Monday, June 21, 2010


I hadn’t heard this story before I read it on Tom Peters’ blog recently:

A man approached J.P. Morgan, held up an envelope, and said, 'Sir, in my hand I hold a guaranteed formula for success, which I will gladly sell you for $25,000.'
‘Sir,' J.P. Morgan replied, 'I do not know what is in the envelope; however, if you show it to me, and I like it, I give you my word as a gentleman that I will pay you what you ask.'
The man agreed to the terms, and handed over the envelope. J.P. Morgan opened it, and extracted a single sheet of paper. He gave it one look, a mere glance, then handed the piece of paper back to the gent. And paid him the agreed-upon $25,000.
The contents of the note:
1. Every morning, write a list of the things that need to be done that day.
2. Do them.

This made me smile because I have a near-religious belief in list-making.

I live and die by writing things on a list and my brain really doesn’t function well without one. My (largely unscientific) theory is this – trying to remember things clogs up your head. If you’re carrying a lot of stuff around in your short term memory, it’s harder to devote clear space to problem-solving and ideas. I never memorise phone numbers and if you ask me what I’m doing for the next week, day or even hour I can’t tell you without consulting my list. Once I open that notebook, however, it’s all their. Every last detail.

My listing is not an empty exercise. If it goes on the list it absolutely gets done. Equally, if it’s not on the list, it almost certainly does not.

I used to keep separate lists for different parts of my life – shopping lists, lists of things that need doing around the house, work lists subdivided by client, project etc. These days it all goes on one list. They are all things that have to get done one way or another and it helps me make more efficient use of my time if I’m considering them all equally. It’s not unusual for me to have a list that will contain big life-changing decisions along side items like collect dry-cleaning and buy shampoo.

I have a deeply embedded work ethic but I’m not a workaholic. What the list does is allow me to deal with procrastination and actually get through some stuff. But at the same time it allows me to set expectations and not become overwhelmed by the multitude of tasks. It’s a great feeling to look at a list with a lot of black lines through it. A colleague of mine once called it ‘The Joy of the Strike-through’ and I knew exactly what she meant. It makes me feel that no day as been wasted if something on the list gets crossed off.

I realise all of this makes me sound a bit uptight but it’s actually quite the opposite. I’m not a naturally well organised person and I thrive in chaos. My mind tends to romp between multiple problems and the list is what allows me to be spontaneous and flexible while still getting through the grunt work.

Those of you who are already listers will be nodding your heads at all this. Those of you who find the idea repugnant or have tried lists and found them ineffective, might just need some tips on what makes a good list.

Everyone, of course, has their own style but this is what works for me.

– It must be hand written. This allows me to amend, annotate, underline for emphasis and create all sorts of lines and arrows which connect certain items to each other in significant ways. And of course that wonderful strike-through which I find so much more satisfying than the delete button.

– It must be with you at all times. Scraps of paper and post-it notes stuck everywhere just beg to be lost or forgotten. I use a Moleskin notebook because I like it as an object and therefore am happy to keep it about my person.

– It must contain everything you have to get done, no matter how small and or unlikely to be forgotten. A common barrier to getting stuff done is other, non-scheduled stuff getting in the way. Often small things in aggregate take up a lot of time and you can be left wondering where the day went.

– It must be adaptive. If your plan for the day changes, change the list so you take the time to consider the consequences of moving some stuff into another day.

– Everything on the list must get done. Don’t write down stuff that you have no intention of doing or think maybe you might get around to. If you allow yourself to skip over some items on the list then you’ll start skipping over many. Remember it’s a discipline.

It’s rare for me to be evangelical but I do believe everyone should practice good list-making because I think everyone should take responsibility for their own effectiveness. I’ve encountered too many people who spend more time telling you how incredibly busy they are than they spend actually doing something about it. And that’s just annoying.

1. Put it on a list
2. Do it
3. Strike-through
4. Feel the joy

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