and stillness filters through from your post. Thank you for posting

  5. JillPR
    JillPR says:

    I’m from the “oh hey look shiny!” school of focus and determination as well. But if my A list is really interesting and I’m enthusiastic about the end goal they accomplish, they always get done. If not, I become the 400 day A list handed in 10 days late person. So I picked a random goal that I was at least enthusiastic about, and that helps me get through my A list faster.

  6. Tzipporah
    Tzipporah says:

    Also, why waste time googling when you have us?

    The word “That” is capitalized in the title because the general rule of thumb is caps for:
    1. First word
    2. Last word
    3. Words of at least 5 letters

    See? Easy.

      • copy editor
        copy editor says:

        Nope, “that” is capitalized because it’s a pronoun (in this instance). In titles, you capitalize the first and last word, nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and some conjunctions (see Chicago 8.167). It has absolutely nothing to do with how many letters are in the word.

    • Tzipporah
      Tzipporah says:

      Ok, this is getting out of control, but you’ve written a word-geek post. So I have to say that “soperiferous” is ridiculous. You can say the same thing with “soporific” which is shorter and easier to say.

      ok, that’s it. I’m done now.

      • Cindy
        Cindy says:

        Only other place I’ve seen “soporific” was in Peter Rabbit. Apparently, eating some of the veggies in Mr. McGregor’s garden made him soporific. Important vocab for toddlers apparently.

  7. Casey @ Resify
    Casey @ Resify says:

    Once again, P, awesome post that I relate to waaaay too much.

    The whole “shiny object syndrome” that you describe seems to be a common character trait of creative people. I think that the whole “productivity” thing is somewhat overrated. There are times when you just need to follow those whims, as unimportant and un-urgent as they are. They might be C’s on the priority list, but they may inspire something great and new. They may even give you the motivation needed to finally get that A project done.

    I try not to live or work by too many rules like this. I have a few that seem to keep me on track. But I let myself wander regularly. Otherwise, I would go nuts. And I don’t kick myself for being less productive than I should be.

    The culture today is very ADD and it sparks incredible anxiety if you aren’t doing something IMPORTANT at all times. I think it’s dangerous. Yes, realistically, we need to have priorities and work them. But we shouldn’t feel shamed for following those silly wild hairs. And, in fact, I think we should encourage it more often.

    • techquestioner
      techquestioner says:

      Don’t you mean “following those silly wild hares (large wild rabbits)?” Wild hairs never took me anywhere!

  8. Welby Altidor
    Welby Altidor says:

    Thanks Penelope,
    The way you channel strength and vulnerability in your post is remarkable! It makes your writing fresh and authentic.

    Beyond goals, I find the real inquiry that creates more focus (and engagement) lies in discovering what values are truly important to us. Sometimes, just reviewing those values during the week makes a huge difference to realign ourselves and find what is truly meaningful in our goals.

    So I would say that it is sometime hard to stick to the “A- to do list” when our goals are not really an expression of values we have determined or discovered for ourselves. I would even argue that we must let space for the sublime to feed more and more the mundane. So that when you write your to do list, answer to a post, coach, wash the dishes (the mundane), you feel the connection to something sublime that only you could have come up with.

  9. Ciawy
    Ciawy says:

    Having a pure heart and pure intention as to why I want a certain goal to be reached has helped me focus on THAT particular goal. Right now, my goal is to have money in my savings account – why? – because having no money sucks and I don’t want to be in this dire financial situation again. Like you, I get distracted everyday with trivial stuff, but if I just read my goal and the reason behind it everyday, I get back on track.

  10. Mary Budge
    Mary Budge says:

    First, I swear everyone one of Penelope’s posts are poignant. This one in particular because getting through your inbox (I have 4 inboxes!) is never easy, let alone creating and checking off a to-do list. Mine from yesterday had 13 items on it, I was able to cross off one and felt almost giddy when I crossed it off.

    But what I really love about this particular post are the comments – I love the “hey look shiny” comment, and Tzipporah’s comments. You are someone after my own heart! I love word-geeks. I wish I were one, I can only inspire to be one.

    But thank you Penelope for making this little community, I learn from you and I learn from your followers. How cool is that?

  11. Dani
    Dani says:

    This was really helpful and so true for me. I have the “I’m scared to commit” issue too. I’m scared of being wrong, I’m scared of not doing enough, I’m scared if I do things too well, blah, blah, blah! Don’t know if scared ever goes away so my goal is to try and not let it stop me. Sometimes I succeed at this goal and other times not so much.

    Now I am going to take your advice and write out my to do list for the day. Thanks.

    • techquestioner
      techquestioner says:

      If your problem is that you are scared of making a wrong decision, ask yourself how long the results of the decision will matter. What career you choose and who you marry may matter for the rest of and which item in your to-do list you do first probably won’t matter tomorrow. Use the timeframe to give yourself a realistic perspective, then don’t sweat the small stuff!

      • techquestioner
        techquestioner says:

        My comment lost a line. It should have said: What career you choose and who you marry may matter for the rest of your life. What you wear today, what you eat for lunch, and which item in your to-do list you do first probably won’t matter tomorrow. Sorry.

  12. momtrolfreak
    momtrolfreak says:

    Penelope, I just a little bit love you. Your episode of looking up a million things instead of writing your post? it’s the reason i haven’t written a post in over a week. I. Am. So. Scattered. I’m gonna go with Casey and hope that it’s because I’m CREATIVE that I can’t concentrate. I have spurts. Recently, for example, I spent a whole day, eight hours straight, working on my novel, just writing writing writing. I think a lot of my lack of efficiency (when it comes, in spurts) is because I subconsciously don’t want to be doing what I’m doing anyway. Or I feel guilty for doing it. I feel guilty at work because I’m not with my kid. I feel guilty when writing because I could be with my kid or doing extra work on the weekend. I’m never fully engaged, thinking, THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT I SHOULD BE DOING RIGHT NOW. It sucks to never feel that way. And then when I feel like I might be doing som–HEY LET’S GO RIDE BIKES!

  13. Cesca Louise
    Cesca Louise says:

    I feel pretty overwhelmed by long term goals. Mostly I am overwhelmed by the idea that if you have no set enormous life-long goals, you are in some ways not a whole person, or you are not fulfilling your life appropriately. And I, too, coach people to set them.

    The truth is, I have goals. But I change them almost daily. And then I feel guilty about that. For instance, I have a goal to write a blog. I keep starting to write (www.cescalouise.com) and, as you’ll see if you go there, it’s sporadic at best. And usually, I post about something I already commented on, which is really not blogging or original at all, it’s just redundancy.

    I think this post can call back to your previous post about mindfulness – and about trying to be productive through being attentive to it.

    I try to be mindful. Meaning, I try to think through the day and be really IN it fully (keeping in mind that that is harder than anything for me). So the mindfulness becomes the goal. And if I am mindful, I can feel OK with my vacillating interest that produce diverse (nice word for random) lifelong goals.

    Also, I think procrastination is one thing, and being interested in the world is another. If you never looked up meanings of confusing colloquium, it would mean you’d be less interested, and in turn, less interesting. You’ve said before that you do have a goal of being interesting. I don’t think you can be interesting with out being interested. I have the same goal. So I allow myself some slack.

    Maybe it’s about organized slack. Take 15 minutes in a two hour block to “remain interested.” I find making rules like this for myself doesn’t feel confining, but, instead, freeing. I allow myself to meander. And I’m better for it. Or at least I think.
    Maybe this is just a way to excuse my fickle mind. But if I focus on the happiness, and the “being in it” I find the other goals happen in turn.

  14. Pen
    Pen says:

    Perhaps another reason for capitalizing the “that” is to emphasize Work That Matters – „¢ as the single “thing” that you are going to focus on. It seems to be a trend now to do that sort of thing (not that I’m saying there is anything wrong with it). (I can’t remember enough of my grammar terms to define it that way without, ahem… looking it up.)

  15. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    Hello PT,

    This is some general feedback – I came to your blog through the webcast you did for Ramit Sethi’s Bootcamp. I have become a faithful blog reader because some posts nail it, absolutely right on, and other days the posts is so outrageous and confusing it drives me crazy. Both are wonderful and give me lots to think over and work through.

    In case you are wondering today is one of those days that was right on. Thank you for your work.

  16. Martha
    Martha says:

    Forcing ourselves to get the A-list done is one of the biggest quests in life. I think you have to be right in guessing that the most successful people are the people who do it without having to twist their own arm.

