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Patrick Stevens

Former mathematics student at the University of Cambridge; now a software engineer.

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Getting Things Done has gathered something of a cult following [archived due to link rot] since its inception. As a way of getting things done, it’s pretty good - separate tasks out into small bits on your to-do list so that you have mental room free to consider the bigger picture. However, there’s a certain aspect of to-do lists that I’ve not really seen mentioned before, and which I find to be really helpful.

My to-do list takes up a large amount of space on one of my virtual desktops (specifically, on Dashboard). It consists of a large number of short-term goals, with some longer-term goals and a couple of very long-term goals mixed in. Sample:

Library books: Flow, The Mind’s I, Consciousness Explained

Go and see the Aurora

See how many taste buds I have

Update list of books on blog

There are very long-term goals like seeing the Aurora (which I intend doing during the next solar maximum in seven years or so), some goals which can be accomplished very quickly (like seeing whether I am officially a supertaster), an ongoing task (updating the blog) and a list of the library books I have out at the moment.

The reason I like this arrangement so much is that it doesn’t make you feel bad to see a wall full of to-do items that you’ve not done. Because a fair few of the goals are so long-term, I expect to see lots of items on the list, so I don’t get the sinking feeling when I see everything I have left to do. It also feels really good to tick off a long-term goal (my most recent being “Get a Kindle”), and it feels better than it otherwise would to tick off a short-term goal, since it is surrounded by things that I know won’t get ticked off for a while, so it feels (by association) like a bigger accomplishment.

It also means that I should never forget to do something big that I want to do. So often, I hear people say “I wish I could… before I die”, or similar. Now I have a system for recording all these things that cross my mind, so I will eventually get round to doing them. (I should note that on a fairly regular basis, I read through the whole list and work out which items are feasible right now - hopefully this will mitigate the “that’s a long-term goal, ignore it” effect.) My goal to “play in the Tallis Fantasia” is one such entry.

I think that this kind of method of writing down goals could be used to create some sort of life direction. I’ve seen services into which you enter your long-term goals, and then when you complete one, you tell the system and you gain “experience points”, levelling up after reaching a certain threshold of points. I like this idea, but I postulate that it encourages thinking of long-term goals as different things to short-term goals, and that this is not necessarily desirable. A goal is a goal; some are big-impact long-term things, some are big-impact short-term things, and so on; the system seems to create an artificial distinction between short-term and long-term. My system, in its simplicity, avoids this distinction. I can see a pattern of goals that reflects my future life; to get a bit soppy about it, I can see a much clearer “direction” this way, listing internships, the research I want to do for interest, a certain walk that is strongly recommended from Cambridge to Grantchester, and so on. The lack of “levels of abstraction”, I think, makes it much easier to do long-term things that I would otherwise put off.

I now get to tick something else off the list - hooray! I hope something comes along soon to replace it.