unsolicited advice

Making a Vague Monthly To-do List Is a Lazy Way to Stay Organized

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It takes a certain kind of person to read a book called Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives and come away with this exciting new idea: I should make more lists. In his book, published last fall, economist Tim Harford makes the case for living a less structured life, arguing that learning to tolerate a certain amount of messiness is good for creativity, relationships, and even resilience. The book also, however, introduces a suggestion regarding a subject close to every overly conscientious person’s heart: the to-do list.

But Harford believes in scrapping the typical, overly structured daily list of tasks, and writes that you’ll ultimately get more important things done if, at the beginning of the month, you sketch out the broad strokes of the goals you’d like to accomplish by the time the month ends. In a piece this week for Quartz, Harford revisits this idea, noting that there is at least a bit of empirical evidence behind this claim. He writes:

The study … asked undergraduates to participate in a study-skills course. Some were advised to set out monthly goals and study activities; others were told to plan activities and goals in much more detail, day by day.

The researchers assumed that the well-structured daily plans would work better than the rather amorphous monthly plans. But the researchers were wrong: the daily plans were catastrophically demotivating, while the monthly plans worked very nicely. The effect was still in evidence a year later.

The reason why is fairly obvious: A too-detailed daily list fails to take the unexpected into account. “A rigid structure is inherently fragile,” he writes. “Better for both your peace of mind and your productivity to improvise a little more often.” Beyond that, a list of monthly goals keeps your eye on the bigger picture, and can help you decide what not to do, too. It’s a gentle first step to ease overly orderly types into Harford’s world of joyful scruffiness.

Making a Monthly To-do List Is a Lazy Way to Stay Organized