In the post about weekly planning, you showed your weekly task list, but not a daily list. Do you typically work from the weekly list? Is this akin to Oliver Burkeman’s Open List, or is there a larger Open List somewhere else and this weekly task list is like his Closed List?
What a great question!
Think of an open list as your brainstorming session: What might you do?
Think of a closed list as your reality-based action plan, tied to your calendar and your schedule. What are you going to do, in the time you’ve made available?
This week? Today? For reals? Working from your calendar, and working with a schedule?
You’ve got 24 hours in a day, 168 hours in a week, and perhaps 4,000 weeks over a lifetime, if you’re lucky.
Just like physical objects occupy your shelf space, tasks occupy your time. Both shelf space and hours in the day are limited.
A closed list just means you have decided what’s on your list of tasks, and that you will not keep adding to it as new things come up during the day.*
You make your list for the day the night before, or first thing in the morning, and anything else that comes up has to wait until another day, or another week.
Mark McGuinness won’t put anything more on a daily list than he can fit on a Post-it note:
“The solution turned out to be counterintuitive: I got more done by making my to-do list shorter. Now, one of my most valuable productivity tools is a stack of Post-it notes. Not the smallest size, but the 3″ x 3″ squares. The top Post-it contains my to-do list for today and today only. Because my day is a limited size, I figure it makes sense to limit the size of my to-do list. If I can’t fit the day’s tasks on the Post-it, I’m not likely to fit them into the day.
“And once I’ve finished the to-do list, I’ve finished work for the day. As a self-employed creative workaholic, after years of feeling there was always something else to do at the end of the day, I can assure you this is a magical feeling. But what about all the rest? All the phone calls, emails, and requests that come in during the day? Not to mention all the new ideas that pop into my head as I work? Good question. There’s a place for all of these things, and that place is the second Post-it on the stack, a.k.a. my to-do list for tomorrow. Unless something is seriously urgent AND important (such as an emergency request from a client), then I never add anything to today’s list once I’ve finalized it first thing in the morning.” ((McGuinness 2016, Kindle location 989-996)
You can make a closed list by:
I use both closed lists and open lists.
I keep open lists, what I call “running lists,” of things I would like to get done.
When I commit to actually doing something, that is where time-based planning comes in. I make quarterly plans, weekly plans, and daily plans.
I look at my running lists (open lists), I look at my calendar and I look at my schedule, and once an item on a list is tied to time – my calendar or my schedule – it becomes a closed list. So my quarterly plans, weekly plans, and daily plans are closed lists.
I think of a closed list like a packing list for a suitcase. There are only so many items I can fit into a suitcase.
And there are only so many items I can fit into a day, a week, or a quarter.
Making closed lists is how I get real about what I can actually do in a day, a week, a quarter.
I don’t think anybody really plans to create a lifestyle of working until they can’t anymore, and then collapsing amidst the robo-babble of screens, while scrolling a phone and half-watching a show.
But keeping open and closed lists, knowing when you are DONE with work for the day, knowing when it is time to stop working, is key to being intentional about your time, to living well.
The two main strategies that help you live the kind of life you want to live, an intentional life, as opposed to a reactive life, are these:
The latter point, investing your time in important pursuits outside of work, is well beyond the scope of this post; but this is what I am getting at, when I talk about creating a rule of life for yourself (or a personal framework).
This is what Cal Newport is getting at when he talks about creating a deep life.
This is what Laura Vanderkam means when she emphasizes spending time on the things that matter.
This is what Oliver Burkeman talks about when he points out that we have about 4,000 weeks.
When we’re talking about task lists – weekly planning, daily planning – we want to focus on this idea of enough.
When are you done for the day?
When are you done for the week?
Closed lists and quitting times tell you that.
Then you have time for activities that matter, activities that you don’t get paid for in money; because they are priceless.
Wondering how to manage your paper-based or hybrid paper-digital systems? Ask me a question.
* But what if something is urgent? Sure, if something is urgent, you may need to move some stuff on your closed list. It’s not set in stone. But define “urgent.” My definition of “urgent” means it is life or death (which in my job literally happens), or there is blood or fire involved. Otherwise…. it can almost always go on tomorrow’s list.
Some of the material above was adapted from my longer article on setting boundaries around your time and tasks, on annahavron.com. You can find that here: Setting Boundaries for Your Time: You are a Person, Not a Machine (28 May 2021) Anna Havron. Available at: https://www.annahavron.com/blog/you-are-a-person-not-a-machine (Accessed: 5 July 2023).
McGuiness, M. (2016) Productivity for Creative People: How to Get Creative Work Done in an ‘Always on’ World. Lateral Action.
Prioritize Your Time By Pretending It Is Money (17 March 2023) Anna Havron. Available at: https://www.annahavron.com/blog/prioritize-by-thinking-of-your-time-as-if-it-were-money (Accessed: 4 July 2023).
Why Have a Values Plan? (26 May 2023) Anna Havron. Available at: https://www.annahavron.com/blog/why-have-a-values-plan (Accessed: 4 July 2023).
Burkeman, O. (2021) Four thousand weeks: time management for mortals. First. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In the appendix, Burkeman writes about open and closed lists, under the heading, “Adopt a ‘fixed volume’ approach to productivity.”
Forster, M. (2008) Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management. London: Hodder & Stoughton.