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. Simon
    Simon says:

    Penelope what a sentence: “Dutch paedophiles are more focused on their long-term goals than I am.” Please never give up blogging as this is one of the funniest observations I have ever read.

  2. John Lehmberg
    John Lehmberg says:

    My issue is all about discipline. Sometimes I feel as ADD as a puppy with two toys to play with. If I can force myself to settle down and focus on what I’m doing at the moment, I tend to actually complete the task at hand. Otherwise, I will start 1 task, go to another and before it’s over, I’ll have started 10 different tasks and finished none. If I can fight the urge to flitter around, I do much better. Thanks for the post!

  3. Real Me At 42
    Real Me At 42 says:

    Boy do we have a lot in common it seems. I’ve been writing about fear and to do lists a lot on my blog in the past two weeks. I feel the same way as you and just as frustrated about my lack of doing. The “currents turn awry and lose the name of action” and all that.

    Now if we could only both solve the problem….

  4. funny motivational posters
    funny motivational posters says:

    I guess i’m a person who gets stuck in life every now and then. Life just seems to lazy and boring for me. Have done some courses on ‘whatever’ but they all were just a waste of time and money, have read your post and have also bookmarked it. Lets see how things go :)

  5. Glamoursmith
    Glamoursmith says:

    I’m a new reader, by way of Maria Killam. Thank you for letting us know that even the pros have a hard time with practicing what they preach. Its a great reminder that you’re human like the rest of us, with foibles and idiosyncrasies and stuff that gets in the way.

  6. Mirika
    Mirika says:

    I find that without a goal im easily distracted by “shinny things” and without a to do list I can forget what I did days later.

    Any goal is better than nothing at all, yet sometimes when you know its just not the right goal you feel like your wasting time heading in the wrong direction.

    Catch 22? lol

  7. Andrea Kropp
    Andrea Kropp says:

    I admire you for being able to clear your inbox. I’ve tried…I mean really tried that one but never even get past the first day. My ABC list always need external accountability. Like you, I’ve found that by blogging about my to do list makes me much more likely to actually DO those things. Somehow being accountable to a piece of paper doesn’t work for most people without a boss to reinforce it.

  8. Kieran
    Kieran says:

    I couldn’t agree more, I live and die by my to do list. However, I have to complete my to do list at night before I sleep, otherwise I have too many things running around in my head and cannot get to sleep!

    But at least I found a great software program to help me do all my market research these days in Market Samurai

  9. Lista Telefonica
    Lista Telefonica says:

    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?!

  10. Andrea Coutu
    Andrea Coutu says:

    Gee, I feel like I could have written this post. But you saved me from that distraction. Perhaps I should say That distraction. ;-) (As an editor, I’m pretty sure “That” can be capitalized in the title.)

  11. dogged pursuits
    dogged pursuits says:

    Wow. I stumbled upon Penelope just yesterday after googling how to save my train wreck of a life. I love your posts and the comments of your readers, although it does take away just a bit of my terminal specialness. I thought that I was the only one who got grabbed by every bright shiny thing passing through my visual or mental field, unable to stay on track, or accomplish much, or commit to a goal beyond a few days. I’m a poster child for ADD, though I’ve had quite a few other diagnoses added to my CV – depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive, etc. In any case, I identify with the posts and comments – frank, funny, wise, neurotic. Thank you.

  12. Real sandara
    Real sandara says:

    Really i am new player in the form of shan . Thanks for letting us know that even professionals find it difficult to practice what we preach. It & a good reminder that you are human like the rest of us, with quirks and peculiarities, and the things that come your way.

  13. Anne
    Anne says:

    Great advice. My husband does it in his head (he wakes up in the morning and plans his entire day). I admire him for it, but I can’t do it… it is not tangible enough. However, making one prioritised to do list over the morning coffee and start every day like that, that will work I think.

  14. Designer
    Designer says:

    This is really excellent stuff. Pitty TL;DR.

    From what I did read I think using SCRUM might work well for you. We use this in our design firm every morning. 15 Minutes to stand up, talk about what you did and didn’t do yesterday, and then about what you’ll be doing today. It’s great for motivation.

    Like anything it’s only as good as the effort you put into it, and it’s not going to do the work for you, but we find it works wonders for productivity.

  15. mick stop
    mick stop says:

    It is interesting that you coach “stuck” people to make up a goal to help them to start moving forward until a better goal is realized, but that you yourself are afraid to committ a fake goal. Have you ever tried to give advice to “yourself”? If “you” came to you with this issue, what would you say to “yourself”?

  16. Mel from Healing That Feeling
    Mel from Healing That Feeling says:

    Interesting read, thank you.

    I find that my clients get ‘stuck’ because they are at least one of the following;

    Overwhelmed with too much to do (for example if they have a goal of starting a business there is a lot to do and because they are not sure where to start, they don’t ‘start’ at all).

    Fearful of moving forward (fear of failure is often the reason)

    Focused on the past (usually because of a trauma or hurt)

    Not sure which way to go (this is common for women that I work with who are considering a lifestyle change and they are not sure which path to go down, so they stay ‘stuck’ at the crossroads)

    My advice is to focus on the feeling of being ‘stuck’ and dig deeper to find out why, then work though some basic steps of getting you to move forward.

    If you have a goal, write down the goal in HUGE detail. Asking yourself some basic coaching questions is another part of this process… Why do you want the goal? What would achieving the goal mean to you and your life? etc
    Write down all of your answers.

    When you think you are getting to the core goal and the blocks that are stopping you from achieving it, a mind map can be helpful to help you to focus on the things that you need to do or blocks that you need to overcome to achieve the goal.

  17. Barbie
    Barbie says:

    I know exactly what you mean. I work for a telco and am at a higher position where i have to overlook many groups and get tens of hundreds of emails which I need to scan and keep myself aware of whats going on.

    Flagging emails according to priority has helped me immensely with getting my job done.

    Good post!

  18. Jordan Carver
    Jordan Carver says:

    I’m at my very best when I am checking things off a list and getting them accomplished one by one. I think this idea is very powerful and sort of overlooked. Rewriting the list daily helps you evaluate progress, but it also makes you look at “to-do’s” and their priority with a renewed perspective. Anyway, great advice.

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