Todo Lists and Self-Coercion

A todo list is an organizational tool, not a motivational tool. It’s a memory aid, not a way to persuade yourself about what to do. You should put tasks on your todo list that you want to do. If you include tasks that you don’t want to do, it’s not going to solve the problem by causing you to want to do those tasks.

Putting tasks on your list that you don’t want to do may alienate you from your todo list, discourage you from checking the list, and reduce how much you get any of the other todo tasks done. It can also prevent you from ever reaching a clear todo list – where you finished everything and get to feel good about that before coming up with more stuff to do next.

If you’re avoiding a task, procrastinating, unmotivated, etc., you need a different sort of solution to that issue, not a todo list. (The goal there should be to rationally resolve the conflict of ideas then act on a conclusion you’re not conflicted about, not to get the task done somehow. When you’re conflicted about whether to do a task or not – when part of you wants to and part of you doesn’t – then you don’t know yet if it’s good or bad to do the task.)

One of the most common and most counter-productive errors people make with todo lists is adding tasks that they’re trying to force themselves to do. Using todo lists for self-coercion alienates people from them and makes them much less effective for their actual purpose (an organization and memory aid).

The point of a todo list is to offload some work out of your head into the list. It’s a way of using your mental effort more efficiently by delegating some work to inanimate objects. If you use todo lists only for that one purpose, they’re useful. If you involve them in your ongoing fights with yourself, you can easily ruin them.

If you find you’ve put something on your todo list that you don’t want to do, or merely aren’t confident you want to do and haven’t done after some opportunities, take it off. If you make occasional mistakes and fix them, todo lists can still work. The sooner you recognize you’re conflicted about a task, and remove it, the better.

What if the issue you’re conflicted about is really important and needs to be addressed? What can you safely put on your todo list? If you’re conflicted about X, you can put a todo task of “brainstorm about X” or “do a problem solving session about X” or “do research on X”. You can read a book related to X, spend time thinking about X, or many other problem solving activities without trying to do X. The part of you that doesn’t want to do X – that objects to a particular conclusion – often won’t mind unbiased, good-faith investigation into what conclusion or perspective is correct. Each part of you involved in the conflict believes it’s right, so all parts can be in favor of truth seeking and problem solving.

There are times when in addition to part of you not wanting to do X, part of you also doesn’t want to think about X, research X, debate X with yourself, etc. That is a hard problem which cannot be solved with todo lists. Keep that problem separate from your todo lists so it doesn’t also ruin todo lists for you. One of the possible causes is that part of you thinks that “rational investigation” is just an excuse to reach a specific, predetermined conclusion. You may have done “research” before where you knew your conclusion in advance and were just looking for ways to defeat the part of you that disagreed, but were not really willing to consider that that part might be right. You have to be reasonably neutral, unbiased and objective for research to seem fair and non-threatening to the heretical part of you that disagrees and doesn’t want to be the victim of an internal witch hunt. You have to stop seeing any part of you as heretical, or as lesser, to enable fair research. It’s common for people to be biased in favor of an idea they hold more consciously over a more subconscious idea, but that’s irrational.

Dealing with self-coercion and bias is hard. I’ve written a lot about it, but I don’t think complete solutions currently exist. My point here is to separate that hard problem from todo lists. Even if you struggle with it, it doesn’t have to ruin todo lists for you. You can intentionally use todo lists only for tasks you aren’t conflicted about.