Tiny idea: To-do lists are menus

by Luis P. Prieto, - 2 minutes read - 390 words

Overwhelmed by your endless to-do list? Stressed because of the many PhD-related tasks you need to “go through”? As we discussed previously in the blog, you are not alone (and ask any already-doctors whether this feeling goes away after graduation). Lately, as I struggle with not-so-new-parenthood-unproductivity in my own research, I have been reminded several times of a mental reframe I first encountered in productivity writer Oliver Burkeman’s work. This simple metaphor helped me change my relationship with my to-do list, without hurting my productivity (more probably, the opposite).

The insight is simple but its effects profound: to-do lists should be seen as a menu of options, not as a list of things we need to perform in its entirety (or worse, get “out of the way”). When we go to a restaurant and look at the menu, we never think “I have to go through all those 12 main course options - and it needs to happen today”. Similarly, we know that we routinely put more stuff in our task lists than we can handle with our limited time – and that’s even before taking into account unexpected supervisor requests, good friends’ pleas for urgent help, or that emergency call from the kindergarten. Thus, when looking at our to-do list (even if it is a reduced one just for today), look at it not with the stress of having to do everything right now, but rather as a foodie, thinking about which one task will you dedicate your time and attention next, probably considering what’s most important to you. And be OK with not tasting some of the other tasks just today. That will probably happen one way or another. This attitude of savoring our activities rather than “getting them out of the way”, is likely to lead to more sustained everyday happiness (and comparable throughput with less errors, which stress often brings).

But wait, how do you choose the right option? This other tiny practice could help with that…

And if this mental reframe does not really make a lot of sense to you, stay tuned for an upcoming series of posts where I explain some alternatives to the classic productivity thinking (including a summary of one of Burkeman’s most popular books).

Take care, and enjoy your next task!

Header image generated by DALL-E via the Bing chat.

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Luis P. Prieto

Luis P. is a Ramón y Cajal research fellow at the University of Valladolid (Spain), investigating learning technologies, especially learning analytics. He is also an avid learner about doctoral education and supervision, and he's the main author at the A Happy PhD blog.

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