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  • Writer's pictureWarrick

What if to-do lists don't work for you

Testing a new approach in line with what problems really are

Hello fellow Protagonists,

When first starting to face multiple problems at work the old technique of "I'll just remember what I need to do" failed on me pretty fast.

There are a number of studies that suggest the magic number of tasks we can remember is around 4 at a time. Any more than this and we risk forgetting what we are meant to do, or we end up wasting time reminding ourselves on what we need to do rather than just getting them done.

Then came the trusted to-do list.

It sounds so productive doesn't it! To-do lists are promoted widely. One book on my shelf is almost completely devoted to the power of organising actions in lists within lists within lists. Sounds dull but is a really interesting read.

To-do lists promised us organisation, that our tasks can be completed and our lives can become simple. To just tick off a box or put a line through a sentence. That to-do lists will tick your problems away.

There is an issue... problems never go away.

This left my to-do lists ever growing, even after trying to shorten them, which left an uncomfortable mix of feelings. To-do lists didn't feel dynamic or fluid enough to meet what I was after.

The solution came from two bits of reading based around cultural anthropology.

The first comes from the story of the Hydra, a multi headed serpent that spat venom. Heracles (Hercules) challenged the Hydra and whenever one head was cut off, two would grow in its place.

This is just like when we try to sort a problem out and in the process discover two extra tasks that didn't exist in our minds until we started this initial task.

A light bulb blows in the house, we go to the shed to get the step ladders, forgetting we lent them to our sibling so they could paint their kitchen. We also notice that the padlock on the shed is a little rusty and stiff which will need some attention. To reach the bulb we pull out a dining chair instead and after climbing onto the first chair we feel a slight wobble so use another.

The same thing happens in work, a quick call to deal with a situation can raise another two.

Like the Hydra's heads, problems grow and never really go away.

I wanted a system that represented this true nature of problems, not a robotic to-do list but something that grew heads and could have its head cut off.

Behold the £"$&^%$£$. It is a word we are apparently not allowed to use anymore so... Behold the Hydra!

Despite not saying the word, we all know what one of these are. We are not reinventing the wheel here but see how well this system represents the true nature of problems.

We had a house problem with the bulb that we sorted so can be chopped off and now have two new heads under house with the rusty lock and wobbly chair. We also now have a new large serpent head to do with getting our step ladder back.

This is a new head as there could be a chance that in trying to deal with this problem more are also created, because we now know that is how problems work.

I have my Hydra on a dry wipe board in the office so instead of crossing off heads, I can wipe them away to create a truly dynamic approach that means we don't have to re-write the list in our diaries like the old to-do list would ask us to.

We can always see how nasty the Hydra is looking in real time.

Now that is done, I wanted to write something in the middle of the Hydra. Something that will remind me about the true nature of problems.

The answer comes from the reading and work of Jordan Peterson - Chaos

The word chaos goes into the middle for me because that is what a problem is, a piece of chaos to my world of order.

Chaos is needed for order to exist so this is a reminder that chaos is OK. Chaos is always going to be around and it is my duty to fend off chaos where I can. To cut the heads off of problems. It may sound silly calling a blown bulb chaos but if you really think about it, our life can seem most chaotic when there are vast numbers of Hydra heads, however small.

Its kind of like this mint bush in my back garden. It grows like wildfire and we constantly have to trim back the chaos of this mint bush otherwise it would take over half of the garden. I don't want to get rid of it though because it smells nice and can be used in cooking if we want to. If we all decided to destroy all plants and trees then there would be real chaos, so we cut back bits when they get too long. This is how to approach problems.

The Hydra style instantly eased my mind once it was written down. It does a great job of splitting problems into different "heads" and seeing how many parts there are to each overarching problem.

For those out there who hate to-do lists, give this a go. I highly recommend getting a dry wipe board to be able to use the same, on-going Hydra as that is exactly how our problems arrive.

If we ever hit a point where we have no hydra heads, then go and look for them because they are always around.

GLHF (Good Luck Have Fun)


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