Poor Misunderstood “Someday/Maybe” List
I’m gonna write this on the fly without fully referring to canonical “Getting Things Done” by David Allen, but I had a helpful realization when I pondered a problem that a friend (I’ll call him Sodmund) and I were having with regards to our GTD task lists.
Basically, Sodmund and I observed that we were typically accomplishing and average of
n items on our task list every day, but we were adding
n+2 items to our task list. These items were nice, next-action style items that we considered things we really wanted to get done, SOON. But inevitably, our averages stayed fixed. And thus the list of next actions that needed to be combed through, and reviewed on a weekly basis was growing and becoming way too long. (and here is where I need to review what DA would recommend).
My “aha” moment came when I discussed this problem (what to do with the tasks that build up in your task list that are important but aren’t getting done) with another friend of ours (will call him Edam) and he sort of didn’t understand our problem. He was all, “I add tasks to the list then I do them, and then there are none left”.
Obviously, we sort of hate Edam. JK, Edam!
But, that put in stark relief the obvious point, which is that the items on my list that weren’t getting done are important to me in that when I look at them and think about whether I want the outcome their completion would provide, I conclude, “yes, I want that task to be completed”. But when their importance is measured by whether I actually choose to do that task instead of some other activity, the harsh measure of reality concludes, “no, that task is just not as important right now.
This somehow triggered many thoughts about "loss aversion”, “accepting the reality that some people just are unsettled until all loose ends are tied up”1, and “that accepting a half loaf is sometimes better than insisting on a full loaf that you cannot have and thus end up with nothing.” In this mix of thoughts, it occurred to me that this is really what the “someday/maybe” list is or should be2 for.
|“in the moment”||“must get everything done”|
|stricter about taking on tasks||most important things more likely get done
||probably the sweet spot|
|less strict about taking on tasks||overwhelmed with everything that’s not getting done
unlikely to keep up with a system
|things get done but with regular bouts of stress|
Clearly there is an advantage to being stricter about taking on tasks, but depending, again, on personalities, this can be very difficult. Dodmund and I, for example, are just plain interested in lots of “stuff” and by and large have lots of responsibilities. We probably both share an aversion to saying, “No”, as much as we should and so out of interest or obligation add a few too many things to our task lists. Dargaret, on the other hand, is a very others-centered person and is very forward looking, and wants to help many people and is thoughtful about opportunities for our family that typically can be best arranged ahead of time. Honestly, I am going to focus on my and Dodmund’s issue because I can understand the contours of it better.
When he and I would discuss this list problem, I learned that his list literally had > 1000 items on it that he could not let go of. Now I can look at that as a third party and realize that its absurd to have a list of “important tasks” that he expects to accomplish on some level (no offense Dodmund). At 5 minutes a piece, that is over 2 40 hour work weeks. But, when I suggested cutting most of the items of this list out, it freaked Dodmund out at the thought of losing track of those things.
Personally, I have also learned that loss aversion is a very difficult emotion to fight. It is draining to fight against, and it clouds judgement badly. I think that David Allen underestimates the impact of decision fatigue and loss aversion for many people. The correct answer for Dodmund and for me, is to say no to more things, or in our weekly review to make some hard choices and remove things from our next actions list. But in the moment, this is tough to do. Instead, we mostly stop doing the weekly review.
However, I have learned a great trick to deal with loss aversion that can be applied:
Emotional separation, in the form of time.3
I learned that when we have things in our house that I or my wife aren’t quite ready to get rid of, if we put them in a well-labeled box and put that box in our crowded basement, then next year when I am trying to make room in our crowded basement, it is much easier to just pitch or donate the item(s) because I just don’t care as much about them, and it saves me so much anguish in the moment.4
And so, finally my point about the someday/maybe list. If instead of treating the someday/maybe list as a dreamy “things I’d love to do” or aspirational projects (Learn Guitar!!) list, we should treat it primarily as a bin for the tasks that we really mean to get to but haven’t quite been able to get to.
Now, I know that even the prospect of manually putting items on a separate list like this would still lead to an aversion of not having them present. So my solution that I have worked successfully with is to automate this. Every task that is > ~2 weeks old, automatically is moved to a someday/maybe list. It’s still there and if in my monthly review or whatever, I want to put it back on the next action list, I can do that, but human psychology being what it is, I don’t often do that. I am happy for it to stay on the someday/maybe list.
An obvious reaction to this is that this will create a large, messy list of things that would be tough to act on. Yes. But it does so in service of simultaneously creating a short list with timely and actionable items that is where you will realistically spend your time, with the confidence that you aren’t “losing track” of any of the tasks you consider important, even if you can’t do them today or this week.
Another point to recognize, is that I think there are obviously many different types of people when it comes to how they are wired when it comes to an actually psychological need to tie up loose ends. At all points along this spectrum, it seems to me to be a classic “strength/weakness” issue. I am fairly far on the “able to enjoy the moment, despite many unfinished, important untied loose ends”, while my wife (we’ll call her Nargaret) really can’t feel fully settled if there are any loose ends that could be tied. While it is easy to lionize the positive aspects of either approach, “Enjoy the moment!!” or “Set your mental table before moving on to the next thing!!”, it is easy to see the darker side of both, especially in hindsight, “How could you not taken care of this obviously important thing??”, and “How much of this wonderful day did you waste worrying about that stuff that turned out to be no big deal??” ↩
Let’s be honest, doesn’t David Allen strike you as much more of a Edam type of person, where he only puts things on the list that are going to get done, and is unsatisfied until they are finished ↩
There are other forms of separation that work. Physical separation – I don’t worry as much about things that I’m not doing when I can’t see them. Emotional separation – when friends or family are having a hard time getting rid of something they don’t have space for, I offer to take, even if I don’t want it, because I will have no problem putting it in the trash or sending it to Goodwill. ↩
Not a perfect system, since the build-up of these put-off decisions in the form of boxes can make “discovery” and rearrangement difficult. ↩