A young man contemplates decision growth—the subject of this email
January 16, 2024

Avoiding the Tyranny of Your To-do List

Read time —
4 Minutes

We desire simplicity — especially when it comes to managing our time.

It makes life easier, and it requires less mental energy when things are simple. But keeping things simple regarding productivity, prioritising, and time management is hard.

Knowing what to do — and when to do it — is empowering.

When you don’t know what to do and when to do it, you end up doing nothing — or worse, the stuff that doesn’t matter. The important stuff gets lost in the mire. Your mental willpower drains away like the water in your bath when the plug gets removed.

Prioritising, time management, and being productive boil down to decisions.

It isn't complicated, deciding what to do — and when to do it. But often, the focus is on the to-list, not the execution of it.

The problem is most to-do lists are just lists of problems.

As Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States said, “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

It isn’t enough to have a to-do list. No, what you need is a matrix.

The Eisenhower Matrix

The Eisenhower Matrix

Deciding what to do and when to do it requires a sense of priority. You need to know what’s important — and what’s not.

The Eisenhower Matrix gives us a simple, but effective way to decide what to do and what order to do it in. The matrix consists of four quadrants, each with a different strategy for handling tasks:

  • Do First: These are the tasks that are both urgent and important. They need your immediate attention and have significant consequences if not done. Examples: deadlines, crises, emergencies.
  • Schedule: These are the tasks that are important but not urgent. They contribute to your long-term goals and values but do not have a pressing deadline. It would help if you planned to do these tasks later, but not neglect them. Examples: planning, learning, exercising.
  • Delegate: These are the tasks that are urgent but not important. They demand your time but do not align with your priorities or vision. You should try to delegate these tasks to someone else or find ways to reduce them. Examples: interruptions, meetings, requests.
  • Don't Do: These are the tasks that are neither urgent nor important. They are distractions that waste your time and energy and do not add any value to your life. You should cut these tasks as much as possible. Examples: browsing, gaming, gossiping.

The Tyranny of a To-Do List

A to-do list without a sense of order can quickly become hell.

It is amazing how a list of things empowers us. We feel organised, just because we have a list of what we need to do.

But then everything changes.

The list quickly overwhelms us. What should we do first?

Unsure, and with a growing sense of unease, we struggle to choose what to do. We know some of the tasks are more important than others, but we hesitate about which one to begin or start first.

Then, you see one.

It’s an easy task. It isn’t important, and you don’t need to do it. But, you tell yourself, it gets a box ticked. And so you do it.

There is a sense of occasion when you tick that box. It’s victory which draws a smile, but let's be honest, it is a hollow one. There is no purpose in closing a task that doesn't move the needle.

In truth, all you've done is waste time.

That sense of frustration ruminating at the back of your mind only grows when you see the list again. Tamerlan Kuzgov's words poke you, “Time heals nothing if you waste it.”

You don't need to suffer the tyranny of a to-do list. There is another way.

Don’t Just List, Qualify

The Eisenhower matrix is a practical framework.

It offers us a filter to assess each task against an established definition which gives some qualification on how to proceed. Without this framework, you will always choose the easy task.

We are prone to psychological misjudgements.

Our misjudgement — without a framework — is to fool ourselves into thinking doing anything is better than nothing. We tell ourselves we are being productive.

It is a sizeable misjudgement.

The damage is significant. We waste mental energy both in choosing and then doing the task we shouldn’t be doing.

Our brains have limited bandwidth for deciding.

That’s the point of this matrix. It makes deciding easier for you. It creates boundaries and constraints your mind can’t give you — and you need them.

It’s another way to help you master your decisions.

A boy posing to thinnk before making a decision.

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