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Tom Peters and the To-Do List

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  • Tom Peters and the To-Do List

    From the Tom Peters Blog -

    The Single Most Important Thing

    I just read a comment about "roadmaps" and "process maps" and "project management software"—which helps us move from Abstract Strategy to Concrete Action. I am not opposed to "process maps," and certainly acknowledge that you need some damn good PM software to direct Boston's Big Dig. But I want to focus on something "simpler"—and far more important—THE ONE TOOL WHICH WILL MAKE OR BREAK YOUR CAREER.

    Namely the ... To-Do List.

    I rarely "guarantee" ... but in this case I guarantee that the most important thing you'll do today is to spend some quality time (normally I hate that phrase) on Carefully & "Strategically" Constructing your To-Do List.

    Consider these Four Cardinal Principals: (1) Time is more important than money. (It is the only truly constrained resource.) (2) You = Your Calendar. (You are What You Spend Your Time On as much as ... you are what you eat.) (3) "To-Don'ts" are as important, or more important, than "To-Dos." (What's not on the list is perhaps more important than what is.) (4) Your To-Do List must never be more than 4 items long. (Okay, you can have an "errands list" that includes replenishing the stock of toilet paper and such—but the Big Yo Mamma To-Do List must ... MUST ... never run beyond four.)

    The To-Do List ... is who you are today! This morning (long ago, I'm still in India, 9.5 time zones from EDT) I woke up, as usual, "with a hundred things to do"—every damn one of them important. But also as usual I meditated for 10 minutes to calm my dream-induced frenzy (malaria pills), and then spent 15 quiet minutes on my list. Many of my "crucial" "priorities" are not in fact consistent with my dreams for the next six months. They must mercilessly be edited out of my day—now. Some stuff that's unavoidable is crap that I, like you, must do for "political reasons." (There's always a backside or two to kiss. Welcome to Life 101.) But figuring where I want to spend a crucial 3-hour block that's "open" from 7AM to 10AM is all-important. So, I made my choices and made my list. (Three items.) It sat and sits dead-center on my Windows desk-top. (Sometimes I ink it on my right hand—I'm left handed.)

    Of course my day did not go according to plan! For heaven's sake, whose does? But, still, I did zealously hold on to 2.5 of those crucial 3 hours for the project that matters to me most. And the bigger point is that the Process of early meditation-TD List construction subconsciously guided my day in the hours that followed.

    So you're welcome to "process map" until you're blue in the face, or whatever. Just don't screw up the To-Do List. It really is "all you have"!

    This can be found at

  • #2
    I think he's referring to more of a project list "what projects do I need to work on today ? "

    Only 4 Next actions completed in one whole work day wouldn't be very productiive


    • #3
      Definitely agree with you about the intensity push from TP .
      He does have a lot of good things to say either way .

      A while back he was making the statement "you are your projects list " somehow that's changed to to-do list now --but I think he's still referring to projects.

      Personally, I'd never look to someone like TP for productivity advice.


      • #4
        I like the blog

        I think TP is right in a sense and I think I will try to use his approach. I have 106 todos and I dont find it all that helpful to differentiate between projects and na's. If I pick out 4 or less of the most important items and make myself work on them I will be more productive than if I just try to have mind like water and see what happens.
        I think it is always a battle with self. For me, is all about doing what I'd rather not. Staying on task.


        • #5
          Cosmo, your observations about Peters' style seem astute and reasonable. I don't understand, however, what's wrong with someone who is tracking all of their open loops--a great many of them, in fact--sitting down at the beginning of their work day and asking themself, "What four things/projects do I really want to move on today?"



          • #6
            I would not disagree with Cosmo's assessment of TP or the value of DA's approach. I do think though that there is value in TP’s advice if you read between lines and ignore all of the angst in his blog. That value is in taking a few minutes to reconnect with your values, your intermediate and long term goals, and your priorities before deciding what the main tack of your day will be.

            I like most people, carry a large list of Next Actions, and for me there is value in a morning review, every morning, to select the two to four primary projects I want/need to work on that day. These 15-30 minutes in the morning allows me the opportunity to process my notes, update my Next Actions, and provide some focus what I want or need to accomplish today by selecting the critical few. At least for me, it is very difficult to evaluate or select those critical few on the fly.

            I see the value of DA’s philosophy in keeping a mind like water across the spectrum of my work. I also see the value of focus, what TP, Franklin Covey, and DA even talks about. As one of my Martial Arts instructors once explained to me learning these techniques and philosophies through Black Belt is just the beginning, the real learning and growth comes with personalization that makes it your art. It is the same with managing your time and your life, is it simply a series of moves, or have you made it your art.


