The Not-So-Simple Life

My quest to find the perfect to-do list has been long, and it has been varied.

And it has been very unsuccessful.

In the nearly 20 years since I first started compiling a list of big-picture things I’d like to accomplish, I have tried many, many, many methods for breaking down that big picture list into a functional planning system for my daily use.

Among other things, I have tried:

  • the big desk calendar
  • the wall calendar
  • day planner
  • week planner
  • large notepad
  • small notepad
  • lined paper
  • unlined paper
  • graph paper
  • grouping to do items:
    • by place (in town, outside, office, house, etc.)
    • by function (phone, email, calls, etc.)
    • by time (morning, afternoon, etc.)
    • by client or project
  • labeling the list “To Do”
  • labeling it by the day (i.e. “Friday”)
  • not labeling it at all
  • marking items with priorities: a, b, c, 1, 2, 3, a1, a2, a3, etc.
  • using different color highlighters
  • starring important items
  • using Outlook (computer-based) reminders
  • using online to-do tools

…and in all those attempts, I never found a system that works for me, that makes me feel like I have the edge on the things I need to do. I never found a fully satisfying solution that felt like an effective planning structure for my days—in a fashion that was user-friendly enough for me to want to actually keep using it.

And I remain without an ideal solution to this day. Most recently I went weeks without using a to-do list at all. I resorted to using one-word reminders written on post-it notes that I stuck to my keyboard, for the very most urgent things that needed to be attended to. The fact that I tried that instead of a to-do list for the past few weeks just shows you how unsatisfied I am with the medium, even after 20 years of experimentation and effort to try and find one that works for me.

Yet I go back, every time. I flip to a new page in one of my notebooks, I write To Do or Friday or nothing at all at the top of the page, and I start rattling off whatever’s jumping around in the front of my brain at the time. I write down the tasks that keep breaking into my flow with the persistence of a child who sees a parent on the phone. Then I try to pay lip service to the Great Undones, adding at least a handful of tasks that would dent (or at least scratch) some of my major dormant or potential projects.

Just yesterday, after weeks of living by post-its only, I laid out what I needed to do, old-school to-do list style—just one thing after the other. I put stars next to the ones that absolutely had to get done. And to be fair to the list, all the things with stars actually did get done, and I got about half of the full-page list done in a fairly short period of time.

Of course, there’s always another side to the story with the to-do list, and in this case, it’s that I haven’t looked at that list since, and there’s still the other half of that stuff, which should have gotten its own set of stars, and probably should be written onto a new thing, and…

That’s where it starts to get kind of fuzzy for me. Probably because I still don’t feel in full control of the science behind distilling the 20 to 100,000 actual tasks that make up my 20 to 100 most compelling interests down into the 20 smartest, most important actions I should be taking on a given day.

It’s more like I sit down and start listing out whatever’s squeaking most loudly in my mind at the time. Which is a process that could go on for hours, and many pages. But when I get to the end of the first page, I stop. (Because I’ve tried the multi-page to-do list too. More than once. I’ve found it a great way to increase the number of lists you will not complete in a given day.)

There is a theoretically easy answer to my problem, and you wouldn’t be the first to suggest it. (Wow, I got 2/3 of the way through before referencing my mom this time!) “Focus! Pick the one thing that’s most important to you, and focus on it until…”

I’m sorry, were you saying something? I was too busy thinking about 6 different things to hear you telling me to focus.

But seriously folks…I grew up reading books while watching TV—of which I have watched countless tens of thousands of hours. I have a documented addiction to computer monitors.  I’ve spent an average of 10 hours a day at a computer for the past 15 years straight. I’ve been known to watch 3 or more movies a day sometimes—usually while working or reading. Speaking of working, I had something like 30 jobs in my first 15 years of work life.

All of which is to say that focusing is not really my thing. It never has been. Now, I’m all about keeping doors open—so I’m not saying that it never will be my thing—but it’s a long way from here to there. And that whole “keeping doors open” thing bites both ways, which means good luck getting me to prune down my master wish list of projects.

So where’s the solution in all this mess? If it’s anywhere, it’s got to be in the science of choosing the daily items. If I’m not going to budge on reducing my ambitions, and I’ve tried every physical form of list to no avail, and simply doing without a list sucks even worse, then the only variable left is to get better at distilling the top 20 items (out of my 100,000 most obvious options) that I need to get done this day.

I approached the edges of this nirvanic state earlier this year, by combining an assistant, my mindmap, and the help of a certain Chief Simplifier I know. But then I lost my assistant and quickly fell back into my old ways. Some six months later I can report that “falling back into my old ways” did not work. Big surprise there.

So it’s back to putting my faith in the awesome mystical power of the mind map. Even the name of it sounds like the call of nirvana to me…my “mind map”. Could there really be such a thing as a map that could help me navigate my mind-boggling mind-field in a safe and quick way?

While that sounds way too good to be true, it also sounds way too good to not try it. If nothing else, it has to be better than post-its on the keyboard.

Lance Brown can be found at and followed at