Monthly Archives: March 2016

Are To Do Lists Really Useful?

I was grinding through my daily “To Do” list, moving and consolidating the various seemingly urgent items, when I wondered if such a practice was really effective. I was spending a lot of time tracking what needed to be done on these lists. I was using online tools, notebooks, and scraps of paper. But I had never examined the practice itself and was wondering. Are To Do lists really useful?


These lists played a significant role in my day. I would start with a list early in the morning and use it until evening.  It seems we all have a complex relationship with our To Do lists. Psychologists study why we use them, and why we don’t follow them. In the tradition of Quantified Self, I decided to study my own relationship with my To Do lists.

My Question

Was my practice of making and following a To Do list really useful?

What I Did

Over the course of 21 days I logged my To Do’s as they arose. I captured my frame of mind as I first thought of the item and my feeling after I had explored it. I also logged what would happen if I did not complete the item, and what I thought was the underlying goal behind the item. I call these underlying goals Source Code Stories. I was looking for Source Code Stories that were driving the impulse to do something. For example, if the To Do was to get a report to my colleague, the Source Code Story could be that I wanted to be seen as responsive.

How I Did It

I used a Google Form and my iPhone to create a mini-survey. The format was similar to my Upset log that I have described here before. When I felt the urge to do something and log it on a To Do list, the first entry on the Form was my state of mind on a scale of 1 to 5. The next entry was the item. The third was what would happen if I did not complete the item. The fourth entry captured what I thought I was trying to achieve, which was the indicator of the Source Code Story. The fifth and final entry again rated my state of mind from 1 to 5. Using this simple survey I was able to capture 105 To Do impulses over the course of 21 days.

What I Learned

My habit of creating To Do lists was not really useful. The majority of impulses to get something done came from a stressed state and the impact of not following these impulses on my situation was negligible. My To Do lists were capturing non-essential impulses that were not driving big outcomes.  What was least useful is the existence of the list kept dragging my attention back to these small matters, robbing me of attention of being available for more creative, larger outcomes.

Looking at my state of mind when To Do’s arise, I found that 79.1% of the time I was in a negative mental state. That meant I was worried or in a state where my mind was racing. Only 20.9% of the time was I in a positive state considering creative things to do. Here is an image of my state during To Do’s:

Are To Do Lists Really Useful

Looking at what would happen if I did not take action on the To Do’s, I found that nearly all of the recorded To Do’s had no immediate impact on the situation if I did not do them. Over half, if not done, would have no impact at all. For a portion eventually I would be reminded to do the item by another person or I could do it later. Here is the breakdown of results if I did not pursue the To Do’s:

Are To Do Lists Really Useful

Only 3 of the 105 logged impulses would result in something creative and interesting that I was initiating coming to a halt. That meant that the creation of the To Do list was not driving big, creative outcomes at all. It was rooting action back in the long list of stress based low level tactical activity.

Looking at my state of mind, when I felt I had an obligation to another person my average start mood was 2.35. When the To Do was a mechanical item like getting a car washed, the average start mood was 2.9. There was a statistically significant difference in state of mind between those To Do’s that were obligations to a person versus getting something mechanical done.

This tied into my Source Code Stories. Looking at the most prominent of these stories, I found that having people appreciate my effort and seeing me as knowledgeable were the most numerous. Other stories like being organized or balancing my checkbook lagged far behind.

Looking at my Source Code Stories and counting the number of To Do’s by type, I saw that despite that fact that connecting with people had a disproportionate importance for me, 63% of my To Do lists were tactical, mechanical items. Are to do lists really useful? I’ve found they aren’t for me.

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Chipping at the Bedrock of Self

In my last post, I talked about changing a Source Code Story, which is a story that lies beneath a series of Upsets. As our idea of being a separate identity is just an illusion, I wanted to keep working down my list of Source Code Stories in a continued experiment of chipping at the bedrock of self.

chipping at the bedrock of self

My idea is that these Source Code Stories are the drivers of how we perceive the world and how we express our “selves” to others. Our “self” is a bundle of sometimes disjointed stories, and if I can change one or many of them I can recreate myself.

My Question

Could I identify and reduce the frequency and intensity of a Source Code Story?

What I Did

Using the same mini-survey protocol I used in the first experiment, I captured the Source Code Story beneath a series of Upsets and rank ordered them to find which was the most frequent. Again, I did multiple repetitions of the exploratory protocol on that story. And throughout I was doing the mini-surveys and monitoring to see if the frequency and intensity of that Source Code Story had changed.

How I Did It

Using the same Google Forms mini-survey that I had devised in the first experiment I captured a list of Source Code Stories that lay beneath various Upsets. As a review, these surveys ask five questions. The first question is my state of mind on a scale of 1 to 5. The second was a brief description of the Upset.  The third was a brief Glass Half Full opportunity within the situation. For example, if I was Upset about waiting in line, an opporunity might be I had a chance to read an interesting book. The fourth was a text entry of what I thought I was trying to protect when I was Upset. This was the Source Code Story. The fifth and final entry again rated my state of mind from 1 to 5.

The protocol for altering the Source Code Story included a different mini-survey. This broke the story down into what sensations were present, what the story that arose from the sensations and the triggering cause of the story. As I have mentioned I learned this sequence from a Guide at Liberation Unleashed. I did this exploratory protocol 25 times over the course of a week.

What I Learned

I reduced the frequency and intensity of another Source Code Story. From the list of Source Cost Stories I had gathered in the first study I determined that the next most frequent Source Code Story was my desire to work on big, important things. This took the form of me having little or no patience with tasks I had deemed were not contributing to some large and significant issue.

From the week prior to doing the protocol an Upset related to this Source Code Story occurred eleven times. This was an average of 1.8 times a day. I was spending a lot of energy feeling that I was wasting my time on tasks that were not significant. During the week, I repeated the exploratory protocol the frequency dropped to .5 per day, and after four days Upsets from this Souce Code Story stopped completely.

As I had measured my state of mind on a scale from 1 to 5 at each Upset, I had a chance to examine how the protocol changed the intensity of the Upsets. Not only did the frequency decrease, the negative state of mind decreased. With 1 being negative and 5 being positive, my average state of mind when these Upsets occurred went from 1.8 to 2.25.

Using a free Google Form and an iPhone I have moved two Source Code Stories from active to far less present in my awareness. As part of reviewing my data I checked on the frequency of the first Source Code Story I worked with, my dislike of having my decisions challenged. In the week-long period after having reduced its presence, an Upset with that Source Code Story only occurred on one occasion. Once that Source Codes Story was gone, it seems to have stayed gone.

Subjectively the amount of time my mind has been spinning due to a Source Code Story has reduced. There have been a lot of moments of relaxation. I imagine that in moments of downtime prior to this I would kick into one of these stories. I am going to conduct the protocol on the remaining list of Source Code Stories to determine what happens when they are all removed.