Tag Archives: motivation

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?

TODOLIST

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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Network Effectively With This Simple Trick

I wanted to know if Quantified Self techniques could be useful in improving how I keep in contact with people and give me tools to network effectively. I am not a natural networker so I knew that some awareness and daily habits would help.

network effectively
What Quantified Selfers Would Look Like If They Knew How to Network – And Wore Suits

My Question

How could I organize my daily communication habits so that I could network effectively?

What I Did

I tried three different approaches to tracking and daily contact follow-up. Each day I would set aside time to contact people. At the end of the day I would log the number of people contacted and the resulting positive outcomes if any. At completion I had enough data to compare the three approaches.

How I Did It

I kept a Google Spreadsheet of contacts that included the number of maximum number of days I wanted to elapse before I followed up with someone. Each day would update a field when I had connected with someone.

network effectively

A formula would then calculate the “next contact” date. With this mechanism, I could count the number of people I had on the list and the number with whom I was up to date with. I also made a note each day when I had some positive outcome from my networking.

What I Learned

How I approached the reason for contact made a significant difference in my effectiveness and stamina. Contacting people, regardless of approach, yielded a similar amount of positive outcomes. It is true that if you contact people regularly a number of them are happy to help you.

My first approach was to put 150 interesting people from my LinkedIn and personal network on the list. I thought that having a subset of people that I knew well and I liked would make for a better experience and I would “network” for a more sustained period. Here are my results from that approach:

network effectively

I had five positive outcomes during the first thirty days. That means I had job offers, proposals for collaboration or some significant project brought to me as a result of my outreach.

I maintained contact with that list for about forty days, then my efforts petered out. I was never able to be up to date with the entire list. And significantly, I dreaded sitting down daily and seeing I had five to twelve emails to write.

I tried again two months later. Thinking that the size of the list was too large on the first approach, I slimmed the list down to fifty people for the second. Here are the results:

Network Effectively

Again, I had five positive outcomes in the first thirty days and I lost interest at about the same point in time, about forty days in. I built the list to fifty people quite easily. I tried to push the list larger on 3 June, but five days later just stopped contacting people.

After these two trials I knew I had to change the framework to keep the effort going past forty  days. My approach prior had been when it was time to contact a person I looked at the last communication with that person and tried to come up with some news. Each night was a bit stressful. I had to alter that experience.

On the third approach, I did not start with a predetermined list. I put people on the list if I had a request for them. On my tracking sheet I created three notes sections. In one I wrote what I wanted from them. In the second I wrote how I could contribute to them. The third was a short note on the nature of the last contact. This is the result of organizing my communication this way:

Network Effectively

I had eight positive outcomes in the first 50 days, making for a very consistent results on all three approaches. On this final approach, I easily went past the forty day mark and am still going strong nearly sixty days in.

The trick was designing for the moment that is was time to reach out to someone. Where before I had a blank page in front of me, in this third approach I focussed on what I can contribute to them. This mde the outreach easier because I know I am giving them something and that type of contact is usually welcome. I ask them for something only on when they respond or it is appropriate to the conversation.

So the key to maintaining momentum is lowering the barrier to taking action each day. By removing that tiny hesitation when it is time to reach out the result the result was I kept at it longer. And with the consistent and clear positive outcomes that arise out of keeping in touch with people, applying a trick to sustain momentum is the obvious thing to do.

Keeping Motivated With Tricks While Quantifying

I was looking at the various things I am tracking and thought about those tests I have failed to complete. And others where I consistently collected data despite the measuring being pretty complex and tedious. Why did my motivation on some projects evaporate and in others it remained strong? How was I keeping motivated?

KeepGoing

For me doing Quantified Self tracking of one topic has a similar psychological feel to running a long distance. I have to use similar mental techniques to tricking myself into enduring when faced with plodding along for another mile or taking my 30th heart rate variability reading while zapping my brain with electricity.

One that died on the launch pad. Only one reading then ignored.
One that died on the launch pad. Only one reading – then nothing.

When I run I break the challenge into smaller buckets. I pick a point in the distance, say “I know I can run to that” and I plod on until I get there. Then I do it again. I completely understand that I am tricking myself and that the total run distance is much longer, but there is something that works for me when I do it. I pulled through a marathon with pretty tough leg cramps starting at mile 18 doing that.

My QS the tricks are similarly simple. I have found the most effective is setting an alarm on my Pebble watch when it is time to take a reading. Not my phone, very specifically the Pebble. There is something that is less obtrusive about it for me so I accept it. And it breaks my stride so I can turn my attention to the reading. With the phone, I tend to get irritated by the notification, dismiss the alarm and return to what I was doing without taking the reading.

If you want to look at something with any precision you will need at least 30 data points. And if you measure once a day then the math is easy, that will be a month of disciplined, repeated readings. If you want 100 data points so you statistical outcome is stronger you are talking about three and a half months. That is a long time to control the circumstances of the reading and measure with consistency day after day.

BigReadings
And one that launched well. Multiple metrics a day consistently done.

Many tool providers try to automate the problem away. The theory goes that automated data gathering removes the motivation problem. But it is not that simple. If I get on a Withings scale once a day for 30 days the data is easily captured. But to really test what impacts my weight I also have to vary my eating, or my exercise, with absolute consistency to precisely track my potential outcomes. And that consistency takes motivation too.

There are some beginning efforts to try and help. One I like is Whatify. The service notifies you with text reminders on which randomized action to take and they do the math after the study is done. You just come up with the study. The only drawback is you cannot see that point when the study will end. It is like going for a run and the only feedback you get on your progress is a voice saying “keep going” or “stop now.” Without knowing the end point and seeing my progress I have a hard time keeping motivated.

As you look at building out approaches to things you want to track and test, ensure you are keeping motivated by finding the small tricks that will keep you collecting data and varying inputs effectively. How you are inspired to do something consistently is unique to you. Once you understand that you will reach the finish line with good data and great results.