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To-do List FAIL

When I made the to-do list, I had no idea how big a mistake I was making.

It was Friday night, the end of a spectacular week in which I made more progress on more projects than I would have dreamed possible for me just a few years ago.  I hit all my critical targets for the week, and didn’t have any planned for the weekend and coming week.

But then I made a stupid mistake: instead of continuing to do the things that produced that success, I got lazy.

It was late, and I was in a hurry, so I just dashed down a sloppy old to-do list, the way I used to, in no particular order, mixing high-level projects like “prepare this month’s topics” with low-level odds and ends like “return library books” and “backup PC”.

Now, I just recorded a CD a few weeks ago with a detailed explanation of how to plan things in a way that’s actually motivating…  and that way was soooooooo not a to-do list!  So, it should have come as absolutely no surprise the next day, when I had absolutely no interest in doing a single damned thing off that list!

For some reason, though, this didn’t even occur to me at the time.  I spent a frustrating Saturday in which only the little things on my list got done…  and damn few of those.  Meanwhile, I felt the old deadline pressure building, and felt like things were getting out of control.

Sadly, I’d made the oldest mistake in the motivation book: confusing the output of a process (some writing on paper) with the process itself (stuff that has to happen in your brain, in order to make a difference).

I deluded myself into thinking I could make a list that looked like the lists I’d made before, and still get the same great results… even though I hadn’t gone through the same thought process I used for the earlier lists.

This is why some people can take a new time management or organizational method and have it work great for the first week or two… until suddenly it seems like just a bunch of work filling out forms, that’s not really helping anything.

It’s like being a little kid who thinks that turning the steering wheel of a car back and forth is what makes it go.  You might look like you’re driving the car, but all you’re doing is spinning your wheels!

This is also the big difference between thinking you “already know” how to get results in your life… and actually getting them.  Truth is, if you’re not doing it, it doesn’t matter what you think you know.

And nobody is immune.  I mean, I just recorded a damn CD about doing this motivation-based planning technique less than two weeks ago, for crying out loud.  I’ve actually been using the technique for a whole month, and getting phenomenal successes with it.  And still, I succumbed to “already-know-it” disease!

There is a phenomenal gap between knowing and doing, because the “knowing” and “doing” parts of the brain are barely on speaking terms.  But if you don’t get both of those parts to work together, you will end up filling out the forms and going through the motions of whatever new “system” you pick to run your life…  without ever feeling the calm and confidence of really being in control.

Let’s imagine that I made a video of myself working, using the method I now teach.  If all you could do was watch what I did on the outside, you would probably focus on the fact that I’m using index cards, writing a title at the top of each one, and breaking down further details on the cards.  You’d notice things about how I mark items to be done today or next, and how I track what things are in progress or completed, what things need to be or have been broken out onto other cards, and so on.

You would then conclude that you “already know” how my system works, because you could faithfully go through the motions of copying everything I do on the outside.  And you would, quite logically and correctly, conclude that it’s nothing special at all.

And so you would never actually try it for yourself, and even if you did, you wouldn’t get the same sense of control, motivation, and ease that it gives to me!

Because you’d have missed the real system, which lies entirely within my head.  The writing on the cards are merely a convenient record of what already took place in my mind.  A matter of mere style, rather than the real substance.

And unfortunately, this is what virtually all self-help material consists of: detailed sets of instructions for copying the visible side-effects of what successful people do differently in their minds!

This is why I’ve been building a second career around changing all that – teaching people the real distinctions, the “differences that make a difference” to finding your focus and living your dreams.

So, being the big-shot professional guru that I am now, it only took me a freakin’ day to realize my mistake, instead of weeks or months like it used to take me.  😉

And once I got done slapping myself upside the head for my stupidity, I went ahead and replaced my weekend “to-do” list with a motivation-based plan for having a great week.

And in a matter of minutes, I knew exactly where I stood on every important project, and was able to rapidly identify which things I needed to get done right away…  so I could take the evening off and take my wife out for dinner and a movie.

Without spending the entire date thinking I should be working!

So I had a great night out with my wife yesterday, and lo and behold, what do I find in my inbox this morning?  Why, this email from Jack, an associate member of my self-improvement group:

“I was a little skeptical at first about whether the last CD would really make a difference, but I gave the technique a try yesterday.  I felt like I have too much to do (or not enough time).  At the very least, it helped me relax and decide what not to do.  Plus, I’ve still got the notecards from yesterday for the things I didn’t finish, and it feels like it’s going to be easy to pick up where I left off.

Interesting that it reminds me of the “breadth first” tree searching algorithm.  Though really, I’m building a tree of action items, rather than searching.  But it seems to work better than the sort of A* search I’d been trying to do usually, because I’m more relaxed. And, of course, that whole “feeling relaxed” thing is just is side effect of creating the mindset that I’m going to “win” each of these “games”, (i.e. the “gain brain”), which is available once I’ve gotten things broken down to a size where I can visualize/imagine the steps. It’ll be interesting to see how things go as I keep doing this. Also, having the notecards reminds me of a technique called “parking downhill”.  The analogy is to parking a car on a downhill slope, so that it’s easy to get started next time.   The “parking downhill” technique is simply whenever you have to interrupt a task that you are working on, make a physical note of what you would do to get started on it again, while that context is fresh in your head.  Like pushing a context frame onto a stack, so you can pop it off later.  With the notecard, I usually already have that note as one of the steps in the list.  If not, I can just add it to the card. Good stuff.  Looking forward to more,   –Jack

Ah, Jack, you are truly wiser than I.  You actually did what I recorded on the CD, even while the big shot guru was getting lazy and ruining half his weekend.  Good on you, mate.

