Make Lists. Not Too Much. Mostly Do.

Recently, I read Michael Pollan’s new book “In Defense of Food”, which was #1 on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for six weeks. It’s about eating good things, things that keep you healthy, and things that are good for the earth. The most famous line from the entire book are its first seven words, which, he says, sums up his whole philosophy: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. He goes on for an entire book to elaborate, but does, in fact sum up his advice.

I liked this simple approach to a subject (eating food) so overdone it makes me want to vomit (the opposite of eating food). While repeating this catchy phrase over and over in my head one day, I thought: time managment is another totally overdone subject, wouldn’t it be great to have a similar credo to simplify all this hackneyed advice on to do lists, productivity, time management systems, and the like? Then, sent from the productivity heavens, it came to me:

Make lists. Not too much. Mostly do.

Let’s look at the three parts individually.

Make lists.

Let’s be honest, 99% of time managemenment techniques involve some sort of list making. From Alan Lakein’s ABC system back in the 80′s to GTD, everyone is telling you to write things down one way or another. Generally, in subjects with a lot of differing advice (e.g. time-management, fitness, diets, etc.), if you find a few recurring themes that everyone agrees on, it’s likely that they are solid principles to abide by. So in this case, it probably doesn’t matter whether you sort your lists with ranked A, B and C priority items, or by context in GTD, or keep a list of projects in your pocket like Cal Newport, or go through your list in a clever way like in Mark Forster’s Autofocus system. What matters is that you write stuff down and use that list. Otherwise you’ll forget stuff and not have something to fall back on when it’s not obvious what you should be doing right now. Certainly there are productive people that never make lists, but there are also people with great bodies that never workout. They’re lucky. You can hate them. But the bottom line is that writing stuff down in some form is a recurring piece of advice in differing productivity literature in the same way that regular excercise and avoiding junk food are a recurring themes in differing health and fitness advice. So make lists, but…

Not too much.

Don’t get obsessed with the list making and list sorting. It’s easy to get caught up with maintianing your list(s), tweaking your system, and trying to automate everything. Stop. Also, don’t worry about keeping too many different lists. If it makes sense, sure, make separate lists (e.g. home, work). Or if you start to lose focus or feel overwhelmed on a certain day, it can be useful to make impromptu lists of what projects are important right now, or what tasks you need to do for today only. Otherwise, lists that unnecessarily break up items waste your time. Instead, focus your energy elsewhere…

Mostly do.

Do whatever is necessary to do the (most important) items on your list. In that sense, my personal opinion is that simple pen and paper or low-tech lists are best because they don’t distract you with new techy features, you can flip through all items quickly, there is no tweaking of settings, and they don’t release new versions. Just write your stuff down and get moving. If you need the right setting to do things well, get in that setting. If you need quiet, or no distractions, move to a new place. If you are starting to get burned out, take a break, or ask yourself if you’re trying to work too much. If certain items seem to sit on your list undone for a long time, ask yourself if they really need to be done, and if so, then reword them, or break them up to do them more easily. Lastly, some days, it will be so obvious what you should do that you don’t need a list. That’s good. Consider those days a gift. Just do what’s obvious.

With these 7 words, you should be able to proceed through most days smoothly. This is not to say that particular systems aren’t appropriate for different people, they can be, but in the end you will have to do your tasks one way or another, and the simpler the way the better. Do obvious things you have to do first; focus on your most important tasks and projects first thing in the day, when you still have energy; and when nothing obviously is needs to be done now, look at your list, and do more. Then go home and relax.

Note: Thanks for the comments reminding me that the title has 7 words and not 8. What can I say?

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12 Responses to Make Lists. Not Too Much. Mostly Do.

  1. lismo says:

    “”The most famous line from the entire book are its first eight words, which, he says, sums up his whole philosophy: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”"

    Anybody else having difficulties counting the words and getting eight as the result?


  2. Dude says:

    Aren’t those seven words, and not eight? :)

  3. billy says:

    cool article – but what was the eighth word?

  4. Russ says:

    First paragraph, I think you mean “the first seven* words”

    (you don’t have to publish this)

  5. Patrick says:

    Wouldn’t that be seven words?

    Otherwise, great read. :)

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  7. Grad Hacker says:

    one, two, three, four, five, six, eight. I don’t see what all the hoopla is about.

  8. Dale says:

    That’s a nice way to simplify the subject of lists. Very helpful. Thanks.

  9. Josh says:

    Hah, that’s funny, I just published something very similar today (not spam, it’s the truth).

  10. Terry says:

    Oh my God a mistake was made! I know what I’ll do, I’ll be the 8th person to correct it. Or would be that be the seventh ? I’m sure some ass will count the number of corrections and correct me.

    Great article, lame comments (mine included).

  11. Joanne says:

    Welcome back, and congrats on the candidacy!

    I’m certainly guilty of too much tweaking and too many lists :-S I’m constantly torn between the ease, focus, and satisfaction gained by using paper and pen, and the easy capture and differing views gained by using software, and I spend too much time tweaking lists and switching between paper and software rather than doing the tasks. Thanks for the reminder and the catchy mantra.

  12. Mark Wilden says:

    A phrase like “not too much” is like Einstein’s “but no simpler.” There is no one on earth who advocates doing “too much.” Nor is there anyone who makes things “simpler than possible.”

    Basically, these phrases just boil down to “do it good.”

    To me, there’s not a lot of useful content there. But if some people need to be reminded to “do it good,” I won’t argue.

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