    But “soporiferous” isn’t a word. It’s “soporific” or “somniferous” (both meaning “sleep-inducing”). The -ferous part doesn’t mean “savage”; it’s just an adjective ending.

    It’s not that these things are so fascinating. It’s that anything is easier than putting our worth to the test by doing the A-list, isn’t it?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Oh my goodness. You’re right! The problem is that I remember the article I read the word in, but it seems the caption is only in print, not online, and somehow, in the movement between my newspaper and my computer I lost track of the word. Thanks for your help.

      -Penelope

  17. Marti Nelson
    Marti Nelson says:

    I am most like my labrador, who will stare intently out the window at a rabbit, but can’t manage to sit on command for more than 1 second. I teach a lot of leadership classes and recommend setting office hours for employee meetings to reduce interruptions, looking at email only 3 times for a total of 30 minutes a day to keep the box clear and catch urgent items, and to stick to routines like making a work list to stay on track. Sadly, I quickly fall out of the process when a cool problem hits my desk that engages my intellectual side. Thanks for the reminder on focus. I believe that it is easy to be pulled aside by a fun challenge and discipline takes a lot of effort.

    • Tom Sinfield
      Tom Sinfield says:

      I have to agree with your Marti. It is so easy to start with a whole lot of focus, only to lose it when something unplanned for falls into the mix.

      After reading in a book recently, I have decided to set just 2 ‘must do’ items on my agenda and make sure that they are the most important and that they get done. It really helps set the priorities!

  18. Melissa Breau
    Melissa Breau says:

    Thanks for this P.

    As always, super honest and enlightening view.

    Dealing with some decisions on where I want to focus my career, your tip to pick a goal and aim with the idea that I can change it at anytime … it made me feel a bit better today. It seems obvious now that I’ve read it, but I just wasn’t thinking about it this way before.

  19. Cyndie
    Cyndie says:

    “… commit to a goal, any goal, and move toward it until you think of a better one. The act of moving toward something helps you crystallize where, exactly, you want to be moving.
    … It's so scary to commit to a goal when you know it's not the real goal. Success requires a leap of faith that goal setting is trial and error and the process of finding clarity – not the one-time process of immaculate conception of clarity.”

    Kinda like dating. You learn a lot about yourself and what you really want and what you really don’t want in the process.

  20. John Feier
    John Feier says:

    Sometimes, there is no reason to update my to-do list everyday. Other times, I feel like I’m running a business. It just depends on the situations of the day. So, I’m not an existentialist, but I’m also not a determinist.

    Where I run into problems is in trying to properly categorize urgency and long-term versus short-term. Sometimes, to-do list items are processes and not discrete moments or specific actions. For instance, nicotine withdrawal and working out are goals that shouldn’t be on the same list as meeting with the local Workforce Investment Act coordinator at 1:00 on Wednesday to secure funding for an English teacher certification course. Starting a relationship with a Chinese woman can be an immediate course of action, but being in a relationship with a Chinese woman is a process.

    So maybe instead of A, B and C, it would be better categorized as processes or specific actions?

  21. Britt Michaelian
    Britt Michaelian says:

    What a fantastic post. As I read it I couldn’t help but think how right on your perspective is and how many times I have experienced the same dilemmas. Then, I started reading the comments and seeing how we are all dealing with the same issues. And I had a thought… at what point in history did the human race decide that we need to have lists and be organized and “productive” as a way to enjoy life? Is that what truly makes us happy? Checking off our lists? Because when we take our last breath and look back on our lives… are we going to check that off our lists before we go to heaven? What I mean is, at what point does it stop? Clearly this whole thing is causing all of us a lot of anxiety which is exactly NOT the point! Ok, enough daydreaming and pondering… time to go get back to checking off that list! Good luck checking your off!

  22. Andrea V. Lewis
    Andrea V. Lewis says:

    In life it seems easier, almost second nature, to focus on our faults instead of our successes. This is not unique to you, me or that guy waiting to cross the street with his Starbucks double shot espresso in hand. This is something that we all struggle with, so don’t get so down on yourself about it.

    Anyway, with Dutch pedophiles, who has time to concentrate on anything, let alone a list?!

