Three Kinds of Lists

Three Kinds of Lists

Most people expect task managers to make them more productive. I have seen people use task managers (like Todoist) to hold notes. But it never really occurred to me that a well-set-up note system could increase my productivity. It's not fair to call it a note system. I often call it Personal Knowledge Management, but in reality, it's my Idea Workshop. Nearly all my work begins in my note taking app Obsidian, and here's why.

The Problem

The problem I have with Getting Things Done concerns information. When I start a project (something with multiple steps), there is always a halo of information surrounding that project. For example, when I do something simple like fix a faucet. You don't just "fix it." You need to know:

  • What kind of faucet it is
  • The brand
  • Hopefully the serial number and a little about it

And then there are things you don't know. Is this a repair or replace job? Some things you can't plan until you have more information. For this one little task, suddenly I'm taking pictures of the faucet, searching Google, finding the brand, model, part numbers needed to fix it. How many steps is it actually going to take to finish the job? More importantly, where should I store all that information? To put it in perspective, in addition to the work (tasks), I will need to have at my disposal:

  • Pictures of the old faucet
  • Search results for the replacement faucet - (websites I visited to gather information)
  • The model number
  • Replacement part numbers (cartridge, handle, entire faucet)
  • Connector size from wall to faucet (they come in different sizes, in case you didn't know)
  • Any special tools needed for the job

This list could change depending on if I'm replacing or repairing the faucet. I went from one to-do, to at least three tasks, and what's more, three kinds of lists about this project. Most people tend to keep this information in their head - or at least they try to. However, what happens if I get interrupted in the middle of working on it? How hard would it be to pick back up where I left off? What if there was a way to aggregate all the information in one convenient place so I could start, stop, and pick back up where I left off at any time?

This is what my system solves for. I want to manage more than just some of the information needed to do the work. I want to manage all the information, steps, and processes I need to follow to get the outcome I'm after. And this leads me to make some distinctions. Many people mistakenly think a list is enough - my question is which list? In my experience, projects of all shapes and sizes can quickly generate three kinds of lists:

  1. The checklist
  2. The shopping list
  3. The task list

Let's take a look at how they are similar and how they differ.

Checklists vs. Task Lists vs. Shopping Lists

Checklists, task lists, and shopping lists have three things in common:

  1. They have checkboxes (or you cross things out)
  2. They are lists
  3. They help us remember

Functionally, however, they differ quite a bit. Let's look at each one.

The Checklist

I love the book [[The Checklist Manifesto]] by [[Atul Gawande]]. He makes a clear case for using checklists to ensure we don't forget things. But are checklists the same as task lists? Over and over, I find task management applications struggle with this. They have a "one and done" mindset. Do a task and check it off. Forever. Checklists, in contrast, are meant to be reused. Pilots use them every time they fly. I don't know anyone who reuses task lists. However, checklists are like recipes. I'd never throw away a favorite recipe after using it once. I'd save it for future use.

A checklist contains the proven steps you want to follow consistently. Checklists rarely change. They are also reused frequently. They do what our brains are not great at - remembering non-narrative details. I think of a checklist as a personal process document.

For my faucet project, I have setup and completion checklists. I need to ensure I have the right tools before starting and that everything gets put back after. From experience, I learned I can't rely on my memory to do all those steps, so I use a checklist to jog my memory.

Checklists are great, but they are not shopping lists.

Shopping Lists

A shopping list is usually a single-use, ad hoc list created for a specific moment in time. The purpose of a shopping list is to optimize a task like running errands. It is not a process document. The content of a shopping list changes each time one is created. It holds details, acting like Velcro for thoughts and ideas. You prepare it, use it, then archive it. Shopping lists are rarely reused.

For my sink project, my shopping list consisted of parts, supplies, and new tools. The new tool gives a clue as to how shopping lists differ from checklists. If I buy a tool, I plan to keep it long-term - I won't need to buy it again later. Therefore, I would not reuse a shopping list the way I would reuse a checklist.

Checklists are designed for reuse, while shopping lists serve a single purpose.

For the sink, I needed both checklist and shopping list types. Yet, neither list was enough for the whole project.

Task Lists

The most common productivity list is the task list. Task lists allow me to convert my intentions into plans. Breaking something big like "change the faucet" down into a series of steps, I want to organize them by the next most actionable thing I can do. This means task lists differ from the other two types in a couple of important ways. First, they capture intentions and commitments. Second, they represent actions over things or states. A task list can also be a commitment list. I said I'd do something for someone. Checklists don't change over time. Shopping lists are only relevant when shopping. Task lists always have a time element, and this matters. Checklists and shopping lists shape present actions.

Task lists shape the future.

The totality of fixing the sink is managed by the task list. The task list is the plan of how my actions will produce the outcome I envision. And I say it this way because that is how we define intelligence for thinking machines. Something is intelligent to the degree its actions achieve its objectives. Task lists are tools of applied intelligence.

The Core Idea

This brings us to the core concept. If you want to be productive, want a method for producing better outcomes with less effort, faster. My point is that one list is rarely enough to achieve even goals of middling complexity. As a result, you are unlikely to find a single "task manager" that helps you reach your potential because most applications only support one kind of list. The power of an intelligent note taking system is that it can bind together all the information you need to be effective.