Last week, I sat down to work through my Today list after the kids went to bed. I had an incredibly productive evening! After almost two hours of knocking off one task after another, I flipped over to OmniFocus to check off what I had done and see what was next.
I could only check off three tasks. Three!
I had been following a stream of consciousness checklist, not a written plan. Pay this bill. Oh, yeah, pay that other bill. Schedule the bill in YNAB. Import available transactions. Balance YNAB. What envelope is that Amazon purchase? Oh, yeah, place order with Amazon. Place order with Google Shopping Express…
So I did what any self-respecting productivity enthusiast would do: I entered everything I had done into OmniFocus and checked them off.
I’ve often seen jokes about this kind of ex post facto planning. “If you’ve ever written down a task after you’ve done it just so you can check it off, you might be addicted to time management.”
We’ve all done it. Which is good, because there are several benefits to it.
- It feels good! This is the usual punchline of the joke—we’re dopamine addicts. Dopamine is a chemical signal your brain generates to reward you for a job well done. It’s the carrot to get you to leave the cave, kill something, and drag it back. It’s an integral part of feeling like you’ve accomplished something.
- Feel a greater sense of accomplishment. Ever get to the end of the day and wonder where the day went? You probably spent it working on things you didn’t write down. You have no way to look back and see how far you’ve come.
- Generate a more accurate work log. A work log will help you document billable hours, create a paper trail, and make notes so you can go back next time and do it again. If there are holes in your work log, you won’t get paid as much as you deserve, you’ll have more hassle, and you’ll waste more time reinventing the wheel.
- Get better at planning your work. One of the main reasons we are bad about estimating how long a task will take is that we underestimate the number of things we have to do. With an accurate idea of how much is vying for our time, we can have a better sense of how much time we have to work on it.
- Start the brain dump. When you write down one thing you need to do—even if you’ve already done it—you change gears from doing to thinking. Planning. You were doing all these tasks without a written plan and everything has been swimming around in your head. That’s a terrible way to track what you need to do! Start writing down what you did and then pause for a minute. Give yourself a chance to write down what you still need to do.
Why do we not write down the things we need to do? If we’re busy, Siri can capture pretty quickly (not that it takes that long to open OmniFocus and jot down an idea to process later).
Personally, I struggle with feeling like my to-do list is for the important things I want to get done today—the big rocks. Then there’s all the gravel that I have to take care of, too. These are the little cues that pop up throughout the day, after I have my plan in place. An email comes in that I need to respond to. One of the bulbs over the bathroom sink has burned out. The gas gauge has dropped below half a tank.
No matter how trivial or unbidden a task is, putting it into your trusted system is the best way to get it done, get it off your plate, and get on with the other things in your life—the things you really want to be doing. Write it down and forget about it.
Even if you’ve already done it.