  23. Adriana
    Adriana says:

    Penelope,

    I am also scared about committing to a goal without knowing it’s the right one, but your blog and personal experiences surly have helped out a lot in my own process of getting unstuck. This is one of my favorite subjects about being an effective person, because I love lists! You have a good point about prioritizing your to do list and at least starting to work on those A items. I’d love to say that I do the same, but lately I’ve been caught up in indecision, not wanting to commit to any priorities.

    Your post makes me think of Stephen Covey’s Habit #3 which is to "put first things first." It is important to have a good understanding of Habits 1 and 2 before this can be put into practice because you must first know that you have control over your situation, and you must know what things are most important to you. Then, you must act. It is difficult to do the things that really are important because they aren't often urgent. The urgent comes first in life most of the time, like phone calls and e-mails, and the important and not urgent come later, often last. To put this category in the center of concern makes people most effective.

  24. Jacqueline
    Jacqueline says:

    Interesting that you link to a post on lifehacker about Autofocus (AF), since AF is kind of an anti-prioritization approach to a to-do list.
    I used the system for 9 months last year, but was far more effective (and efficient) by dropping the process itself, but following some of the principles (standing out, working “little and often” occasionally – but not too much or it’s a good tool gone bad since you don’t finish stuff on a timely basis). I blogged about my drastic reduction in income by following the full process of AF here:
    http://8020time.blogspot.com/2010/03/whats-your-time-management-system.html
    I’ve had more success by having my yearly plan which is very subject to change, then breaking it down to biweekly goals, projects and tasks which are fairly rigid. #1 rule is to not cut myself a lot of slack.

    Here’s a link to possibly the best essay I have ever read on procrastination and doing more good work.:
    http://www.paulgraham.com/procrastination.html

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks for this comment, Jacqueline. I love the discussion of time management tools. I love hearing what works for who and why. I think I linked to Autofocus because I found it accidentally and I knew it was different and I haven’t tried it and I wanted to talk about it. You’re right – it doesn’t quite fit here. BUt I like that I got to hear feedback about it, so thanks.

      Penelope

    • Elizabeth
      Elizabeth says:

      Good link, Jacqueline! I’ll reprint my favourite line for those who need a little convincing to read it:

      “Big problems are terrifying. There’s an almost physical pain in facing them. It’s like having a vacuum cleaner hooked up to your imagination. All your initial ideas get sucked out immediately, and you don’t have any more, and yet the vacuum cleaner is still sucking.” — Paul Graham

  25. phyllis
    phyllis says:

    It sounds like the borderline ADD that I suffer from.
    I’m in the middle of something and then “oh look, a chicken!” (the standard ADD joke in some circles). In the middle of any task, I find other tasks I need to do “now”. And I’m not good at setting goals, especially long term ones, but I make tons of lists, most of which I commit to memory anyway. Do men make as many lists as women do? Is this gender related in any way?

    I’ve been unemployed much of the last 2 years, and just found a part time job. But over those last two years, I could have focused much more on doing certain things on my own to earn extra money, but I just couldn’t pull myself together enough to get it done. I seem to lack a certain “drive” that other people have. I’m stuck and nothing truly motivates me anymore.

    I can meet my short term goals without a problem – doctor, dentist, bring in taxes on Thursday, but long term goals like “learn guitar”… get swept under the carpet. That reminds me, I really need to vacuum.

  26. Brigitte
    Brigitte says:

    I just gave very similar advice to another blogger last weekend. Sometimes we spend so much energy trying to define the end game that we never get started. I know this to be true of myself, so I force myself to just do something. If it’s not the right path, I’ll know and self-correct.

  27. joy
    joy says:

    “that” does not need to be capitalized. nor should it be used in most cases. “which” would work for the title in question.
    as to the jist of your post…i think you are on the random train today! the midwest skies are clear and sunny, so let your mind wander/wonder.
    that’s the problem w lists, esp organized lists; all those regrets when we don’t get everything done. however, it’s important as a creative person to allow for randomness and the odd spark.
    my desk is covered in to do lists. i do get to the most urgent unless i’m having a very procrastination-prone day. it happens in Wisconsin.
    oh, and then there’s this blog you check and answer regularly…no distraction there

  28. Andrew Shell
    Andrew Shell says:

    I really like your idea of rewriting your todo list by hand every day. As an engineer I always try to think of technology solutions to problems like this. Like I can’t use a Moleskine to track my todo list because I can’t reorder items and clear out crossed out items if it’s on paper. Your approach solves this. Every day it’s a new list, new order if needed, I can add, remove or whatever. Sometimes the simplest solution is the least obvious.