            • #7
              TP or DA?? that´s the question...

              TP:s or DA:s way to get structure in your life??

              sounds like those two guys have a different audience... I mean, if I like DA:s or TP:s way to balance my life... does it really matters??

              Which "guide" I prefer to choose, it´s really up to me.. the only thing I care about is that I´m getting some balance and structure in my life.

              I want a system that can guide me trough a hectic life with a hectic work. I use DA:s system in a symbiose with LifeBalance ( and DateBook 5 (
              This is all I need to get a pretty smooth life. (I see these systems as my extra-memory, they wont me to forget any appointments, To-Do:s etc) True lifesavers...

              So my personal oppinion are, choose the system and the way that fits your life. Choose the system that you can trust and a system that works for you.

              One thing is clear... there are many roads to THE GOAL, the goal is to have a pretty organised life, harmony in your soul... (you know that feeling that comes when you know that you are in control over all your must-do:s, and all other stuff and you are in track..)

              My advice to all the GTD:s, llamas, TP:s and all other people that are trying to find a path throug life with a mix of DA and something else that fits just so well for some...

              hang on and don´t give up the hard and good job... And if you don´t get a mind like water... don´t give up... you have at least a lot of lists, projects, a lot of NA:s, in a safe system and you won´t forget to do those... and that´s a very good feeling..

              "Always aim for the stars... someday maybe you hit the sky..."


              • #8
                After experiencing the power of context-bound Action Lists, the "top priorty" To Do lists that Peters advocates just seems old-fashioned. Productivity gurus have been suggesting ABC and quandrant prioritization methods for years, and they don't work for what should be obvious reasons. If feeding your cat is never an A priority, then you'll never feed your cat. If feeding your cat is on an @Home action list, then you'll address it when you're at home, regardless of priority.

                Allen's method just make more sense to me, logistically and philosophically. I find I have much more energy to devote to a higher-priority project when I can clear my agenda of a less important but more actionable project.

                But I do like Peters' idea of having a To Don't list. I need to sit with that one for a while.


                • #9
                  Tom Peters and To do List

                  I read Cosmo's post about Tom Peters last blog and read that posting in its entirety. It was interesting, all the more because what TP talks about is Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires. Its a spa with all the treatments and luxury that the word spa invokes and Canyon Ranch certainly charges for it. But it does have a difference. The founder of Canyon Ranch Mel Zuckerman was a real estate developer and was overweight, burned out and had watched his father die of lung cancer. He went to what was then a "fat farm" left and then went to another one and stayed for six weeks. He called his wife to join him. He got healthy and his and his wife went back to Tucson and began Canyon Ranch.It was a risky venture. What he has said is that the luxury and the treatments bring you to Canyon Ranch but what they want to accomplish is a life style change though health, relaxation techniques etc. Their medical and health and healing section is amazing and full of talented people from doctors, physical therapists, psychologists, nutritionists etc etc. I know of several lives that they have changed through medical disagnosis that were missed other places. What Tom Peters said is he had been to Canyon ranch the year before and focused on diet and exercise, losing 40 lbs and altering his blood chemistry. This year, burned out he went back for a more self reflective reasons. Canyon Ranch does have all that neat stuff, African drumming, Yoga, Chi Gong, Meditation walks, etc. Breathing is a class that's offered everyday. A number of breathing techniques are shown in an hour class. Different instructors give it daily so you get different technigues. I use one to go to sleep and another to energize me during my 3pm slump. One of my favorites classes is Morning Stretch. After several mornings in a row of spending 45 stretching your whole body feels different. Its also an incredibly beatiful and quiet place to regroup and plan how you are going to "take it home". which is a big part of what they do. Further on in Tom Peters blog he says" As to my work, I'm re-energized, as I haven't been in a decade. I am wildly excited about getting back on the road, and beginning to put some much deeper meaning into what I do..."
                  I thought it was a really positive and thoughtful posting.

                  As to the To Do list of 4 things, when I do a weekly review I do pick a number of tasks, these are usually more time consuming complex drafting or thinking tasks related to a complicated project. I block out an appointment with myself between one and three hours to accomplish that task. At the end of the week those tasks are done or substantially moved forward in away that they would not have been if I hadn't blocked out the time. I think Tom Peter's thing about no more than 4 tasks is that he like David Allen is getting away from the 25 item priortized daily task list. He aims for up to four important things during a set time and the rest of the day does what he does. For GTD followers that's using our context based next actions. The wonderful thing about GTD is that it is flexible and allows for individual variations in what works. A number of people who post here, do the weekly review, have context based task next actions for their projects and still use a short to do list based on a review of their next actions.