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The Tyranny of the Task List

by Clint Watson on 9/14/2010 8:08:23 AM

I recently surprised myself by realizing that I have an internal wariness of the to-do list.  

This revelation would probably shock anyone who knows how I work. In fact, I use tasks lists all the time.  Most days I start by listing the things I want to accomplish on a list.  And, during the day I proceed to check items off the list.

Task Lists are Efficient

Recently I took it further.  One day, I figured I had approximately seven focused hours to work.  I calculated, based upon my tasks, that I could complete roughly three tasks per hour.  So I listed the 21 (7 hours x 3 per hour)  items I wanted to accomplish that day.    I then took seven post-it notes and wrote three tasks on each note and assigned each note an hour of the day (note 1 was 8:00am - 9:00am, note 2 was 9:00am - 10:00am, note 3 was 10:00am - 11:00am, etc).  At 8:00am I put the first sticky note on the side of my computer monitor and put all the other lists and notes out of sight so that I could be constantly reminded during the hour only of my three most important tasks.  I was later told in a BrushBuzz discussion that I had unwittingly "reinvented" something called scrum.

This method of working was extremely efficient and kept me "on task" all day long.  I completed all 21 tasks by 3:00pm (which was fantastic since it was a Friday).  What a huge feeling of accomplishment!  We all get a little rush from checking things off a list [1].  So, I  was able to enjoy our standing Friday night "wine tasting" knowing I had completed "everything I had to do."  Over the next few days, I utilized my "scrummy" method several more times, with equally efficient results.  

"Play" Allows Great Ideas to Surface

A few times during those scrummy days I had thoughts of new, intriguing ideas that I might like to explore pop into my head.  Software features.  Articles for this blog.  You name it.  But since I was on-task and unwilling to drop everything [2], I pushed those ideas to the back burner and stayed focused on completing all my tasks.  You know, "plan your work and work your plan".  After a few days, I had "caught up" to the point that I decided to be a bit more relaxed and just "play."  

During my "play day", I banged out code like a mad-man.  The ideas flowed (fortunately).  I launched prototypes of many new ideas and features (including the editor that I'm using to write this article).  The thing with creative ideas is that you can't always just "save them up" - ideas beget other, sometimes better, ideas.  I find that the best ideas I have usually happen when I'm working on other ideas or at least thinking about the ideas that I'm currently working on.  At the end of my "play day", I had a list of undone tasks but, overall, I had accomplished so many more important things.  Looking at the "big scheme of things",  I would have to admit I was more productive on the "play day" than on the "scrum day", if we're defining productivity as doing great work that matters.

This is when I had my revelation about to-do lists.  

Task Lists are Constraining

To-do lists are constraints.  They are chains.  Now, constraints are not always a bad thing.  Sometimes we need constraints to achieve positive results.  If you've got a plane to catch, it's probably not the best time to start a new work of art and try to get into the "zone".  Constraints are needed.  But we need to remember that constraints are, well, constraining.  And that's not a good thing in creative work.  

So I think we need to develop a healthy respect for the task list and the danger it can present.  I suggest approaching the task list the way the old government "food pyramid" approached sweets:  use sparingly.  Use them to keep you on task when you have to, but be willing to take the chains off when inspiration strikes so you can do some work that really matters.

Now go change the world.


Clint Watson
Software Craftsman and Art Fanatic


[1]  I believe "little rush from checking things off a list" can represent a form of addiction, which I plan to discuss in an upcoming post.

[2]  I also believe the ability to drop everything and pursue creative ideas is underrated.  People should do it more often.


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Topics: inspiration

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Lori Woodward
Clint, this so relates to a post I just wrote, and I am using Scrum to organize my tasks.

Your post reminds me of something Edgar Payne says in his book, "Composition of Landscape Painting". He suggests that when you get an idea for a painting - or any idea, to write it down and keep it in view, or else it will be lost forever.

I take his words to mean that if I'm working on a project and something else pops into my head that I write it down so I don't forget. As you say, sometimes it's worth just dropping what you're doing and pursuing your new idea right on the spot! Depends on whether you have a deadline or plane to catch, I guess...

Thanks - wonderful ideas, Clint!

Lori Woodward
Here are some quotes from Edgar Payne:

"Artistic ideas are fragile and temporary things. Unless they are nurtured, developed and recorded immediately, they may be gone forever."

Clint, I think he's saying the same thing you are about sometimes dropping everything and getting it started.

Here's another quote from the same paragraph: "Each sketch or picture adds to skill, confidence and an incentive in stimulating ideas for further pictorial planning".

This relates, Clint to what you said about ideas being generated as you work on projects. The same thing happens while drawing and painting.

Quotes are from: Composition of Outdoor Painting, Edgar Payne. bottom of page 39.

Clint Watson
Lori - I completely agree - I actually had a second half to this post and I didn't get the ideas written down. They are only in my mind now in a very fuzzy way - I hope I can get the thought back because it was an even bigger revelation than what I posted here.

Lori Woodward
Ha! Try re-reading your post and then sit still for a minute. It'll come back to you. OR, you'll wake up at 3:00 am and remember. :-)

Alma Drain
Making a list of to dos works great writing it down is a good idea when we need to keep the thought. as long as we dont forget where we wrote it at. been there done that. when you arite something it is a double memory aid and saying it out loud as you do it gives it some extra power.

Helen Horn Musser
Clint, All of the post is relevant and true to the artist. I would like to add never put off starting a painting until you are hit with inspiration. There is always the basic work to do in the beginning and the passion comes later.

