The perks of the long-lead to do list

Art by  Gorkie

Art by Gorkie

Words by Madeleine Dore
Art by Gorkie

Daily to do lists have a reputation for being the key to productivity, efficiency, and organisation. Personally, I craft and re-craft mine on what sometimes feels like an hourly basis, making sure all my tasks fit perfectly in allocated slots. 

But more often than not, when that allocated period arrives, the set task doesn’t seem so appealing – procrastination invites itself along instead. Could this approach to scheduling our days and crafting daily to do lists be flawed? 

Tim Harford, author of Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, has found that scrapping the overly structured daily to do list in favour of a broader monthly list of goals will ultimately lead to getting more done.

He points to a study in the early 1980s that investigated how to structure our calendars  – should we schedule tasks at specific times, or should our calendar be reserved for fixed appointments, leaving everything else open to our daily impulses?

The study divided undergraduates into two groups whereby some were advised to set out monthly goals and study activities; others were told to plan activities and goals in much more detail, day by day.

“The researchers assumed that the well-structured daily plans would work better than the rather amorphous monthly plans. But the researchers were wrong: the daily plans were catastrophically demotivating, while the monthly plans worked very nicely. The effect was still in evidence a year later,” Harford wrote for Quartz.

The daily to do list often fails us because it doesn’t take into account the unexpected – meetings that run overtime, commute delays, unexpected phone calls, responsibilities outside of work.

“A rigid structure is inherently fragile,” writes Harford. “Better for both your peace of mind and your productivity to improvise a little more often.” 

Artist and author Adam J. Kurtz honors this system and prefers to work to his own whims in order to find flow in his day.

Each morning he will clear his email inbox as a way to move through smaller tasks, before referring to his ‘long-lead to do list’ and picking a task that fits his interest or mood for that moment.

“For the most part I'm working on self-directed projects, so on a whim I can decide I don't feel like working on the calendar, I'd rather work on this pitch-deck or shop products or something else. I let myself follow my bliss a little bit,” he says.

Read more: A day in the life of Adam J. Kurtz

Of course, not everyone can implement the long-lead to do list if their work isn’t project based or has strict deadlines.

Beci Orpin instead uses a weekly to do list model. “I usually have a list that I have written at the beginning of the week and I just go through that and check if I have any deadlines to meet that day and allocate time. Sometimes a project will come in and it will have to be done in a week and pretty much take over everything. So it can change, but I’m usually guided by the weekly plan.”

Read more: A day in the life of Beci Orpin and Raph Rashid

If the daily to do list is still inescapable, one habit to adopt could be to schedule ‘nothing time’ into your day. As Jocelyn K Glei writes, it’s important for to build in white space into your routine.

“We need white space in our daily lives just as much as we need it in our designs because the concept carries over: If our lives are over-cluttered and over-booked, we can’t focus properly on anything. What’s more, this way of working actually shrinks our ability to think creatively.”

She goes on to list some ideas – sitting quietly and letting your mind wander; free drawing with no specific objective; people watching; going for a walk around the block; and taking a power nap. 

Read more: On rest and the art of napping

Glei continues: “Consider building a few white space blocks directly into your schedule weeks in advance so that no matter what meetings or deadlines come up, you still have time blocked off to take a few moments and think about the big picture — or think about nothing at all.”

Ultimately, scheduling white space in your calendar, adopting a long-lead to do, or even a weekly overview allows for greater flexibility and contentedness with your daily approach to your work. 

This is especially true for any freelancer or self-employed creative. “Being your own boss is a lot harder than people realise – you have to be a happy employee and a happy boss. Having a little bit of flexibility is sort of the reward for being your own boss,” says Kurtz.  

Equally, if a daily to do list makes you a happy boss and a happy employee, then remember to do what works best for you. 

I for one could never give up my bullet journal, and as photographer Mark Lobo reminds us, a daily to do list can be the very thing that sets the tone for the day

“Every morning, I’ll take a few items from the weekly list, break them down and schedule them into the day. If I don’t do this, my head is all over the place, trying to manage ten tasks at once and thinking about doing all the stuff I don’t really need to! Not working off this schedule opens up a world of procrastination, jumping around from Facebook to Tumblr to Instagram, for hours without realising I haven’t done any work.”