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Living

False promises of to-do lists

No matter how many tasks we complete in a day, we will always find more to do

When I was a young man and working at my first proper job, an older colleague stopped by my desk one day and handed me a sheet of paper.

"Photocopy a bunch of these," he said. "They'll help you to focus and get things done."

The sheet consisted of nothing more than a neatly laid-out collection of rectangular boxes containing headings, such as long-term goals, medium-term goals, things to achieve this week, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and so on.

It was love at first sight. Here, at last - simple, unpretentious and photocopy-ready - was a tool that I felt sure would revolutionise my life. Not just my work life. My entire life.

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No more bumbling around, procrastinating and time-wasting.

From that time on, I would fill my days with purposeful activity. I would relentlessly pursue my goals and achieve my ambitions.


ST ILLUSTRATION: CEL GULAPA

I saw myself, a few years hence, enjoying spectacular career success, playing rock 'n' roll piano, speaking fluent French and writing the Great British Novel.

I could have hugged that well-meaning colleague right then and there.

But if I could return to that moment, knowing what I know now, I would be tempted to shove that piece of paper... never mind where.

Like many people, after years of let-down and disappointment, I have fallen out of love with the to-do list.

It promises to make us more efficient, productive and successful. It promises to bring a sense of order and control to our lives. It promises an end to underachievement, and to the corresponding feelings of failure and inadequacy.

But it rarely delivers.

The to-do list may, to be fair, make us more efficient and productive in certain areas of our lives, particularly our working lives.

But it rarely delivers the sense of order and control that we crave. Still less does it quieten those nagging feelings of inadequacy.

Quite the reverse.

For most of us, the to-do list is a daily reminder of all the things we haven't done and all the things we haven't achieved. Rather than being a tool of empowerment, it is, all too often, little more than a guilt list.

The main problem with to-do lists is that they are infinitely replenishable.

No matter how iron-willed, focused and efficient we are, and no matter how many tasks we manage to complete in a day, we will always find more to do.

In an article for the British newspaper The Guardian, Oliver Burkeman, the author of HELP!: How to Become Slightly Happier And Get A Bit More Done, sums it up nicely.

He writes: "More often than not, techniques designed to enhance one's personal productivity seem to exacerbate the very anxieties they were meant to allay. The better you get at managing time, the less of it you feel that you have."

We commit to efficiency and adopt a to-do list mentality in order to free up time for ourselves. But if we are not careful, the to-do list mentality takes over.

We find ourselves slaves to productivity, constantly thinking of something "better", more productive and more goal-orientated that we could be doing with our time.

I vividly remember myself, as a young man, setting so many work goals, piano-playing goals, French-speaking goals and writing goals, that I left myself with scarcely a moment to live.

I made a chore of things that ought to have been a source of pleasure.

Burkeman puts it nicely: "One of the sneakier pitfalls of an efficiency-based attitude to time is that we start to feel pressured to use our leisure time 'productively' too - an attitude which implies that enjoying leisure for its own sake is somehow not quite enough."

Or, in the words of the poet William Henry Davies: "What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare."

•Gary Hayden is a philosophy and science writer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2017, with the headline 'False promises of to-do lists'. Print Edition | Subscribe