Jack’s certainly also got it right about “feeling relaxed” being another side effect of the process.  And of course, some of this is basically straight out of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” philosophy, except that he leaves out some really important parts of this stuff…  parts he probably does automatically, and assumes everybody else does, too!

Unfortunately, it’s precisely these small, seemingly trivial differences in thought process that make such a huge difference between the naturally successful David Allens and Tony Robbinses of the world, and “the rest of us”.

And the traditional self-help field has utterly failed at teaching the rest of us to change our thinking processes.  Instead, we get fed the same old tired retreads of the output of successful people’s thought processes.

We get told that successful people “aren’t afraid of failure”, for example, but not how they get that way.  We get told that they “see everything as an opportunity”, “take risks”, “write down goals”, and ten thousand other stupid little things that you could spend a lifetime trying to force yourself to copy…  while never even remotely matching their levels of success – or feeling any better about yourself in the process.

Because all those little things, from writing down goals to having a “positive attitude” aren’t really what makes people successful.  Those things are just the output of a process – the record of something that already happened inside them.

And if you try to copy those outputs, you’ll just be going through the motions…  feeling hollow and empty inside.

The same way I did, for nearly 20 years of self-help junkiedom.

But earlier this year, I finally “cracked the code” – the critical insight into the difference that makes ALL the difference, between the people who are “naturally successful,” and those who are “naturally struggling”.

But insight is still not enough.  You must actually become a different person – the kind of person who does things differently.

And part of the path to becoming a different person, is being in an environment that supports that process.  Yes, you can learn some things just by reading or listening to them, but in order to become different, you ultimately have to interact with people who are either already different, or seeking to become so.

See, your brain doesn’t give a flying fart what you think your life should be like.  Your body didn’t go to all the trouble of growing you a brain just to get you whatever you want.

No, not at all.  It grew you that big brain so you could keep track of tribal politics.  There are actually studies that suggest that brain-to-body size ratio in primates is directly related to the number of  members in a typical band of that species…  and the human brain weighs in at just the right size for a 150-person tribe.

And so the reason you have a “self-image”, as pop-psych and self-help have it, is not so you can become “self actualized”, but so you can keep track of your public image – your tribal PR, in other words.

That means your brain – by default – cares a whole heck of a lot more what other people think, than it does about what you think.

So, if you want to change your behavior, the fastest, strongest, and utterly easiest way to do it, is to change what tribe you’re in!

I fought this for a long time, because I believed that I ought to be able to be strong enough to do it all by myself, without any help and regardless of my environment.  But as it turned out, that was just my tribal brain’s PR spin.

See, if you’ve ever wondered why your brain plays tricks on you, making you do things you don’t intend to, and making you not do the things you do intend to, here’s the answer in a nutshell: your brain is a spin doctor.

It’s job?  To make you look good, or more precisely, to make you NOT do things that will make you look bad and get voted off the island.  If you got kicked out of the tribe, you died… and more importantly, didn’t reproduce.  And since by definition, all your ancestors were people who managed to stay in their tribe, you inherited their cowardly brains.

In my case, I grew up learning that “being good” (in the form of doing my schoolwork without assistance) brought rewards…  and that having to get help (especially from a teacher) resulted in humiliation and shame.

So, from my brain’s perspective, it was more important for me to NOT seek help from people, than to actually get results!  As far as it was concerned, needing help was something that might get me “kicked out of the tribe”.  (Because human societies use shame to teach children what is and isn’t acceptable behavior in that society.)

And so, instead of getting coaching or participating in a group, I struggled for a ridiculous amount of time irrationally trying to prove I didn’t need any help.

And boy, was I wrong.

Because just minutes of actual interaction with the right people taught me more about myself than I’d previously learned in decades of trying to figure it out on my own.

Now at first, all I noticed was how uncomfortable I felt around successful people.  How nervous and defensive I got, and the various twinges and flinches I got when they said certain things about their beliefs or what I should do.

And ultimately, that drove me to seek out ways to find the source of those inner conflicts, and remove them, before I began teaching other people how to do the same.

Of course, the other big thing that held me back was an addiction to knowledge – and especially, showing other people that I had that knowledge.

I mean, it was literally an addiction.  I always had to be the smartest person in the room…  which usually made me avoid rooms with smarter people in them, or be somewhat obnoxious when I couldn’t otherwise help it.  In recent years, I managed to tone it down a bit so I didn’t always have to correct other people out loud, but after I was out of the room I’d still have to go tell somebody else about all the ways those other people were wrong.

But you don’t grow, when you “already know”.  An information addiction is not the same thing as a thirst for wisdom.  And it’s definitely not the same thing as becoming a better person.

And that holds true, whether you define “better” in terms of improved moral qualities, greater practical effectiveness, or just enjoying your life more.

So if you want to become a different kind of person than the one you’ve been, look for ways you can change your environment.

Because your brain really doesn’t care that much about what you think.  And without outside support, it’s not just your to-do list that’s going to fail.

Next time: Hardassians vs. Fairylanders…  FIGHT!


P.S.  I’ve already helped hundreds of people change their lives through my work in the Circle.  And if you’re finally ready to do the same…  you can be next.  Join me for my next workshop, “Small Steps, Giant Leaps”, on Saturday, June 28th, by becoming an Associate or Full member of the Circle today.  (And then, among other things, you’ll get the CD and newsletter that Jack got.  Plus the next ones, that will be on creating instant good habits and instant motivation.)

But look, life is not a game, and you don’t get do-overs.  As much as I wish I could, I can NEVER get back all the years I wasted trying to prove I “didn’t need any help” and “knew” more than anybody else.  So all I can say to you is, don’t be like me.

If you value your life, then stop sitting on the sidelines of it!  Become the player in your life, instead of just being a spectator, watching it go by.  Do something differentNow.

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Cover photo of "A Minute To Unlimit You" by PJ Eby
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