To Do Distinctions

To Do Distinctions

I was getting ready to sleep at a normal hour last night, the first time in possibly months since I’ve done so. This was a notable event as far as I am concerned, and feeling good I leisurely checked-off the things I’d do tomorrow. However, I was also thinking about some comments I’d come across at Freelance Samurai on the latest version of Emergent Task Planner with regards to getting three tasks done being (in his words) “worth bragging about”. I had thought the idea that getting just three tasks done a day might not go over well, particularly in the productivity-obsessed workplace. And truthfully, I wasn’t quite clear myself why this was important.

As I drifted to sleep, it struck me that there are two kinds of to-do items I have, and there is a different mentality that goes with each of them. Allow me to be facetious and call them to do and to get done tasks:

  • To Do Tasks These are the activities that actually move me forward toward being in a better place. Personal projects, relationship building, research, and so on. By accomplishing a task in the “to do” list, I’m talking about creating a better future for myself than the one I’d have if I let the status quo reign.

  • To Get Done Tasks These are the activities that allow me to remain in the status quo. Project work that brings in revenue, doing the laundry, washing dishes, doing my invoicing and “budgeting”, maintaining my various servers, and so it goes. There are a lot more tasks in this category than in the first.


p>The reason I have chosen this phrasing—to do versus to get done—is that they reflect my attitude: “to do” is active voice, “to get done” is passive voice, which is kind of how I feel about it. Yeah versus bleah.

From a functional perspective, it would make more sense to say Tasks that Better Myself versus Tasks that Must Be Done. However, I must acknowledge that when it comes to doing things, I’d much rather be doing the ones that move me forward than just keep me going.

Another way of describing this functional split: development versus maintenance tasks. Development tasks represent new opportunities, whereas maintenance tasks keep you where you “are”; it goes without saying that we’d prefer not to lose ground, so making sure that this doesn’t happen is a big part of our daily regimen.

Part of the anxiety we feel comes from the feeling that we are losing ground, and this is part of the appeal of Getting Things Done. We can’t really address the development tasks until we have our maintenance tasks under some control, otherwise the gains made will be short-term. I’m in that cycle myself: I have bursts of creative progress which hint at future awesomeness, but this comes at the expense of having a clean house and creating a viable (read: profitable by process design, not luck) business methodology. What I have been missing, I suspect, is a methodology that incorporates dreams into the very fabric of the operation. The Concrete Goals Tracker, in hindsight, was my intuitive way of trying to give shape to that desire, but I didn’t realize that it was a dream visualization tool. That has interesting ramifications for future design work.

Note that I’m not talking about tasks I “like” or “dislike”. There are things in the maintenance pile I enjoy, such as my perverse interest in server administration. There are also lots of things in the development pile that I don’t particularly enjoy, or have trouble doing.

I’ve addressed the duality of how I make/create/produce in Impulsive vs. Methodical Action; what I’m talking about in this post is related in that there’s the sense that I’m expressing frustration with one of them. I certainly tend to favor impulsive (undirected) creativity over methodical (directed) creativity, but I perceive the world as desiring the latter. In terms of tasks, I much prefer tasks that seem to be about the future (dreaming, building) than the ones that are just maintaining my foothold (maintenance) in life.

I think I can now clarify my position that getting three tasks a day done is a noteworthy achievement: I’m thinking of those tasks that are about the future, as oppposed to the ones that just need getting done to maintain your place. Tasks that are about the future are the ones that will help you achieve your dreams, and yield (at least in our imagination) the richest awards. Getting even one of those done a day is an incredible accomplishment. Keep in mind also that when it comes to dreams, we’re talking big units of tasks. A dream is not expressed in terms of small sums accumulating over time. We reserve that language for talking about our maintenance tasks, and you can get many of those tasks done in a day. If you’re a dreamer, though, you sense that those aren’t the tasks that will light your heart on fire. It’s no wonder that you are procrastinating…what’s the point? And yet Life rewards those who maintain themselves.

And now, coming back to action: getting those maintenance tasks done requires the following of a methodical process, and an appreciation for “small sums” accounting. For me, those are all challenges. Framing this in the scope of a larger mission or perhaps a role may help me accept this, if the role itself embodies my dreams. For example, with the methodical stuff, knowing that this is part of the scientific process makes it palatable because now I’m not just doing gruntwork, I’m playing scientist :-)

This line of inquiry is leading to another process insight regarding Scientific Creative Process, but I’ll save that for tomorrow.