  29. neko
    neko says:

    “… goal setting is … not the one-time process of immaculate conception of clarity.”

    D A M N.

    And here I’ve been patiently waiting all these years for Divine Inspiration to help motivate me to GET TO WORK, ALREADY, and JUST STOP dawdling/procrastinating/staring out the window/rearranging the piles of paper on my desk ….

  30. Lori
    Lori says:

    You had me at the list. Then, after beginning to snooze about your grammatical worries, I burst out laughing on your perspective on the Dutch pedophiles perspective. And finally, you hit the nail on the head, as always. Fear can create the ultimate blockade in our quest to meet our desires. For some it inspires, for others, it discourages.

  31. Siobhan
    Siobhan says:

    I’m reading this blog instead of attacking my “To Do” list. But now I feel inspired to go back to my “To Do’s” with vigour and determination. After I post this comment…

  32. guy stuck in the kitchen
    guy stuck in the kitchen says:

    “I rewrite the list every day by hand. Because if something on the list is not worth taking the time to rewrite by hand, it's not worth taking the time to do.”

    interesting insight. i wonder how often you scrap things off of your list. it makes sense though. i might want to try doing this. could help me get unstuck as well.

  33. gbg
    gbg says:

    Not to sound too simplistic, but have you ever tried using e.ggtimer.com?

    Seems at first like a cheesy little tool, but it has worked wonders for me with regards to increasing productivity. Total, single focus until the timer goes off. Then reset it for another task.

    Give it a shot …

  34. Nowgirl
    Nowgirl says:

    Hey P,

    As I read you lately, I get the sense that you’ve grown bored with BC as a project but haven’t found the next exciting thing yet, except the farmer, and that this would be fine if you could afford not to work for awhile, but you can’t.

    That’s a tough spot to be in (if true) because you work from excitement with your project and in response to high stakes. You’re not happy in the ivory tower.

    I think you pulled in new leaders for BC so you could leave it and get free to think of the next thing. Figuring out how to leave BC while supporting your family would make for some interesting posts:-).

  35. Sandy
    Sandy says:

    My to-do is one, long, handwritten list, covering a whole sheet of paper. It’s grouped into sections by topic. Every day I pick the top 3 or 4 things that have to be done that day. They go on a post-it which I stick on top of the list. This makes my day more manageable – it all fits on one post-it.

    Also, I have switched off my auto-email notifications. Now I don’t get distracted every time a new email pops up. I don’t even see it.

    Finally, in response to the question why do we think we always have to be busy? The key is mindfulness. Yesterday I had two hours free in the morning, at home, to spend with my daughter. I had 100 tasks to do, but instead I sat down in front of the TV with her and read a magazine. And I decided I was going to do it guilt-free. So I did. It was great.

  36. suholla
    suholla says:

    Oh my God! I can really relate your situation and it somewhat worries me. Atleast you have written it down, realized it… I’m yet to get there. And guess what? Reading this blog wasn’t on my list, replying to somebody’s email was. The email’s still waiting…

  37. Lana Walker
    Lana Walker says:

    To be honest, it looks like the author is running around like a madman.
    Achieving your goal, it’s good to have lists to do every day, but I wouldn’t pay TOO MUCH attention to that… because this makes your life too stressed and restrained. As in, when you realize you haven’t done what you were supposed to do, it makes you nervous next day, and so forth. Give yourself a breath of relief! Our life is to enjoy it, too; it’s not only to compel yourself to do things that you *yourself* ranked as super important. I don’t know if other people have also experienced it, but when I let my life be just as it is and smile at it – suddenly, positive improvements come. When I least think of them. :)

  38. Sharmaine
    Sharmaine says:

    I once heard you will be a lot happier if you do the thing that is most worthwhile for the day (no matter what it may be) and then followed by the next and the next on your list. At the end of the day, not only you will be unstucked but you will feel most satisfied.

