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We Overcomplicate Our Task Systems

We Overcomplicate Our Task Systems

I’ve noticed that most people (myself often included) make complicated task and organizational systems. Today I’d like to talk about why and how to simplify that.

Task systems that are overcomplicated require a lot of overhead work — if you have to spend a lot of time organizing and going through your system, you’re spending time on the system that could be spend doing something more meaningful.

Having better productivity systems doesn’t make us more productive. Actually being able to do the hard stuff isn’t down to the system — it’s down to your ability to face uncertainty and resistance. And that’s something you can train in — but it won’t be found in a productivity system.

Having better organizational or note-taking systems doesn’t make us more organized. It is busywork to distract us. Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Why do we spend so much time figuring out our systems and making them so complicated? It’s simply fear. We’re overwhelmed and afraid we can’t handle it all. We think if we get a better system it’ll be the answer we need to start crushing things. We are afraid of dropping one of the many balls we have in the air. It’s simply fear, and everyone has it.

What I’m going to share here is a simple system — it’s not meant to be the perfect system, or the one you have to adopt to start crushing things. It’s meant to be a simple model that can show how simple things can be.

But perhaps more important is the mental view of tasks that underlies this simple system. I’ll talk about that as well. And then I’ll get to the most common obstacles or objections to this kind of simplicity.

A Simple System

Here’s the system: make a single list of your tasks. One List. Put everything you have to do here. Each day, pick some things from that One List to focus on.

That’s the system.

Go through your emails, and for each one that’s been sitting there, add a task to the One List. Star the email and archive it so it’s out of your inbox. Repeat until your inbox is empty. Do the same with messages you haven’t responded to because they contain a task or decision. Emails and message apps aren’t meant to store your tasks.

Maybe you have a bunch of things on your computer desktop. Go through those and put them on the One List.

Go through your Ten Thousand Browser Tabs and take the tasks each one represents, put it on your One List, and bookmark and close the tab.

OK, now you have One List. Things should be a lot simpler (some possible additions are below in the last section). There’s a good chance you’re feeling overwhelmed. That means we need to talk about the underlying mental model of this One List simple system.

The Underlying Mental Model

The reason why a long list is overwhelming is because underneath the task list is a view: 1) we think this is a list that we need to finish; and 2) we fear that if we can’t finish it or at least stay on top of it, we will be inadequate in some way. We base our self-worth and safety on whether we can finish this list … but it’s too long to finish! In fact, a task list will never be done, even when you die.

This is an unhelpful mental model that produces stress and overwhelm.

Instead, I propose a different view: Tasks are options that we can use as we create the art of our lives.

Imagine you have a big palette of paints, and you get to use them to paint your art on a canvas. You don’t feel like you need to finish all the paints on the palette, right? It’s not a matter of getting them all done so you can avoid feeling inadequate.

Instead, the paints are your supplies for making art. They’re things you can dip your brush into, to create the art of your life.

You can have fun with your art. You can fully express yourself and the deepest truth of yourself. It’s a whole different game.

Answers to Common Obstacles

Just having One List is perhaps too simple for people, so let’s take a look at some possible modifications based on questions you might have …

Q: The list is too long, how do I find focus?

A: Have a shorter Today list. Pick things from the One List and put it on the Today list. Do that at the end of each day for tomorrow, so you can start your day with a plan already done.

Q: How do I choose what to focus on each day?

A: If you’re struggling to decide what to put on your Today list … you might be struggling with uncertainty. This can cause a lot of people to get stuck, because if you don’t know … then what? I would encourage you to stay for a minute in this stuckness, in the “I don’t know,” in the uncertainty. The answers will come to you if you sit in the not knowing for a minute or two. It’s good to create a daily ritual where you create your Today list for the next day … and in that ritual, allow yourself to sit for a moment to get some clarity on what to add to the list. And as you create the list … allow it to be like creating art out of your life!

Q: I never end up finishing my Today list, what can I do?

A: If you are creating art and you don’t finish it … what do you do? You might continue to work on it tomorrow. Or abandon it and start afresh! Or incorporate some of it in your next art piece. But not finishing it isn’t a problem. It’s just a part of the process.

Q: What about meetings, calls, appointments?

A: I like to put those on a calendar instead of a task list. So the calendar can be a part of the simple system. I check my calendar the evening before to see what I have coming up, and again in the morning.

Q: What if I want to have all my financial tasks in one place, all my calls in another, all my errands in another, etc etc?

A: That’s fine! One List is just an example. If you want to have One List for your main work tasks, but another list for your finances and administrative tasks that you do on certain days, go for it. Just keep it fairly simple.

Q: What if I find myself dropping tasks and feeling disorganized?

A: If you were painting a huge canvas, and you kept forgetting to paint certain parts of it … what would you do? Probably you’d set aside some time to paint those parts, if they’re important. Sometimes they’re not important, so you don’t set aside the time. So you can decide how to work with that. The bigger problem is the feeling of being disorganized. This is simply a feeling. It’s a feeling of chaos, of change, of not having everything in perfect order. Can you create art with that feeling?


Zen Habits is about finding simplicity and mindfulness in the daily chaos of our lives. It’s about clearing the clutter so we can focus on what’s important, create something amazing, find happiness. My name is Leo Babauta. I live in Davis, California with my wife and six kids, where I eat vegan food, write, run, and read. Source

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