  1. Dave Seah 17 years ago

    leaving a note for myself: another split is “creative” (as in making things) versus “administrative” (as in managing the context of an activity) tasks versus “maintenance” (supporting the operation)

  2. sarah 17 years ago

    This is a really good breakdown of these distinctions.

    We already sort of operate this way—we separate things into “tasks” meaning “what must be done this day” and “to-dos” which are the future-oriented (or non-date-specific) things. If a to-do becomes date-critical we move it to that day’s actual task list (this is a physical list) and it becomes priority over things like laundry until it’s done.

    Planning tasks a week ahead helps, since certain things have to be done on certain days (like taking out and organizing recycling) we know not to load those days up with other dull maintenance tasks.

    We also make a point of scheduling fun on our daily task lists so it doesn’t get forgotten!

    Three future tasks a day is impossible with a toddler in the house, but we try and leave space each day for each of us to just think creatively and noodle around. Otherwise…we’d choke.

    I’m definitely going to think more about re-categorizing to-dos and tasks the way you are describing here…I think too many of our maintenance tasks muscle their way onto our daily task lists these days. (then again, that 2-year-old factor…might just have to roll with it for a while longer)

  3. David 17 years ago

    I’d just like to say thanks a lot, much of what you have to say is really an insight into many things I’ve been challenged with for quite some time now.

  4. Xig 17 years ago

    I’ve been hooked on your blog since I found it (a couple of weeks ago perhaps?), and already my desk is covered with your immensely useful forms.

    But I must say this post really hits the nail on the head for me. It’s something I have struggled with, without actually understanding the issue. If that made any sense at all.

    Thanks David :)

  5. Brad 17 years ago


    I had an idea to make a sort of “multiplication table” cross-referencing the Impulsive/Methodical dichotomy with To Do/To Get Done. I wrote “To Do” and “To Get Done” across the top, and “Impulsive” and “Methodical” down the left side.

    Then I just brainstormed what an intersection of each would look like:

    Impulsive “To Do”: creative, new, fun, happy
    Methodical “To Do”: work, hard, good outcome, earn
    Impulsive “To Get Done”: new ways of doing old things, play, safe
    Methodical “To Get Done”: boring, dull, uninteresting

    Then I tried to sum up each intersection with a single word:

    Impulsive “To Do”: TALENTS
    Methodical “To Do”: “UNTALENTS”
    Impulsive “To Get Done”: DISTRACTIONS
    Methodical “To Get Done”: DRUDGERY

    The things that come to us impulsively and take us in new directions exercise our talents. This is where we explore new things and have new ideas in uncharted territory.

    Those that are methodical but still propel us forward are our “untalents” (I made the word up). They aren’t the opposite of talents, but they’re things we aren’t naturally as good at but still provide us with an outcome we like. For instance, an untalent of mine is meeting new people and forming new relationships. I have to work really hard at it and it doesn’t just “come to me” impulsively, but like the exercise of a talent it does propel me to new places.

    Things that are impulsive but merely leave you near the status quo are distractions, and I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad sense. For instance, picking up a magazine won’t in itself move you to new places, but it can be fun and inviting. Similarly, tinkering with servers can be impulsive and enjoyable but in terms of output doesn’t provide an actual “boost” (unless you come up with a new way of exercising your talents in the process).

    Finally, methodical work that keeps you going in your current direction is just drudgery. It isn’t new, it isn’t exciting, you probably already know how to do it quite well, but it still needs to be done.

    Feel free to play with these ideas and come up with your own terms: I came up with this in about half an hour, so it’s certainly just raw thought right now.

  6. sarah 17 years ago

    I’d also like to add, if there is too much drudgery on your list, one needed focus may be on cutting it back.  If you find yourself doing too many jobs you don’t like, a life change may be in order. Easier said than done, yes, but sometimes you have to do it.

