Very many people I know keep a to-do list in one form or another. Myself, I’ve long realised that I need to keep track of things that need to happen today, this week, this month, this year (at varying levels of detail, of course), and I use a combination of a calendar and a paper notebook to manage my to-do list. Keeping a to-do list works well for the majority of users, as it often puts together the planning element with the execution element. For example, you may find yourself writing down “plan Christmas version 2020” on your to-do list, hoping that you’ll be able to come up with a good way of how to navigate the lockdown and social distancing regulations and then get started with what needs to be done. See, I stopped using my to-do list this way, because I found a much better approach.

Doing is very different from thinking. A to-do list contains a host of tasks, from the smallest steps to take throughout the day, to bigger projects that need to get under way in a given year – but they’re all execution-centred. You don’t need to think too much about most of them, you just do. This way you’re at your most productive and effective dealing with the list. If you start mixing planning and deciding with doing, you’re sabotaging your efforts. You’re demanding of yourself to switch from executing to deliberating between the tasks, and this is simply draining. You end up exhausted and out of time with just three items ticked off your list because you just spent the past hour trying to decide if you are going to have any Christmas this year at all, instead of continuing with the tasks that simply need doing. Been there, done that.

This is precisely why you need a separate to-do list that includes execution-centred tasks, where you’ve minimised the thinking, planning and deciding involved (for example by having done all of this before in designated thinking time), and a separate to-think list that focuses squarely on deliberation-centred tasks. Keeping a to-think list comes with a range of benefits, as I’ve discovered early on:

  • Spelling out problems, decisions, choices, or simply things that need to be planned in writing really helps to concretise and tackle them as points that need pondering and deliberation
  • Writing to-thinks down clears the mind out of nagging thoughts and brings in more calm
  • Keeping a to-think list helps you make the most out of your scheduled thinking time, as you know exactly what to think about when you enter this phase
  • Separating to-dos from to-thinks ensures you make the most out of your energy: you’re more productive tackling your to-do list in an execution-focused manner, and you’re more focused when working through your to-think list in a deliberation-focused mode
  • Keeping a separate to-think list speeds you up on going through your to-do list, as you no longer get dragged into deep thinking when you should be blazing through your doing tasks
  • Separating these two lists helps you avoid the deadly trap of meta-work, that is spending most of your time on planning and thinking and deciding instead of doing, while kidding yourself that you’ve made actual progress on things that need to be done. Remember, thinking about doing something is indeed very different from doing it.

But how do you keep a to-think list? Of course, just like with to-do lists, here too you’ll find many approaches and you’ll have to experiment to find what works best for you. Here’s how I do it. I keep a separate section for the to-think list in my weekly planner, and I jot problems, questions, things that need planning or deliberation there throughout the week. I organise them by complexity as a proxy for how much time thinking about each of them will take: the least complex to-thinks will be tackled in my daily morning thinking time, and I leave the most complex ones for my big weekly planning and review session.

So, what kinds of things make it onto my to-think list? Here’s a scoop from this week’s planner… Should I buy this grey merino top (not going out much, but I really like it)? What is my point of view on extending lockdown beyond the 2nd of December? Should I fly away for Christmas this year after all, even if it’s technically not forbidden? It looks like I’ll be moving to another continent in a few weeks’ time – what do I make out of it? And yes, after thinking about it for a while one morning, I decided to get the grey top. Placing the online order went on my to-do list.

And now, let’s put thought into practice!

Keep a to-think list for 3 consecutive days, just write down every problem, decision, choice, any thought you need to think about on a separate list. Schedule 1 hour of thinking time, sit down, and go through your to-think list. Let me know how it went in comments below!

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Marta Stelmaszak Rosa
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I'm a researcher, academic and writer dedicated to becoming a better thinker. Every day, I practise thinkfulness: consciously adopting a structured approach to thinking in order to understand and change the world. The world needs all of us to become better thinkers, so let's start a thinkfulness revolution together!

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