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The to-do list trap

Posted in the following categories: Decision Making, Productivity

When I first started writing Think Like a Rocket Scientist, my to-do list looked something like this:

  1. Call insurance company
  2. Submit tax form
  3. Order groceries
  4. Write book
  5. Inbox zero
  6. Clean desk

“Write book” is by far the most important item here. The others have their place, but they won’t move the needle toward my biggest goal of finishing my book.

You might guess what happened next.

I checked off every single item on the list except “Write book.” For a month, the same scenario played out day after day. I’d dutifully complete numerous items from my to-do list and finish the day with inbox zero and an impeccably clean desk. But I’d make no progress whatsoever toward writing my book.

Checking off any item on a to-do list—however small or insignificant—releases a chemical called dopamine that creates a sense of euphoria. So we find a way to quickly complete another item from the list just to get one more feel-good moment as fast as possible.

This chemically reinforced sense of accomplishment leads us to pursue small, easy-to-do tasks. Craving the thrill of fast completion, we call the insurance company instead of sitting down to write the book.

This gives the impression that we’re in control and that we’re getting things done. I mean, look at all those checkmarks! That’s progress!

But progress toward what exactly?

While we’re busy tackling small tasks that we’ve convinced ourselves we have to do, we avoid the more complicated projects that will take us to the next level.

Counterintuitively, a to-do list can be a powerful driver of procrastination.

When you put all your to-dos in the same place and give them equal treatment, you give yourself another reason to order avocados instead of creating the new marketing strategy for your business.

You don’t need to ditch your to-do list. You also don’t need to replace it with a 4-part matrix, a special app, or a stylish journal.

It’s simple. Just decide what’s important and relentlessly prioritize it.

Make it one of your to-dos to determine whether you’ve got the right to-dos.

Ditch the low-priority items that aren’t worth doing at all.

Separate the remaining low-priority stuff from the high-priority stuff.

I have a separate list for my highest priorities. On that list are the tasks that will move the needle on what’s most important to me—the tasks that, if accomplished, will bring me closer to my moonshots. Everything else lives in a separate place.

I also break down the big tasks on my high-priority list into smaller pieces. A task like “write book” is too big and overwhelming. I don’t even know where to start. But “write 500 words in Chapter 1” is eminently doable.

Don’t get overwhelmed focusing on building a wall. You’re just placing one stone. And then the next one. And then the next one. If you do this for long enough, you’ll end up with the Great Wall of China.

As the Bruce Springsteen song tells us, from small things, mama, big things one day come.

P.S. Can I get your opinion? I’m always looking for ways to improve the Weekly Contrarian, so I created a brief survey. It will take less than 2 minutes (literally) to complete.

If you complete the survey by Thursday, April 22nd, you’ll be entered into a drawing to win a $50 Amazon gift card.

Here’s the link.

Thanks in advance!

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