How do you write a to-do list? If you’re like me, you’re doing it all wrong.
There’s a story in Charles Duhigg’s new book on productivity, Smarter, Faster, Better about the first bullet train, the train invented in 1950s Japan that ran between Tokyo and Osaka, at a then unheard-of speed of 120 miles per hour. That train, and the others that soon followed, played a critical role in the country’s post-war economic expansion, and the innovative technologies developed during its production revolutionized industrial design and inspired high-speed rail projects all over the world.
But here’s the interesting part: When the head of the railway system in Japan first challenged his engineers to build a train capable of traveling at that speed, it was an absurd concept. His engineers told him it would not be possible. He said “Nonsense!” A few months later, they presented prototypes that ran at 65 mph, and the railway head told them it wasn’t good enough. The team came back with one that ran at 75 mph, and he rejected it. The only way to reach the goal, the director said, was to completely rethink everything about the way a train worked — how it turned, how the tracks were built, how the gears were meshed, how the cars were powered. Everything. Two years later they unveiled the fastest train in the world and the world watched in awe.
How amazing is that? Duhigg says this is an example of a “stretch goal,” something so ambitious, so out-of-reach, that the mere suggestion of it invites smirking and eye-rolling from whoever it is presented to. And apparently, for those of us who want to increase our productivity — whether productivity is defined as getting in better shape, writing the great American novel, or maximizing the efficiency of a factory assembly line — it’s crucial to have the same kind of absurd ambition at the top of our to-do list.
As you can maybe gather from my collection of to-do lists shown up in the photo, this was news to me. I’ve been known to add already-completed tasks on my list merely so I can give myself the satisfaction of crossing them off. Apparently, I’m not the only one. Apparently it’s a thing — and not necessarily a good thing, to hear one of Duhigg’s experts, psychologist Timothy Pychyl, explain it: “When people say things like ‘I write down easy items I can cross off right away, because it makes me feel good,’ that’s exactly the wrong way to create a to-do list. That signals you’re using it for mood repair, rather than to become productive.”
Not that there is anything wrong with mood repair when you have young kids and you count taking a shower without interruptions as a small victory. But what if you are beyond that? What if, as a parent, you no longer answer “getting through the day with sanity intact” when someone asks you what your main goals in life are? What if you want your to-do list tasks to be more than “fold laundry without throttling anyone who is not helping me?” Or more than the twenty short-term tasks you must get done in order to keep your job, but that don’t in any way get you closer to the career of your dreams? What if you want to be the next Rainbow Rowell? Run a marathon? Find a job after taking some time off with the kids? Figure out a family dinner routine once and for all? What if you want to work your way out of a dead end job so you can find interesting, meaningful work or a larger purpose? Why is there not a bullet train at the top of our lists at ALL times?
Of course, merely putting your dream in writing isn’t going to make it happen. But it’s a start. As Duhigg explains in the same section, the trick is to combine a stretch goal with a SMART system: Specific objectives that are Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and based on a Timeline. The SMART system evolved at General Electric, and Jack Welch, the company’s chief executive credited it with tripling the company’s stock in eight years during the 80s. Managers were forced to submit and resubmit SMART goals which forced people to translate vague aspirations into concrete plans. “The process of making a goal specific and proving it is achievable involves figuring out the steps it requires,” Duhigg writes. “Coming up with a timeline and a way to measure success forces a discipline onto the process that good intentions can’t match.”
This illustration, for instance, shows the SMART way to break down a seemingly out-of-reach goal for many: running a marathon. (My favorite part of that, naturally, is the timeline, where the goal-setter gets to run while the husband makes dinner.) It doesn’t just say “Train for marathon” or “Run a few more miles every week.” There’s a specific plan, and most important, a schedule that forces you to work a little towards that bullet train goal every single day.
It really made me look at my to-do list with new eyes. What am I not doing that I am capable of? What is my bullet train? What is yours?
Smarter, Faster, Better is available wherever books are sold.
Related: Duhigg on Kicking the Dessert Habit
Related: How asking five questions allowed Duhigg to eat dinner with his kids.