A To-Do List Is Not a Morality Game

Oct. 4, 2015

I had an MYN user talk to me the other day and she was telling me how badly she felt that she was not completing all of her Critical Now tasks each day. She basically was beating herself up for not keeping what she felt were obligations she had made to herself. I realized that I never beat myself up that way so it made me think that perhaps many people might misunderstand the right purposes of the MYN and 1MTD to-do lists.

Working hours

The MYN and 1MTD to-do list is a tool to get your overwhelmed workday under control. When you’ve got tens of new action requests coming in each day, you need a tool to prioritize them, and that’s what the MYN and 1MTD to-do list is all about. It gives you a way to sort them by urgency so that nothing critical drops through the cracks. And it gives you a way to revisit less critical items to see if their timing is now right. It can also be a tool to plan out your day so that you focus first on your most important items.

But, when you place something on an MYN or 1MTD list, it’s not supposed to be an obligation to do something at a particular time. Just because you write an item down doesn’t mean you have to do it. You write it down mainly to give yourself perspective of how it compares to other things. And to allow yourself to consider how, in some cases over time, its relative priority stacks up against other things.  

I can safely say that 50% of the things that I write down my to-do list never get done. Most items in my Opportunity Now section scroll down over time. Some I move back up as I review the list daily, and I do accomplish them in a week or so. But most I finally move on to the low priority (Over the Horizon) section where I review them only periodically. And a good 90% of the low priority section never gets done. I keep them for a while for review and for informational purposes, but most of them I eventually delete after some time, because I realize I have moved on from the mind frame I had at the time I wrote it down.

Does this mean I’m a bad person, someone who doesn’t keep their commitments? Absolutely not. If you are a busy person, then you are thinking up, and receiving, far more requests for action than you can possibly do each day. I am constantly thinking of things to do that would better my business, and I jot them down into my list. Our job is to identify the most important things from that list that we can do and focus on those. It’s just that we often need the “test of time” to sort those priorities out, and that’s what the to-do list gives us; a place to store items while we consider them and sort out what’s truly important.

The test of time is incredibly important to help you identify what your true priorities are; even just a day helps. There’s an entire book on this topic called Do It Tomorrow by Mark Forster, where the author points out that because we are all mostly in reaction mode in the overwhelmed workday, we often act on low priority things at the expense of more important things. He says that if you give an item a little time, often its true priority will emerge, and you won’t waste as much time. Since business priorities change so fast, giving something a little time will show whether it has staying power.

So don’t think if you put, for example, four items in your Critical Now section that you have to do all four items today. Obviously, when you first wrote them down, you probably thought that you did have to do them — that’s why you placed them there. But we live in a rapidly changing work world where priorities change almost minute by minute. So halfway through the day you may realize a few of those things aren’t quite as important as you first thought, and other things are. And that’s fine; simply move those items out, and others in, when you realize that. And, even if some were written down in the spirit of commitment, you are allowed to renegotiate your commitments as business conditions change. You’re not a bad person for doing that.

Now don’t get me wrong. If you have a procrastination problem and you are putting off some really important things, then yes, if you repeatedly neglect an important responsibility, you should beat yourself up a bit and find a way to stick to your commitment. But that’s not generally what goes in a to-do list for very busy people. Mostly, for very busy people, the to-do list is a long list of incoming requests, many of which you just can’t get to because you have way too much to do. So simply sort out your priorities day by day, and move on.

By the way, if you do have a procrastinated important item like I just described, one trick to get it done is to block an hour or so on your calendar devoted only to that item. Don’t just let it float on your to-do list week after week. But only do that for really important items that aren’t getting done.

So in general, a to-do list is not a morality game. It’s not a commitment list that makes you a bad person if you don’t complete all of it. Rather, it’s primarily a tool to help you sort out the overwhelmingly large number of requests that all of us get in the business world these days. Don’t to make it more than that.


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6 Responses to A To-Do List Is Not a Morality Game

  1. Blair Friesen says:

    Great article! This is real life. Strive for excellence, not perfection. Thanks, Michael!

  2. Nigel says:

    Greetings from sunny South Africa 🙂

    Thank you for these ‘words of wisdom’ – appreciated!

    Enjoy whatever you are busy with and as always, remember to KEEP SMILING.

    Best regards

    Nigel Rotherham

  3. Marc Sigrist says:

    I wanted to write “Words of wisdom” and then saw that Nigel had already done that 🙂

  4. Dan says:

    What a great article. I am happy to find your MYN technique. I just tried many other systems but no one was so helpful like this. It would be nice if my boss would use this system also… 😉

  5. Great article at exactly the right time. I did as you suggest with a task tonight. It was critical now, due at midnight (because an electronic submission thing ended then), and I made progress, but didn’t complete it.

    Oh well. Now I’ll get it in manually Tuesday afternoon, after our Canadian thanksgiving and an exam on Tuesday morning. That’s how it’s going to have to be.

    Thanks for writing this timely, superb article, Michael.

  6. Deryck says:

    Thanks Michael,

    Funny – I was about to email you as I was experiencing the same frustration as your MYN user but received this email first!!

    Great article – its like stepping outside of yourself and viewing your tasks and commitments in an effective, realistic and pragmatic way.

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