Tuesday 25 October 2016

Judith Woods: People think to-do lists are a waste of time? Well, you can cross my name off that one

So, the most successful don't write lists? Of course not, they have people who do that for them, writes Judith Woods

Judith Woods

Published 28/02/2016 | 02:30

Richard Branson. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Richard Branson. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Oh, sorry, I didn't see you there, because I was working on my weekend to-do list. What's that? Haven't I heard that "lists are where important tasks go to die", and that to-do lists are technically to-don't lists because they make you less efficient?

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Well, yes, I did hear those rumours put about by US leadership expert and author Kevin Kruse, but I disagree, not least because he claims that lists stress people out, and "only" 41pc of the items get completed.

A whole 41pc? Why, most of us can only dream of that sort of success rate. Even if I put down 'have a shower', 'defrost the pastry' and 'throw a white wash in the machine', I can still only manage to cross off about a fifth of all the things over an entire weekend.

But I love a good list. Even a bad list is comforting because it's reassuringly reductive: Sisyphean ordeals such as 'sort the mortgage' and 'begin the consultation report' being insouciantly sandwiched between 'text babysitter' and 'watch The Night Manager'.

Given that chimps can make tea and crows can use tools, lists are what separates humanity from animals. I think I might classify as superhuman as I have three bright yellow Things To Do Today tear-off-and-keep-list pads on the go. Unfortunately, I can find none of them at present, a state of affairs crying out for a Things To Find Today list. But I digress, and that's not on my list, either.

I have some lists that date back to the last century, most notably one on which number viii, 'write thank you letter', is still a reproachful reminder. I have no idea whom I was supposed to thank or for what, but I obviously didn't complete the task or I would have run a line through it and achieved peace of mind, instead of squirrelling it away in a drawer.

According to Kruse, squirrelling away lists is not one of the 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management. He has interviewed 200 billionaires, entrepreneurs and Olympians, none of whom, he smugly reports, ever write to-do lists.

Maybe not now. But I bet they did in the fun, distant days before they had People. The main luxury of having People, after all, is the outsourcing your to-do lists. And the coffee making, of course.

But it wasn't always so. Once upon a time, in the silent watches of the night, all that stood between life's big-business beasts and sleeplessness, chaos and bankruptcy was a list. The idea that Sir Richard Branson or Lord Sugar got where they are today without making lists is preposterous.

They might still do, but they probably elevate it and call is something more grandiose, such as 'the Eisenhower Decision Matrix', an organisational tool credited to the eponymous president for which I have a perverse fondness.

The Eisenhower Decision Matrix is a square divided into four quadrants; one is headed 'Urgent and Important', the next is 'Urgent and Unimportant', the third is 'Non-urgent and Important', and the fourth 'Non-urgent and Unimportant'.

Inspired, huh? I gave just such a pad to my pregnant niece this month for her birthday. It made her cry. But, I expect, it also made her think. It probably had the effect of making bog-standard lists all the more appealing.

There is something emotionally seductive about a list. The allure of the personalised list, in particular, is something that online retailers have relentlessly exploited.

Most internet shopping now takes place on mobile phones. But wherever you log on - to browse for books, peruse shoes or look at light fittings - there will be lists.

Who can resist a personally tailored list - of favourites, of recently seen products, of the coveted and the must-have thing that you obviously thought twice and might have happily forgotten about forever had you not been reminded? Except now it's all waiting in a virtual basket to tempt you again, and it will stay there until you buy or delete.

Whether you're digital or analogue, you can't beat a good list. I always use Roman numerals to annotate mine, and write with a fountain pen, as I believe it lends a certain gravitas. Do they promote or impede my efficiency?

I have no idea, but every time I draw up a new to-do list, I feel genuinely invigorated. Until, of course, I get to viii and remind myself yet again that I need to write that thank-you letter.

©The Daily Telegraph

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