Self-Improvement Through Time Travel

There are some days I wish I could travel back in time and “fix” the time I wasted through an hour, a day, or a week working on something that really wasn’t worth my time, or just wandering through links on the Internet, looking at things I don’t really (ultimately) care about. My time management skills are, honestly, often lacking. There doesn’t seem to be a way, does there, though?

Or maybe there is. Let’s twist our brains a little and think about it this way. Tomorrow is going to be the day we wish we could travel into from the day after tomorrow to fix, right? So what if we did reverse time travel and fix tomorrow today? Sure, sounds nice, but how? The answer might seem a little trivial, but it’s only apparently trivial, rather than trivial in real life.

Once answer is the humble todo list. I know, you’ve made one of these before—in fact, you probably already have one, don’t you? And it’s never really helped, right? Well, let’s see if we can figure out how to supercharge to make it a bit more effective. To begin, we have to try to understand how a todo list can help you be more efficient. What, specifically, does a todo list do?

Simply put, the todo list is just another form of constraining your future choices today. In other words, it’s like squirreling money away in a place that makes it hard to get to, or setting up a menu for the coming week and shopping for the items needed to bring the menu to the table. It might seem counterintuitive in our modern age of “freedom for all to do all at all times” to discuss ways of imposing decisions on your future self today.

But this is just because we misunderstand the real nature of freedom. There are stories—apocryphal, I’m certain—of people who’ve somehow moved from a life situation where they have few or not choices in what they will use to, say, wash their hair, to having thousands of choices. The result isn’t a great burst of joy and sense of freedom. Rather, it’s great confusion, a feeling of being overwhelmed, and, often, a frozen stare, or listless wandering.

This, in fact, is why one of the most depressing parts of my life is looking at my todo list. There is so much to do I can simply get lost in deciding what to do next. Remember the old error message, “processor thrashing on process scheduler?” That mode is far too easy to fall in to. So what you need to do is to limit your range of future options in a way that both doesn’t feel like it’s limiting, and yet meaningfully reduces the amount of time you spend making decisions.

Bringing this into a larger context, I always eat pretty much the same three or four things no matter where I go. In fact, at certain restaurants, I always eat pretty much the same thing. Isn’t that boring? Well, maybe—but I spend a lot less time and angst looking at the menu, and more time chatting with the people around me. In fact, in most of my “regular spots,” I don’t even need to order—I know the people, and they know what I’m going to order.

Which matters more: trying something new for dinner, or having that much less angst, and that little bit more time to chat with friends? Variety might be the spice of life, but time is the stuff life is made up of. Too much spice, and there’s nothing left to spice.

So let’s return to the humble todo list. I used to have several todo lists, primarily to combat the huge todo list syndrome. Seriously, I would keep one todo list for each “area” of my life, and then I had a master todo list that told me which todo list to choose from next. It might work for you, but it didn’t work for me.

Instead, I’ve gone to a single todo list. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea here—I still have lists of ideas, research progress in different areas, and the like. If you were to look at my folders in OneNote, you’d find I just about live my life in there. There’s no end of notes, ideas, lists, etc. But there is only one todo list.

What I traditionally do is to organize my list like a queue. I put the most important things on the top, but I “shake in” a few things that “aren’t important” here and there. Otherwise, I’ve discovered, the stuff that’s “not important” falls permanently to the bottom. Then, each time I find I’m in need of something new to do, I start at the top of the list. But this returns me to my todo list, and the angst attendant on looking at it, just about every day. My todo list is so huge that I actually get depressed looking at it. The one sure way to send me off looking through moderately useless link-fishing on the Internet is to get me to look at my todo list. Seriously, it’s huge. Beyond this, I still have weekly and other “regular” tasks I need to take care of. Somehow I have to make certain those are on my list, as well, or they just won’t get done.

So how do I solve all of this? I was reading someplace that “truly effective people” schedule everything—they don’t have todo lists at all. Rather than having a list, when they accept a new thing to do, they just schedule it on their calendar. Now when they get up in the morning, they not only have a list, they have a schedule to follow.

I tried this. There is one way to describe the result: time management disaster.

Some things took more time than I thought. Others took less. Sometimes I had to lay a project aside and take on some component of the project in order to do the larger project. So now I’ve blended the list and the calendar.

Once a week I look at my todo list. I choose a set of things off that list, and schedule them (using Outlook, but any calendar with the ability to set tasks with completion dates will do) to be done by the end of the week. I keep notes about these tasks back in OneNote—one of the nice things about the OneNote/Outlook combination is I can actually cross reference the two things with a link between items. This creates a weekly task list that I can actually look at without feeling overwhelmed, and it helps me set actual dates by which I need to get things done. To this task list in Outlook, I also add my recurring tasks, so I now have everything I need to do this week in one place. Some things bleed over into next week/month/etc., but my focus is always on this week. When I get to the end of the week, I look at the leftovers. I can either carry them over into next week by adjusting the due date, or simply decide they really weren’t that important, and just delete them.

It’s not a perfect solution, but it seems to be working better than earlier methods I’ve tried. There are some things I’m trying to figure out—how to defer a task for several days, for instance— but this system seems to be serving me better than previous ones.

So—remember this—the key to more efficient work in the future is often restricting your future choices today. The todo list is one of those practical ways you can time travel into tomorrow and help your future self make better use of your time—so in the future, your future self doesn’t regret what your past self, your current future self, spent time on.

Mind blowing, I know. But that’s my random thought for the week.