Ben Laurie blathering

To Do Lists

I had a revelation about To Do lists.

Every now and then, I reach the point where I have so many immediate tasks that I start thrashing (which is a geek term for what happens when active tasks on a computer exceed its physical RAM capacity, so it spends its entire life swapping things to disk and back to RAM instead of actually doing anything). I’m particularly liable to this when some of the tasks are ones I don’t particularly want to do.

I have a natural tendency to thrash somewhat anyway (other people call it multitasking), so it usually takes me a little while to recognise when I’ve hit this problem. Once I do, I usually decide I need a To Do list. So, sometimes I waste some more time trying to figure out a better way of doing To Do lists, though these days I usually just use OmniOutliner. gtodo is also nice and lightweight, and I use that sometimes.

So, then I put all the things I’m thrashing on into whatever tool it is, prioritise them, and it stops me thrashing. Why? I suspect because once I know I’m not going to forget to do things I can then concentrate on whatever’s at the top of the list (I believe this is the theory behind that fantastically complicated system some people like to use for running their lives whose name I’ve forgotten right now). Anyway, after a while (usually months), I realise I’m thrashing again, and I repeat the whole process.

The fact I have to repeat the process obviously means that at some point I stop using the list. I never remember deliberately doing this, so I suspect I don’t. But why? And this is the revelation: because until my list of current urgent tasks reaches some level, I don’t need a list. Non-urgent tasks I never need a list for, it seems I remember them or they become irrelevant, and, despite the claims of users of the fantastically complicated system, remembering them doesn’t consume vast amounts of my brain.

Also, when I look at abandoned lists, I find they’re full of stuff I didn’t do in the end, and it doesn’t matter. I also find they’ve reached a length where clearly I’m never going to do many of the things on them, so its lucky I just kinda forget about them.

When I was a lot younger, I did once make a comprehensive list of everything I had to do on a project. I added up the time it would take and it came to 5 years. I threw the list away. To Do lists seem to always suffer this fate: they grow indefinitely, and eventually (or, in my case, quite rapidly) reach a size where their maintenance cost exceeds their benefit, as well as being, frankly, depressing. So, in short, I’m glad I forget them, but I wish I could recognise my occasional need for them a little sooner.


  • That fantastically complicated system some people like to use for running their lives whose name I’ve forgotten right now is called Getting Things Done (or GTD).
  • The Omni Group, who I love, are working on some kind of widget for doing this stuff called OmniFocus. If its like their usual stuff, it’ll rock. But I do hope they recognise users like me, who probably only occasionally need it, and so don’t want to invest a huge (or even small) amount of time in setup – this is why I like OmniOutliner and gtodo – you can go from nothing to a useful list in about 30 seconds flat.
  • Until I had this revelation, I didn’t even realise why I didn’t like the more complex systems – but if you’re only going to use something 5% of the time, you don’t want to spend any time learning it or setting it up. One thing I do miss in every simple system I’ve found is a way to manage dependencies, though.
  • I’ve discovered that certain drugs can suppress my tendency to thrash, in exchange for tunnel-vision single-mindedness. I like this occasionally, but I’m not sure I’d like to live like it. But I can certainly see where Erdös was coming from.


  1. You have got to check out Remember the Milk. I’ve been using it for several months now, and it’s really helped me to get out of thrash mode.


    Comment by Fitz — 8 Jan 2007 @ 4:58

  2. Looks cute, though since many of my tasks are work related, I don’t think my employer would be too happy about me using it!

    Comment by Ben — 8 Jan 2007 @ 12:12

  3. Most of the value of plans and to do lists seems to be generated at the moment of their creation; which is odd since you’d think your making them so you can then loyally follow their leadership.

    Comment by Ben Hyde — 8 Jan 2007 @ 14:18

  4. I found this on the Carsonified! blog, and kinda like it myself …

    “Every day, I grab about 10 things off my “This Week” list and put them on my “Today” list. Then (and this is the key) before I even open my email program, I try to knock at least two things off my Today list.”

    Less thrashing, more hacking … big bubbles, no troubles.

    Too bad you need to wait until June to get your hands on an iPhone Ben :O)

    Comment by robin — 9 Jan 2007 @ 22:17

  5. […] Finally I notice that Ben Laurie has “branded GTD as fantastically complicated“. If he can’t wrap his head around that then I think his licence to work on cryptographic open source projects should be revoked. 😉 […]

    Pingback by CR Linefeed » Blog Archive » Getting Things Done… again — 15 Jan 2007 @ 21:23

  6. Take a look at It is stand-alone wiki that’s uses macros to manage at GTD-type system (contexts, projects, etc).

    Comment by jlf — 19 Jan 2007 @ 20:21

  7. Which drugs?! It’d be useful to know.

    Comment by Anand Kumria — 22 Jan 2007 @ 17:37

  8. I also know where Erdos was coming from, at least as it regards work habits and focus enhancing drugs. Be vigilant; Erdos fuzzed out his brain as a consequence of his usage habits. This can be avoided by keeping vigilant for any signs of tolerance, and giving it a serious rest when tolerance is noticed.

    Comment by zachary — 4 Feb 2007 @ 21:47

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