  39. Dips Chaudhury
    Dips Chaudhury says:

    I found most bits of it funny and close home. Like endless google searches on things that dont matter. and applying Maslows heirarchy to “to-do” lists, and imagining other ppl do stuff ‘before their breakfast’ that I end up doing 10 days late.
    Its a pleasure to know Im not the only one suffering. At least I write to-do lists by hand. But I dont categorise A.B and C items.

    You know what? This post smacks of an underlying happy-feeling which has been missing in some of your last posts.

  40. Phil Bolton
    Phil Bolton says:

    Penelope – don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re clearly doing something right so stick with it. There is no compulsion to be organized in a neat analytical way. Only do what makes you happy. If you thrive on distraction and chaos to fire your creativity do it. We’d all be bored if you change…Thanks!

    Phil

  41. Liz Timoney-White
    Liz Timoney-White says:

    I had this really useful advice from a colleague (also a coach.) Stop trying to find the ‘thing to do’ and decide on the ‘thing you want to be’ instead.

    The fun stuff is about the journey not the destination. Once you get all your dreams and desires fulfilled then what? Anticipation over.

    @P – you are a writer – enjoy what you do, when you do it and when you want to do something else: think what you really want to do and do that. Far more rewarding than doing something pointless off your list and usually the fun stuff spurs ideas for the A list stuff (which doesn’t need writing down – you know it) – works for me – give it a go.

    Time management lists are great for when you have a regular job (I train others and use them at work) but pretty hopeless when you work for yourself I find.

  42. Jo
    Jo says:

    Great post Penelope! I have the same problems with getting side-tracked when I’m trying to do important tasks. The problem is I enjoy the side-tracks… how else would I be able to fill my head with interesting (yet useless) facts like those you find!

    It is important to get things done in life, but it’s also important to nourish your brain with interesting tidbits – who knows what will spark your next bout of creativity.

  43. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    I’m currently reading a David Allen book. It’s really nice, and clear, but he basically wrote down what I usually do by myself. Problem is obviously self-discipline. I do all my planning, and then usually start with ther things I like the most :P. And I spend way too much time on those…eventually skipping over those I don’t like, but which matter as well !!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I feel like it always comes down to self-discipline. You know, after I did three years of research about happiness, I decided it came down to self-discipline. And the getting things done movement (or whatever it is — parade, obsession, I don’t know what to call it). But anyway, productivity is all about self-discipline, too.

      Maybe I should just focus on self-discipline…

      Penelope

      • Joe
        Joe says:

        The problem with remembering what I really want to do with my life is that it makes me want to kill myself. Because I had it, and let it slip away. The Internet ate my life. And I wish that were a joke.

        Anyway, not just go up in the treehouse and write longhand?

        When I broke into writing, the only way I actually was ever able to do it was by packing up my computer and a few liters of Diet Coke and spending weekends in a Motel 6.

        This was before Wi-Fi.

        Take a legal pad, go up in the treehouse and don’t let yourself come down until you finished a rough draft.

        Another tip: try getting a one of the “white noise” apps on your iPhone and playing it through earphones while you’re working.

  44. Jayne
    Jayne says:

    I just wanted to say I love your post I have been inspired by two simple tactics..WHY could I not think of this myself? I am now going to tackle my inbox rather than leaving the 100 emails everyday till the last minute..

    I love the tip also about rewriting your list I do my a,b,c’s like you but I dont tend to rewrite everyday and get focused again, so I am going to give it a go..
    Thanks

  45. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Penelope
    If you had to give bottom-line answer for how to get unstuck in life what would you say? My coach told me a story yesterday about walking through a forest of demons in search of enlightenment at the other side. People about to walk through the forest were given two tips: 1) remember that all the demons you encounter are just in your imagination and 2) keep walking no matter what. Many people didn’t make it through the “forest of demons” because it was too hard. Some did make it though. And when asked what worked they said this, “The first tip didn’t work at all. The only thing that worked was to keep walking!”.

    And so, I believe your advice is the same “do something/ keep walking” but your post was really meandering this time.

    I love your writing generally. You lost me a bit on this post.
    Lisa

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I guess keep walking is good advice. The thing is you cannot keep walking if you don’t know where you are headed. So the answer to how to be unstuck is to pick somewhere to walk, anywhere, just so you can keep walking.

      Sounds like you have a good coach :)

      Penelope

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