    And for day-to-day maintenance, it’s not all bad. In our case, laundry (for me) and dishes (for him) are actually meditative time during which we often get good ideas. If there is a chore you hate that really is dragging you down, outsource! We have a friend who hates laundry, so he now takes it to the laundromat and has it done for him. Not that much $$ and the time and aggravation he save now that he’s NOT trying avoid doing it are more than worth it.

    Now if I could just get someone else to go to the dentist for me, I’d be all set….

  7. Pete 17 years ago

    This distinction between the two kinds of to-dos is like the “P/PC balance” in ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.’ Production versus production capability.

  8. Freelance Samurai 17 years ago

    Oh my god! why do people read my blog???

    well, like I said on my post I was pretty sure ETP suited your life perfectly, just not mine. and that’s ok. the insight gained and the clear vision over one’s day is an invaluable asset for me. (oh, and I did switch to the tweaked version, regardless of the 3 task checkpoint).

    I’m a technical coordinator for an ISP, on a tipical day I have at least 7/8 tasks to accomplish and a I only break down really big tasks, even if I do I tend to get them all boxed up in the same time slice. I take the idea of getting things done (not the process, just the concept) close to my heart. I respect dead-lines as if it was a matter or life or death (no, no stress. just the way I see things: must be done. got done. very zen-ish, actually) so as you can imagine having ETP as a snap-shot of the day is very very useful tool to tackle whatever is in my daily path.

    bottom line: thank you. It’s a huge help and a way to GTD more quickly. I live for momentary snap-shots. “what’s next?!” :)

  9. starpause 17 years ago

    Thanks for breaking your ideas down into applicable, common terms. Development makes much more sense to me than “To Do Tasks” and maintenance makes much more sense than “To Get Done Tasks.”

    Writing is the art of conveying ideas. Too many people deep into thoughts and philosophy ignore that and their wonderful thoughts become buried in scholarly jargon. I’m glad you’re not one of those people, I enjoy your blog!

  10. Leng 17 years ago

    Hey Dave, that’s so funny, I was just thinking about this the other day!—only, not in a professional capacity, but on the home-front side. Like, how do we keep the house clean/bills paid/baby fed, while still doing Big Things like Progressing In Our Careers and Planning for Kid’s Future? My solution was to separate out the maintenance from big picture items—in color-coded Post-It index cards, woo hoooo!—and to try to hit one from each category per day. Now, if I could just stick to the system…

  11. Cindy 17 years ago

    I appreciate the distinction and the fact that you made it. I’m working through my own time management issues and struggling with the fact that because my “job” is homemaker and my “fun” is freelance graphic designer (done when I can and on my own terms, how lucky am I?) many of my necessary projects are actually ongoing maintenance stuff that “have to get done” for family comfort and harmony. When in fact I’d much rather be doing the creative stuff, and often do at the expense of the household stuff. I’m just relieved to hear that the maintenance chores still have a place in the time management system even though we want to focus on the stuff that makes our dreams come true.

  12. Robbie 16 years ago

    Funny, because those “witty comments” (I would have described more as “encouraging comments”) that Freelance Samurai referred to are one of the things that I find most attractive about the ETP. I once saw in a store some notepads with headings that started with, “If I don’t get anything else done…” and then was broken down into various areas of life like “at work” with a space to list three items. My husband commented that’s what I need. I know I tend to get overwhelmed with 200+ To Dos and feel like I just need to narrow down on what’s most important to do that particular day (I think this is one spot where I stray from GTD). Of course, I had never been able to find those note pads again after deciding to purchase one. When I found the ETP, it reminded me of those note pads.

    ETP also reminded me of a tip I received once from one of the three most organized people I’ve ever known personally (and of the three, the one I most respect). She had passed on that one thing she had read a long time ago that she found helpful was not to plan more than six tasks in a day above and beyond your regular daily routine. When I found your ETP, I emailed her the link and pointed out to her how your comments seemed to reinforce that.

    All in all, I think the ETP takes away some of the pressure that comes from continually looking at the Master To Do List throughout the day.

    I have a problem with putting things on my calendar (Google) and then when I look at my calendar I see the entries, but they don’t register (kind of like hearing something, but not listening) so I still end up double-booking or forgetting commitments. I was planning for this upcoming week to print out 7 copies of the ETP, date them for each day of the week and transfer my appointments onto the appropriate pages and see if that helps things out at all.