One of the biggest mistakes I see in managing tasks is in the approach. You’d think that the promise of a task manager, like OmniFocus, Things, ToDoist, or otherwise is to:

“Just tell me what to do already!”

But, of course, that never seems to happen. Instead, even when you’ve poured your heart and soul into your list, hoping, dreaming that you’ll be able to focus where you want or need to and everything will patiently wait for you, it falls apart.

No matter how well you’ve curated them, when you get back to your list, there are things on there that are still not done, seemingly mocking you. There are things that need to be in a completely different order, or shouldn’t be there until something else happens. There are things that are no longer relevant. 

Even though we see the results of this false belief that it will show us exactly what we need, it doesn’t often change it.  In fact, instead, it becomes damaging. It affects self-esteem by hitting you where you think you should have it together but for some mysterious reason just don’t. That in turn affects motivation to make changes that might actually get you to the places you want to go.

A task system won’t line up with reality. Reality changes while your list doesn’t. And, as much as you may like it to, it won’t make your decisions for you. All it can do is show you what you once thought was important  to help you make a decision now.

So what’s the point of a task list?

It seems like a whole lot of work for nothing.

When you work on your list, trying to make it reflect your reality now—what you want to do, what you need to need to do, making estimates as to how to get information back to you when and where it might be useful—you are, in fact, doing the work of making an informed decision for the current moment.

Think of it like tuning a guitar. Every time you come to it, you’ll need to make an adjustment. You’ll need to listen to it, consider how the sounds fit together, and then twist the pegs until they have the harmony you need. Certainly, the better you get at it, the less time it takes to tune it to the moment.

Instead of thinking it should be perfect, realize instead that, of course, it needs to be updated. The world has changed since you were last there. Your lists and ideas decay just like anything else. Making that realization is a game changer. It means that you are now free, in the moment, to make changes. You can now see where the problems are and where you may have over promised yourself. More subtly, for example, you might see where feelings of guilt have resulted in squeezing out things that you want to do. Or, more positively, you might realize that several ideas can come together into a single action.

It’s about making a solid decision for the moment. And a solid decision is a powerful foundation to take action. It is exactly like the Abraham Lincoln quote:

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.”

Your decision is a sharpened ax. Working on your list in the moment is sharpening it.

If you’re looking for practical and concrete tips for updating a list to your current world, consider any of these posts: