How To Think About Your To-Dos

a reminder system, not a reward system

How To Think About Your To-Dos

This week on Not A Productivity Blog: I was having a conversation with my girlfriend yesterday and she was talking about suffering from the commonly-documented phenomenon of not being able to stick with a to-do system (e.g. here, cmd-f 'scorched earth effect'). The basic issue is that when a system is fresh and new, you're able to stick with it because of its novelty, but after a while part of you "realises" that you don't have to follow it and it stops being an effective system for keeping you on track.

I definitely used to have that, I've been through calender methods and bullet journals and all kinds of apps—but have generally been pretty happy with the system I have for a couple of years now, and I think I've realised why that is. It's not really the system itself (great though it is), or the apps I use (great though they are). It's that somehow, at some point (don't ask me how! don't ask me when!) I shifted the way I was thinking about my to-do system from being a reward system to a reminder system.

If you're seeing your to-do list as a source of reward in itself—that ticking off the tasks will give you a little hit of good feeling, you're going to have the issue of burning out on the system. Whenever I'm playing a big videogame I'll invariably hit a point where I "see the matrix": I become aware of the game's reward mechanisms and I get bored because I realise I'm not being intrinically motivated, I'm being extrinsically motivated by making the numbers go up and that sucks. Similarly, if you're being extrinsically motivated by the feeling of ticking things off, part of you is going to clock that pretty quickly, and you're going to lose interest.

However, I see my list as, basically, a series of reminders. It's not about getting me to do the stuff, it's about having a source of truth for stuff I've got to do. The list itself cannot force me to do things, I will not feel rewarded for ticking things off the list. Many times if I have a lot of things I need to do in a day I will copy the things out of the app onto a paper notebook, sometimes re-ordering it multiple times (because I do like the feeling of ticking things off!). But I know that I've got this master list, and that if I need to remember to do anything, I can put it on this list and it will not get lost. It makes it impossible for me to forget what I need to do, because it's all there for me.

(Two slight caveats here: one, events or calls or similar things which are somehow timeboxed live in my Google Calendars, but they pull into the 'today' view of my app anyway, so I have a reminder present. Two, the app I use doesn't allow you to share your to-dos with someone else, so my shopping list lives in an Apple Reminders list that's shared with my partner—but 'doing the shopping' will be a reminder in the to-do app.)

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