3 Guesses Why Your To-Do List Is Insane

The Internet, internal motivation, and economics.

October 13, 2014

Somebody needs to declare a national moratorium on new items for our to-do lists. Everybody that I know has more tasks than time. More to-do items than mental bandwidth. Nobody is caught up.  

The must get done right now list keeps displacing the things I should be doing list.  

I’m wondering if we have some sort of academic emergency of rampaging to-do lists. As if through some strange conjunction of culture, economics, incentives, best intentions and fear that our to-do lists have taken over their creators. A tsunami of to-list items. A metastasis of tasks. An epidemic of deliverables, follow-throughs, and next-steps.  

How would we know if the intensity of work has ratcheted up from that of previous generations?

We all live in our own realities, and have almost zero capability to comprehend what the work world looks like through someone else’s eyes.  We assume that we are busier than those we know.  Or at least some of our colleagues have less on their plates. Knowing that we are the stars of our own career dramas doesn’t seem to temper our convictions that our work is somehow above average in intensity and demands.  

How did we get ourselves into this fix? Why has work grown to occupy every nook and cranny?  

I have some guesses, but maybe you can shed some light on our shared predicaments:

Guess 1 -  The Internet:

The internet has connected all of us to everything.  We are connected to all the information that could potentially improve our productivity and efficiency.  We are connected to all the people, both on our campuses and out in the world, who can help us achieve our core mission and objectives.  

I think that the size of our to do lists may be, in part, a function of the scope and density of our networks.  The more our networks expand the better we are at our jobs.  But networks, be they internal or external, need tending and nurturing. Our networks pull us into interesting and important projects.  Our networks bring us into important initiatives, task forces, and committees.  Research projects and speaking opportunities emerge from our networks.  Zero friction communication and collaboration means that communication and collaboration will endlessly expand.  Our to-do lists will grow in proportion to connections.

Guess 2 - Internal Motivation and Fulfillment:

Everyone I know in academe works all the time.  And everyone I know in academe loves their work.  A classic chicken-and-egg problem.  What came first?  

We all know how lucky we are to work in higher education.  What could be better than to work in a field dedicated to improving the life chances of those that we touch?  Committed to creating new knowledge?  

Nobody works hard than the internally motivated.  We believe in what we do and we believe in meeting our obligations, living up to our commitments, and holding up our end of the work.  In collaborative creative environments that is a recipe for both work satisfaction and work overwhelm.   We have nobody to blame but ourselves for the mass of work in front of us, but yet we can’t seem to make different choices.   

Guess 3 - Economics and Fear:

Every department I know runs lean.  Every division and every organization is working at full capacity.  There are no spare organizational cycles.  Demands outpace people and resources.  The dead-wood has been clear cut.  

Why this lack of any spare capacity?  Partly, I think, this is a rational organizational response to the economic realities of our time.  Resource scarcity is the new norm.  Costs have outstripped new revenue sources. Nobody wants to be in a position to downsize during the next big downturn.  Everyone works to cover the work of the missing people because the alternatives are far worse.  We are lucky to be employed.   We’ve seen sub-optimal career paths and employment setbacks for people we know to be diligent and dedicated.  We don’t want something like that to happen to us.

Is there a bright spot in all this gloom and doom?  Sure.  First, we love our work.  Second, some of us are making different choices.  Each day I hear about someone who has figured out how to leave work at work.  To not take e-mail and spreadsheets home for the weekend.  Highly productive professionals who are prioritizing balance over the never-ending to-do list.  

How do we find and celebrate these people?

How is your to-do list?


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