To do or to be, that is the real question

iStock_000001311167XSmall-w120-h180 Like most writers and entrepreneurs, I have a bulging to-do list. It’s like a bottomless cup of coffee; it stimulates, comforts and raises blood pressure all at once.

My to-do list runs my life. I manage it on Outlook and via my iPhone with TaskTask. It is the epitome of the “do something” approach to life.

I remember reading Getting Things Done and thinking ‘this is all obvious’ because I was already doing most of the things. (I am quite envious of David Allen’s ability to erect a few simple, useful ideas into a book, a system and a thriving business.)

Today, I read Leo Babauta’s post Kill your to-do list. He advocates a one thing a day system. “I wake up in the morning, and decide what One Thing I’m excited about. Then I focus on doing that, pushing everything else aside, clearing distractions, and allowing myself to get caught up in the moment.”

It’s a nice idea. A bit of a dream, really. It is the complete opposite of my way of working. It’s about being rather than doing and it has an attractive Zen in-the-moment flavour to it.

But it’s also impractical. My clients wouldn’t thank me if I missed my deadlines because I decided to do somebody else’s work first. To-do lists help me prioritise, schedule and filter. It’s good to concentrate on one thing at a time but it’s also essential to pick the right thing.

But it did make me ask if my to-do list was too much at the mercy of other people. Things other people want me to do rather than things I want to do. Things I am excited about. It’s got me thinking and I’d really like to get some feedback from other people?

So, dear reader, how do you manage your life? Is it to do or to be? How do you balance your passions with your duties? What tools do you use? Do you have a ‘system’, like GTD? Is it useful? Please leave a comment here or on Twitter.

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23 Responses to To do or to be, that is the real question

  1. Matthew, afraid my system is a lot like yours. Outlook and the equivalent of that on my very smart phone rule my life, schedule my weeks and working days. Do you, like I do, drag and drop around a lot? I mean, in your agenda? Sometimes it’s hard to start (being creative). Being creative – writing – on three jobs (clients) in one day may be difficult, in my experience anyway. How do you manage that?
    .-= Hugo Moolenaar´s last blog ..Een goede tekstschrijver blinkt uit in luiheid =-.

    • Hi Hugo, Yes, I do a lot of fiddling with my list to put things into categories, set deadlines and priorities. I have an Outlook view customised to show tasks that are due today and so on. I agree that it is difficult to switch between different projects without a break. Yesterday, for example, I was editing an article for a Swedish company, interviewing some Indian and Russian developers for a website project, having a Dutch lesson and setting up a blog for another client. Crazy day. It’s much better when I can focus on one or two things in the day. There’s a real switching cost in terms of energy and time if I have to do more.

  2. Percy says:

    Good question Matthew. I’ve tried different systems over the years (mostly paper-based) from Steven Covey’s method (First Things First) to David Allen’s GTD and finally to Mark Forster’s AutoFocus (AF). The only thing that I have been consistently able to stick with for a reasonable period of time (as well as use the system) has been AF. (You can check out more at

    I think the reason that it’s easy to stick to it is that it’s easy to use and doesn’t require a great deal of organization list-wise. Of course, it’s not for everyone but having used it reasonably effectively, I think it’s worth giving AF a shot.
    .-= Percy´s last blog ..Easy-to-swallow pills (tablets) =-.

  3. I use a simple todo list with my notebook. I tried using software and all that stuff but it was just more than I needed. The thing that has worked best has always been some paper and a pen, plain and simple.
    .-= Christopher´s last blog ..An Easy Solution To Solve All Your Problems =-.

    • But do you have a specific notebook that you keep all your tasks in or do you do what my wife does have and have a dozen to-do lists on different bits of paper? I’m just curious. Paper-based systems are simple but I’d be terrified of losing my notes and things.

      • I actually just have a moleskin that I keep in my pocket for notes and ideas. So they all stay together to a degree but there is that chance of losing it all.

        I used to use random scraps of paper too jot things and tasks down but those did get lost. Especially with kids running around. However I have recently started using notecards to write my ideas and tasks down and have a little box to put them in. It’s worked wonderfully so far.
        .-= Christopher´s last blog ..5 Reasons You Should Have a Facebook Page =-.

  4. Jason says:

    I create lots of lists. Lists of projects. Individual lists for each project with its elements. To-Do Today lists. Lists for personal stuff at home on Post-It notes (calls, errands, bills). I even take photos on my phone of things I see that I want to look into or follow up on. I use them as reminders – and delete them after I follow up, as my way of “checking them off.”

