I just did a thing. I broke down my To Do list in two parts: decision/action. Life changing.

I’ve set up to do lists for years now – some online, some on paper. I like them. I like ticking off things as I complete them, I like taking plans out of my head to create space. I’ve read about and developed various productivity systems. Sort your tasks into ‘do now’, ‘do next’, ‘do later’. Make sure every task in the ‘to do’ list is phrased as an action. Break down complex tasks into parts if necessary.

But here’s a new system I came up with. I broke down my ‘to do list’ into two different columns. One column is labelled ‘This week: action’, and contains all the things I have to do during the week, written as imperatives – ‘contact such and such about X’, ‘write/finalise such and such text’, ‘do tax return’, etc. The other column is labelled ‘This week: decision & design’. Every item in that list is phrased as a question. ‘What should I write to such and such?’ ‘How can I efficiently do X?’, ‘What do I need for X?’.

It’s not just about sorting them out – it’s about thinking of decision and action distinctly, by using a different grammatical form. Not only do the questions stimulate me to think; I no longer experience these decisions as ‘things to do’. They no longer take up time in my head. Decisions may require careful research and consideration, but in essence they happen in a flash. Actions, in contrast, require time. Conflating decisions and actions only leads to confusion. Without prior decision, many actions are impossible – How can I write an email to John if I haven’t decided what I need to write, in what tone, and how long the email should be? This is how procrastination occurs: we set ourselves an impossible task, and escape into the world of Facebook streams, online video games, or long, painful draft. Whereas a decision can be made during a walk, a rest, after a session of Qi Gong. And the ensuing action, guided by a clear decision, can be completed in less time than we originally thought.

Importantly, this new system has helped me clarify the way that I work with my assistant. I’m an extravert working in introverted roles. Decision making alone is a particularly demanding task. I don’t need somebody to do things on my behalf, and save time. I need somebody to share the burden of making decisions, and preserve energy. This is what I’ve been doing implicitly for a few months now. I’m now set up to do it explicitly!


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