It just dawned on me that life’s to-dos are very much like my inbox. That may sound a little odd, but stay with me on this.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m a huge fan of Inbox Zero. I’ve been using the Mailbox app to happily swipe my email down to zero. I still wish they had a web app, but it’s so effective that I’m willing to overlook that. In the end the critical piece is to have the empty inbox in order to keep the thinking about email at bay. It just feels great.
I recently started using Swipes as my to-do manager and much like Mailbox you swipe things around. Quite similar. The biggest difference being that your inbox gets filled by other people and in most cases, your to-do list is populated by you. That’s the case even for things which your boss, your spouse, etc., ask of you. You just end up putting those things on your to-do list. That’s assuming you use one. If you don’t I’d highly recommend it. It’s very effective way to remember things and encourages focus on the things that need to happen.
For the longest time I used my to-do list as reminder list of things I should be working on. There were lots of things I just managed in my head. All the little things that come up, you just “know” you need or should or want to do. That box on the counter I should put away, the weekly lawn mowing, checking the oil in the car, a follow up email I promised someone. Really that list of routine or quick things which did not seem worth putting on the to-do list. Then I had my realization. All those little things add up. Trying to hold them in my head and remembering them throughout the day and week are just like keeping messages in my inbox!
Inbox Zero encourages you to do something with every message so you don’t keep looking at the same emails. Every time you look at the email and think “oh I should reply” or “I’ll keep it there as reminder” adds up to a lot of wasted mental effort. So, with Inbox Zero you get the messages out of the inbox as soon as you look at it to avoid the repeat cycle of “I should …” for emails. The inbox is where email keeps drawing your attention. If you think about that in terms of physical mail that makes great sense. You wouldn’t walk to the mailbox, see what’s in it and then leave the mail there. Sounds pretty silly in those terms, right?
Brain Zero is a lot like Inbox Zero. To help me keep my mind clear, I changed my approach to my to-do list. I now put most things on the list and it is liberating. Rather than trying to remember to mow the lawn or thinking “what is it I should do today”, I defer that effort to the to-do list. I get all of those should, need, want to items out of my brain. I try to get to Brain Zero so I can focus on important problems knowing that my to-do list will remember for me.
I realize that this isn’t earth-shattering. Lots of people have talked about this and it’s a big part of the capture/collect phase of GTD. I’ve also heard others describe the brain dump concept of getting things out of your head. I just never felt like it made sense for me. Even though I’ve been using a to-do list for some time, it was always more of a list for very important to-dos, which I actually didn’t need a reminder fo. Sometimes I’m slow and the value of the to-do list didn’t fully click for me until I drew the connection to my Inbox. I suspect it has to do with the fact that my Inbox has been a significant pain point in the past. I finally managed to wrestle to the ground with Inbox Zero. In other words it clicked for me. Still, I always felt ok with managing much of my to-do lists in my head. In hindsight that’s a questionable decision, but sometimes things don’t resonate right at the time.
I think Swipes helped me a lot get over that disconnect. With Swipes I can easily schedule things to pop back to the active to-do list. I can even enter things with an unspecified date. They won’t come back automatically, but I know I won’t forget. I use that for books I might want to buy, things I’d like to watch, or ideas to look into when I have time. Those aren’t the urgent or important things, but when I have some time I glance through the “someday” list and move items to the active stack as I see fit. The similarity between Mailbox and Swipes of swiping things is likely what finally drove the point home.
Now I get a lot of satisfaction out of swiping away all those little things during the day. The only things that don’t go on the list are items that take me less than a couple of minutes. It would take me longer to add the to-do item for taking out the garbage, than just taking out the garbage.
It doesn’t really matter how you keep your to-do list(s). There are a lot of great online tools and paper works great for some people as well. I would just encourage everyone to give the idea of Brain Zero a try. As I’ve said it’s liberating and I wish this would have clicked a long time ago.