Narrowing Down Your Options

making lists I love reading scientific research that I can apply in my own life. That’s why I was so intrigued by the jam experiment. Two groups of people were offered samples of jam for purchase. One group was offered six different choices, the other group was offered 24 different jams. If you’re like me, you assume that with all the choices in the  24-jam group, the participants couldn’t help but purchase at least one to give a try. The fact is, though, the 6-jam group not only purchased more, they were ten times more likely to actually purchase!

What’s the point? What’s the personal application? The most obvious lesson is that the more options we have, the less likely we are to take action. The phrase “paralysis by analysis” comes to mind. I clearly see this effect in my life–most notably in my daily task list.

I keep my to-do list in Microsoft Outlook. Anything on the list that doesn’t get accomplished on Monday gets shifted to Tuesday, Tuesdays not-done list gets shifted to Wednesday and by Sunday–well, you can imagine what a horrific list I have. I NEVER check everything off the list. It can be downright demoralizing.

I read an excellent article over at Laura Vanderkam’s blog that addresses this very issue. I suggest you read the entire article to get all the juicy little nuggets out of it, but let me quote my favorite parts [the underlining is my emphasis]:

Years ago, when I first started writing about time management, I sort of assumed that people who accomplished a lot had really long to-do lists. Then I started interviewing such people, and realized that many actually aimed to make their lists as short as possible… [She gives an example of one successful woman who only puts six things on her daily to-do list.]

When you put a million things on your list…you simply can’t finish them all. That makes your to-do list problematic. It becomes a source of frustration and failure in your life. And beyond that, you start to think of everything on the list as negotiable. After all, if you can’t get a million things done, then the list is meaningless. You’re still picking and choosing. You may as well surf the web…

A short list, on the other hand, can become more like a contract with yourself. You choose what goes on it carefully. And when it all gets done, you feel like you’re making progress.

I have somewhat begun practicing this short-list approach over the past year by establishing an MIT list (Most Important Things). When I first started doing this, it was not so much about productivity (getting things done) as it was about quality of life—making sure I got the right things done. I wanted to create some system for making sure that I didn’t fritter my life away on the mundane and meaningless. I write about this in greater detail in Moving from Urgent to Important. I would say that the MIT list serves as a compass to keep me moving in the right direction with my ultimate destination/goals in mind (i.e., the grand scheme, the big picture).

Because I consider the MIT list to truly be my most important things (i.e., it’s not just a theory with me), I know exactly what to start in on first thing every morning. Thus, the MIT list has proved very helpful in setting the course for my day and also in creating good, solid habits. However, after the MITs are  completed, I find that I am not nearly as efficient and focused in the less-lofty areas of my life such as work, finances, relationships, leadership, etc. It’s not that I don’t know what needs doing (remember, I have a huge to-do list), I just don’t know where to begin (too many options; paralysis by analysis)!

That’s where Vanderkam’s article was helpful to me. I realized that I need to use the same principles that have been so effective for me in personal development and apply them to my work-related, people-related, overall-responsibility-related goals, as well. For me, this means looking over my ‘eternal list’ on a daily basis and determining what are the three to six most important tasks I need to focus on that day. By keeping the list short (narrowing down my options), I practice the principles revealed in the jam experiment and, hopefully, with time and practice, I will increase my odds 10-fold for making true progress in my work-related tasks.

I know it may seem as if I am obsessed with lists (and maybe I am), but they each have a very specific purpose. The MIT list is about personal development, about my inner life. This list doesn’t change that often; it stays pretty constant. Consequently, it is ingrained in me; I don’t actually need to have it written down.

This new list—the short list–is about my outer life: my job, my home, my finances, my relationships, etc. It changes daily to accommodate my evolving responsibilities and the needs of the current season I am in. It 1) helps me be productive (no more paralysis by analysis; I only have 6 jams to choose from , not 24!), 2) it keeps me from making a contract with myself to fail (I don’t start in on my list with a presumption that I won’t complete it, but with the intention to mark everything off the list), and 3) it helps me stay motivated because I see progress rather than the eternal, unaccomplished list.

Overall, the two lists together help me to focus my attention and my energy on those things that matter most—inwardly and outwardly–and keep me moving in the right direction.

Do you keep to-do lists? Have you discovered what Vanderkam writes about—that you are more productive with a short list rather than an eternal list? I’d be interested in hearing your take on this concept. Leave a comment!

Photo compliments of Stephen Ticehurst via Compfight

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7 Responses to Narrowing Down Your Options

  1. LynnDee says:

    I really like the idea of keeping a shorter list of things to do. As much as I like checking things off of my list, the more I have on the list, usually, the less I am able to accomplish because as stated previously, it becomes more overwhelming. Also, I figure that I can always add more to the list once I complete the other tasks.

    • Diane says:

      LynnDee, You’re so right. Let me know what kind of experience you have with the “short list” idea. I’m still breaking the idea in myself.

  2. isabel richards says:

    After just having begun a long list of things to do now i have finished uni for the summer, this really helps! Great way to break down the list and prioritise! As taking action often doesn’t happen!

  3. Cindy Lofton says:

    Diane, just so you know, reading this came at a perfect time for me. My to-do list has been a source of frustration and even defeat for awhile now and I haven’t been sure what to do about it. We use the app Wunderlist right now for creating all our lists, so after reading your post, I created a new one called “MIT- today!” and am aiming to put 6 or less things on there that I know can realistically get done and help me stay focused. (the hard part can sometimes be to remember to look at my to-do list!) I’ll let you know how it goes, but this is a much needed new strategy for me in this area that I hope will empower me instead of discourage me. Thanks for sharing this. It was VERY timely!

    • Diane says:

      Cindy, Your comments are always so encouraging. I, too, am using Wunderlist. Also, I just read David Allen’s book, “Getting Things Done.” I’m still finding my “sea legs, so to speak. I haven’t mastered this concept yet, but combining Wunderlist with what I wrote and what I read in Allen’s book–well, I may be on to something. Of course, if that turns out to be true, you’ll read about it later. 🙂

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