Your task list: servant or master?

Another misconception about GTD – and about task management in general – is that you basically become a slave to your task list. Life becomes deprived of any form of spontaneity: you get to work, and look at your task list; you go home, and look at your task list and… you feel compelled to do everything, regardless of whether it still makes any sense or not.

Fortunately none of this is true. A task list is just a took in your hand; you are the master, it is your servant. You have to consider the task list for what it is: a list of options. Tasks are things that you delegated to yourself some time in the past: that morning, a few days ago, a few weeks ago… they accumulate, and compete for your attention. It’s up to you to decide what to make of them.

For me, one of the biggest joys of using GTD is actually looking at my task list and deciding that I will do absolutely nothing. As David Allen says, you can only feel good about doing nothing when you know exactly what you are not doing. And that is exactly what your task list will tell you: if there is nothing particularly urgent or important, you are free to indulge in whatever you like, and I guarantee you will do so with an uncanny lightness of heart!

This does take some skill, though: the skill of keeping your task list fresh and relevant. You need to mercilessly delete tasks you once thought were important and that are no longer. You also need to put on hold (or on “Someday/Maybe”, in GTD lingo) as many projects as you can, so that you are left with only a dozen of real, active projects.

When you do a review of your task list – be it a formal weekly review or a simple daily run-through – you have to re-assess what your previous-self delegated to your present-day self. Don’t feel intimidated by your previous self: it makes mistakes too! And plus, it doesn’t have the benefit of hindsight, which your current self has. Time changes everything… especially the relative importance of things. A task list that can’t keep pace with reality is dead on entry!

So to sum up: a task list is a list of options, a menu of things your previous self though was worth doing. It’s up to the current you to re-assess these tasks, delete or freeze what is not immediately relevant and get to work on what really needs to be done…or, better yet, enjoy a relaxing evening, knowing you have everything under control and nothing particularly urgent or important to attend to.

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