    Even though it seems like a lot, I prefer knowing everything I need to do – much better than forgetting something because it wasn’t written down.

    • Post its! Cool. I used to do that a lot but my monitor started turning yellow and I had to use those little tiny ones to get all my notes up on the screen. But one of the big attractions of that approach – often used by writers to plan screenplays / plots – is that it is very tangible and visible. Do you ever miss something because you were away from your post-in pad when you thought of a task?

      • Jason says:

        Not necessarily – I’ll find somewhere else to write it down (e.g. my phone’s notepad). The essential task becomes to make sure I merge all my lists frequently so they don’t become unruly. The worst is when I have six post-its on my desk and they all have all but one of their tasks crossed off.
        .-= Jason´s last blog ..Working on the Presidential Plane =-.

  5. Hi Matthew. I read your post with interest. I started using this tool a few months ago and made it my homepage too. Its pure simplicity is its strength – if you don’t the task that is on the list for that day you caanot pass the balme to anything or anyone else.

  6. claudia says:

    Have you tried the Pomodoro technique? It’s free, fun, and if it doesn’t work for you, you can still use the only gadget it employs to in kitchen where it belongs.

  7. Julien says:

    I tried First Things First. I was also amazed at how a set of techniques that could be explained in less than ten pages can be turned into a book that thick. The chapter about the history of time management techniques for example was not exactly what I picked up the book for. The lesson I retained though is to kill the urgent but not important tasks. Saved me a lot of time.

    What I do now is use my email inbox as a task-list. Every email I do not have to act on is put somewhere else. I follow the rules advocated by the Inbox Zero folks and it’s helped a lot. The caveat is that this works well for jobs that are mostly of the reactive and problem-fixing type (management or support for example). Won’t work too well with more creative jobs I suspect.

    In the end, I believe that when a task appears on your to-do list, it is already too late. This is a sign you missed an earlier opportunity to kill it before it became a task for you. Educating and empowering the people around me so that only the tasks that only you can perform come your way is the key. Easier said than done though.
    .-= Julien´s last blog ..Aviation in New Caledonia =-.

    • Hi Julien, nice to see you over on this blog as well as! I’m going to look up First Things First – another new thing for me. Thanks. Also, Inbox Zero, which sounds interesting. Matthew

  8. Julia R says:

    Don’t know if it’s recommended, but I treat work to-do lists and rest-of-my-life to-do lists differently. At work, I tend toward the simple lists, deadline-driven, project management styles. (Organizing my Outlook to show only today’s tasks is helping.)

    Outside of work hours, I make to-do lists to enable the to-be part of my life. For example, I want to eventually be a full-time, self-employed writer and author. So my list items range from tactical (join critique group, submit manuscripts) to more ‘being’ (write every day and enjoy the process).

    Perhaps as an offshoot of that dichotomy, I use electronic systems at work and almost entirely paper at home. Paper’s not always the most efficient, but writing it in my own hand makes me think about it more.

    P.S. Thanks to everyone for the book/system/schools of thought recommendations! Also, can someone explain the pomodoro technique?
    .-= Julia R´s last blog ..Prayer #111: Where Oo? =-.

  9. Jude says:

    I change my system every day or two, but they’re all definitely “to do” methods. For example, last weekend, I realized I was avoiding cleaning the kitchen, so I made it my priority. I’m a working single parent, so I don’t have the luxury of one goal–I have 7 categories of goals on any given day for home and another 8 categories for work. I basically choose my main priority in any given category and incorporate something I like as a reward for doing the most difficult or dreary thing first. By reinventing the system every day or two, I don’t get bored, but I suppose that those basic outlines are accurate.

    • That sounds like a really nice way to keep track of things and reward yourself for doing difficult jobs first. I remember hearing a British Foreign Secretary (I think Douglas Hurd) who said his officials used to pack his boxes each night with reading material and memos. He said they would deliberately follow a particularly difficult or heavy document with something light and titillating such as gossip on foreign leaders as a reward. Same idea, I guess.

  10. I just want to say how much I am enjoying this discussion. Thanks to everyone who has contributed. There is a great list of positive task management ideas here.

  11. This is a wonderful opinion. The things mentioned are great and
    needs to be appreciated by everyone need to be chack.Better Home
    .-= Better Home´s last blog ..A ceiling fan right there =-.

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