The Short List that helps you focus on the important tasks

Did you feel unusually busy last week? And this week you have the same feeling? It’s how our brains are wired. We almost always expect slack time to be greater in the future. Unfortunately this makes us take on too many tasks on our to-do lists. The good news is that the Monotasking personal productivity method offers the practice of Short Lists. It will make you a champion in focusing as well as in prioritizing and it’s easy to get started with.

The waiter at my local restaurant has an impressive ability to remember every suborder we’ve placed even though she never make any notes. But as soon as we pay, she drops this knowledge. Half an hour later, if we ask her what we’ve paid for, she has no idea. Unfinished tasks are remembered twice as well as completed ones. The open bill is the waiter’s unfinished task. From her perspective, this task is completed when we have paid. But unfinished tasks aren’t only remembered, they are calling for attention. The more open tasks we keep on our to-do list the more will they disturb us while we try to focus on something else. Unfinished tasks on our to-do list are to us, like unpaid orders are to my local waiter.

Our prioritizing is defined by our actions, not by our plan. If we claim every day that Task A is the currently most important task, but we never engage in it—then it obviously has low priority. People who stay in Paris for months fail to visit the Eiffel tower, even though they honestly wish they had seen it. But tourists who spend only one day in Paris almost always manage to make a trip to this 81-storey building. Numerous experiments show that distant deadlines feel easy to meet. The more distant, the more easy they are considered.

It’s a mistake to believe that we’re unusually busy in the near future and after that we’ll have plenty of room for new tasks. This *tyranny of the urgent* makes us commit to too many future tasks. It puts us in a constant state of firefighting. We’ll be more successful if we focus on the tasks that contribute to our long-term goals. This means that we prioritize on importance rather than on urgency.

The Short List is the central artifact in the Monotasking method. It’s a list of our most important tasks right now and it’s limited to a maximum of five tasks. When it’s filled with five tasks and we want to add a new task, then we need to trade away one of the old tasks. Trading away, means striking it off. Completed tasks are also removed from the list. And note that the Short List is not a day plan. It’s a continuous plan of the most important candidates right now, in this very moment. We can change it anytime. The tasks on the Short List should be small and actionable. If we—for some reason—can’t act on a task right now, then it shouldn’t reside on the Short List.

Once a day—preferably in the morning—we review our Short List. The procedure is to copy tasks from the old list to a blank paper, i.e. our new Short List. Feel free to leave out tasks from the old list that don’t qualify anymore as one of the five most important tasks right now. And add new tasks as long as you don’t exceed the limit of five tasks. When we’re done with this procedure, we can feed the shredder with the old list.

Armed with our Short List, we can easily switch between quick prioritizing sessions and 25-55 minute focus sessions. The prioritizing session is called the Panorama since we widen the perspective by looking at our Short List and picking one and only one task for our next focus session. The focus session is called Monotasking since we focus on a single task until it’s completed or we have ended our 25-55 minute time box. When the time box is ended, we instantly enter a new Panorama session and ask ourselves: What’s the best use of our time right now?

4 thoughts on “The Short List that helps you focus on the important tasks

  1. This is good stuff. I’ll be interested to hear if this book becomes available in English somewhere.

    For the selection of items to go on the “short list”, an interesting approach is Mark Forster’s “Final Version”: you keep a list of everything you might do, pick the oldest item as your #1, then go through the list asking yourself, “Would I prefer to get this done before I do my #1 item?” If so, that’s your new #1, and everything goes down a slot. Continue through the list until you either have nothing left you’d rather do.


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