musings > general

My new to-do lists

20 Aug, 2021 | 4 min read

There are a lot of todo list methodologies out there. The 1-3-5 method, the Grocery List method, Bullet Journalling. The list is endless. I swear I’ve even met people who have lists to keep track of all their other lists. I’m definitely not one of them…

Sufficed to say, the world is not short of ways to organise one’s thoughts. It probably doesn’t need more. Despite that, I thought I’d chat about a new one that I’ve just started using.

The 4,3,2,1 todo list

I’m sure I didn’t invent this myself. That said, I can’t find much else out there that looks like this, or with my rationale for why it works for me. In any case, I don’t thing of this as my method, so much as one that I use.

I like todo lists because they compartmentalise things for me. I find it useful to be able to take the thoughts out of my head, put them somewhere, and then allow myself the headspace to figure out how to tackle them. I have what I’ve considered up to now to be a pretty robust productivity system, that gives me oversight of what I need to do for the various projects I’m involved in.

Recently though I’ve found myself increasingly overwhelmed with the sheer number of tasks, each one seemingly for a different hat I wear. It’s mentally exhausting flitting between them, and sometimes blocking out time for each hat just isn’t possible.

When that happens, I write a 4,3,2,1 list:

  • I write down the first four things that I need to complete. These things are what needs to happen immediately in order for me to calm down and get back on track. On a standard work day, these might include responding to an urgent email. On a bad mental health day, it might include eating breakfast.
  • The next three things are usually a little more substantial, but still somewhat time sensitive. They require a little more effort to complete, but are still not big tasks.
  • The next two things should be a bit more involved, and lower down in terms of time sensitivity. Where as tasks 1-7 are quick-wins, 8 and 9 might not look out of place on your ‘regular’ productivity system.
  • Item ten has the least amount of pressure attached to it. If you’re the kind of person who things in stretch goals, then this could be it.

Why does this help?

For me, this came out of trying to manage myself when I’m having acute periods of intense anxiety. It borrows heavily from the 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique some people use when they are anxious. I like the countdown element of it, and I like how strongly it helps focus me. It’s not outcome driven in the way that most to-do lists are, and certainly isn’t suitable for managing projects or complex issues. Rather it focuses on getting you to do things - the aim is to get you out of the rut of anxiety and just start ticking things off the list. That’s why it not only doesn’t matter that the first four are small quick tasks, it’s actually integral to the process.

To be honest, most of the time I never actually get to tick off items eight through ten, as by that time I’ve got back on track and one of my other 1 million productivity systems will have taken over.

You know Will, I wouldn’t be averse to trying this.

Great! All you need is a bit of paper, your Notes app of choice, or Notepad on your laptop. I’ve been using it for the last few weeks, and I’m finding it really useful. For me, the trick is to not skip ahead. Sometimes I’ll only write down the first four things, and won’t write the next three until I’m done. Even if I chuck down all ten, I make a point of not looking past the first four until they are complete. For me, the focus on the immediate tasks at hand is what I find useful.

If you want something a little more over-engineered, then dear reader do I have a treat for you! If you use Chrome as your web browser of choice, I’ve put together this extension that you can install. It’s deliberately super basic, with almost no customisation options, nothing in the way of sub-tasks or tags or categorisation. You don’t sign up for an account, or login to anything. You just open a new tab and off you go. The interface is lets you add ten to-do items, broken down into sections.

It’s simple, but I’ve been using it and I like it. I figured someone else might too.

If you’re a developer and want to have a play with the insides, you can fork the GitHub repo from here. Fair warning, I very much threw this together, and it’s not my most elegant code.

Happy listing.

tags: productivity anxiety mental health

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