Kyle V Thomas
I'm naturally awful at organzing and getting things done. To combat this, I've recently started utilizing a system I read about on
Zen Habits
A GTD type system. It's been great for my "day job" and clearing my mind. I have also started writing my thoughts down in a note book. This gets them out of my head, but it also records them, so I don't forget.

As an artist, I need some time-constraints to do my best work. I don't produce well when my time is limitless. I think I work best under a wee bit of last minute panic-time. I think this is also because painting is not my full-time job, so I have to use my time wisely. My hope is that eventually I will be able to make art my full-time career.

Thanks for sharing, Clint.

Joann Wells Greenbaum
Even though it is not on my to-do list to take time to read this post, I'm glad I did. It is clear that we are all trying to make the most of a 7-10 hour work day, and be as efficient in our tasks as we can.
Even though I have a system that works well most of the time, sometimes I can get off track and "lose" a few days of efficient work time. But maybe that's when my mind is trying to be more creatively driven.
Next time that happens, I'll pay closer attention to what is happening then.
Thanks for the ideas about time management, the daily challenge!

Teresa Tromp
Yes, Clint,
I jot projects down on sticky notes, too. However, it's because I'm on the other side of half a century and can't remember like I used to. Sometimes I'll grab a pen to write something down on my to-do list, and I forget what I was supposed to write down. Heck, sometimes I forget where I put the pen! If I do remember what to write down, I adhere the sticky note right to the table, so everytime I walk past the table there's a visual of what I forgot to do on my to-do list.
It's probably a good idea for me to go straight to the play part.

Joanne Benson
Hi Clint,
I always have a "To Do" list at work (my day job) or I would surely forget something important needing attention. However, I don't do that with my artwork and perhaps I should. But as you is a delicate balance and could compromise creativity as well.....I haven't had much creative time lately.....

I have little slips of paper all over my desk at work that accomplish the same thing as your sticky notes! Unfortunately sometimes they get lost or buried. It sounds like many of us use similar techniques to stay on task.

Thanks for I'm off to organize my artwork priorities!

Jo Allebach
I am a full time artist and paint many hours every day. I also have responsibility for my stroke survivor mother which takes up time. I have to have reminders of what I need to do but I have to be careful of a task list because I have a tendency to overload the list which leaves me frustrated. Every time I get in the car I have a 3 by 5 card that I have written my route for appointments and errands so I don't forget. And reading this everyday is a priority.
I believe some spontaneous activity is necessary in the whole scheme of things to keep my creativity going.

hi clint

i have been trying to implement the timer approach that i read so much about. setting it for say 20 minutes to accomplish something on my to do list then taking a "break". i am finding that when i do this (i do not remember often enough yet!) these breaks are quite fertile times. when i let myself simply be and not do inspiration roars. believe me, i can easily get caught up in being a taskmaster. i much prefer the previous method though.

thank you for this post. i always need reminders!

with kind regards from shana

Carol Schmauder
This is a great post and the comments are great as well. I, too, like to organize my day and accomplish the things on my "list" but there are times when and idea comes to mind for a new painting or piece of jewelry and the "list" goes by the wayside and I spend my time creating. I agree that the list can be a chain that holds us back and creating a art is about the freedom to create when we are inspired to do so.

Sue Martin
Clint, my time management method is similar to your "scrum list." I put the things that I need to do, not on a list, but in my calendar. The things on my calendar are obviously limited by the number of hours in the day and my estimate of what I can reasonably expect to accomplish. There's no sense in cramming more items into an hour than is humanly possible to do. But I also calendar "play" time, so in any given week, there will be 2-4 hours blocks here and there for painting (which seems like play, though it's also aimed at producing work to sell). When I was taught this method some years ago, I escaped the tyranny of to-do lists and it changed my life.

Crystal Rassi
I think this was a great post and Clint, you're thoughts always intrigue me and get me thinking. Although I'd love to agree with you totally on this one because it seems fairly logical, I can't because of the differences between the way people work.

I can only use me as an example so here I go. I hate tasks but I need them. If I drop the chains I get cluttered, literally, and then can't concentrate on my ideas because of the physical environment I'm left with. I think your productive play was only really possible because you efficiently completed your tasks, which is wonderful.

If I separate play from the task and set aside a time where I play, then I feel like the result should be remarkable, otherwise the play time was a waste of time. So I create play time as a task but do not give any task a specific order of completion date. I could paint before I do the dishes - or not. It's totally up to me - not the task. Less constraints - more production.

David Seibert
Hi Clint,
Great post, especially the juxtaposition of the two approaches -


Max Hulse

You amaze me with your insights that have value
and are so practical. I work off lists and have
had that habit for my entire business life. I
am convinced I get more done than would be
possible any other way.

Your point about getting off the list occasionally and doing something creative is
also valid.

Max Hulse

Michael Cardosa
Hi Clint,

Years ago I started using a white board over my desk to keep track of what I wanted to do. It's amazing how many "important" thinks you can forget in the course of a day when other things take you astray!

I now put a lot of my tasks in Outlook so that they pop up at the appropriate time or day that the task needs to be done or started.

thanks again for another good posting.


Cherryl Pape
I just finished reading a great fun, informative little book, called
'STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST' by Austin Kleon.

One of the remarks in the book (similar to your ideas) hit me
like a brick on my over-busy head. This is it:

'Take time to be bored. One time I heard a co-worker say
"When I get busy, I get stupid." Ain't that the truth, Creative people need more time to just sit around and do nothing . . . I love ironing my shirts, it's so boring, I almost always get good ideas."

Your post was one of the best I've read to date. Thanks!


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