A Brief History of the To-Do List

to-do-list
The to-do list is something I talked about in my webinar on productivity, specifically, I argued that to-do lists were evil from a productivity perspective. This is something New York Times science writer John Tierney and psychologist Roy F. Baumeister expand upon in “A brief history of the to-do list,” the third chapter of their book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

Our failure rate keeps climbing as the lists keep getting longer. At any one time, a person typically has at least 150 different tasks to be done, and fresh items never stop appearing on our screens. How do we decide what goes on the list and what to do next?

“The first step in self-control is to set a clear goal.”

The technical term researchers use for self-control is self-regulation, and the “regulation” part highlights the importance of a goal. Regulating means changing, but only a particular kind of intentional, meaningful changing. To regulate is to guide toward a specific goal or standard: the speed limit for cars on a highway, the maximum height for an office building. Self-control without goals and other standards would be nothing more than aimless change, like trying to diet without any idea of which foods are fattening.

The problem isn’t a lack of goals, however, it’s too many of them.

We make daily to-do lists that couldn’t be accomplished even if there were no interruptions during the day, which there always are. By the time the weekend arrives, there are more unfinished tasks than ever, but we keep deferring them and expecting to get through them with miraculous speed. That’s why, as productivity experts have found, an executive’s daily to-do list for Monday often contains more work than could be done the entire week.

Even the great Ben Franklin fell victim to having too many goals.

Franklin tried a divide-and-conquer approach. He drew up a list of virtues and wrote a brief goal for each one, like this one for Order: ‘Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.’ There were a dozen more virtues on his list— Temperance, Silence, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, and Humility— but he recognized his limits. “I judg’d it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once,” Franklin explained, “but to fix it on one of them at a time.” The result was what he called a “course,” and what today would be marketed as 13 Weeks to Total Virtue.

But the virtues were often in conflict with one another.

When, as a young journeyman printer, he tried to practice Order by drawing up a rigid daily work schedule, he kept getting interrupted by unexpected demands from his clients— and Industry required him to ignore the schedule and meet with them. If he practiced Frugality (“ Waste nothing”) by always mending his own clothes and preparing all his own meals, there’d be less time available for Industry at his job— or for side projects like flying a kite in a thunderstorm or editing the Declaration of Independence. If he promised to spend an evening with his friends but then fell behind his schedule for work, he’d have to make a choice that would violate his virtue of Resolution: “Perform without fail what you resolve.”

“The result of conflicting goals is unhappiness instead of action,” Tierney and Baumeister write, arguing the byproduct of this is that you worry more, get less done, and your physical health suffers.

The takeaway? Skip the to-do list and schedule your time. If you must have a to-do list, keep it short.

The Books That Influenced Jerome Kagan

Professor Emeritus of Psychology. Dr. Jerome Kagan wrote "The Temperamental Thread: How Genes, Culture, Time, and Luck Make Us Who We Are,"

Before Jerome Kagan was listed as the 22nd most eminent psychologist of the 20th century, just above Carl Jung, he was a professor of psychology at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

He was asked to be included in The Harvard Guide to Influential Books: 113 Distinguished Harvard Professors Discuss the Books That Have Helped to Shape Their Thinking, and now we know which books influenced him and why. His list is one of the longest and most comprehensive in the entire book.

In the preface to the list, he writes, “these books should generate a tolerance for others and appreciation of the power of historical contexts to create our deepest assumptions about human nature.”

History, Man, and Reason: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Thought by Maurice H. Mandelbaum

Mandelbaum’s analysis of the relation between the European conception of human nature and historical events in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries helped me to understand why American intellectuals, and especially twentieth-century social scientists, were so strongly committed, until recently, to a belief in the power of the environment and the malleability of human characteristics, as well as resistant to all sentimental arguments that did not rest firmly on reason. The basis for our idealistic view of perfectible children, sculpted by education in home and school to make rationally based moral decisions in times of conflict, becomes an almost inevitable outcome of the blend of egalitarianism, evolutionism, and material science that has dominated thought since the eighteenth century.

After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory by Alasdair C. Maclntyre

After Virtue extends Mandelbaum’s conclusions to the domain of ethics by arguing that historical conditions determine many of the moral premises of a society. Maclntyre points out, for example, that our acceptance of the naturalness of individual rights is not a universal, for there is no word or phrase in ancient or medieval languages that refers to an individual’s right to a particular resource. This assumption is not made until the close of the Middle Ages. I learned from Maclntyre that a society’s views of right and wrong are fragmented survivals of a series of economic and political events that lead the community to treat social facts as moral imperatives. Thus, the role of history is a common theme that unites the books by Maclntyre and Mandelbaum.

The Eternal Smile by Par Lagerqvist

A single sentence in this story by a Swedish novelist captures the idea that Maclntyre was trying to develop. After an interminably long search, a large group of dead people find God and the leader steps forward and asks him what purpose he had in creating human beings. God replies, “I only intended that you need never be content with nothing.” After reading that line I saw the meaning of the tree-of-knowledge allegory in Genesis. Human beings are prepared by their nature to believe that there are right and wrong acts, but history and the nature of the society in which persons live will determine more exactly those categories of intention and action that will be treated as moral or immoral.

The Growth of Biological Thought by Ernst E. Mayr

Mayr’s history of biological thought over the past few centuries helped me see more clearly the relation between categories in biology and those in psychological development. Mayr notes that biology, unlike physics, deals more often with qualitative categories, rather than continua. Thus, biology is a unique science that is not easily reduced to physical concepts. Mayr understands that in biology the most useful categories are those that have been inductively derived from phenomena, rather than posited a priori. I believe that modern psychology is in a phase of development in which it can benefit from the inductive strategy that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century biologists used with such profit. Such a frame is present in Darwin’s great insight that evolution should not be viewed as a series of variations on a set of ideal types, but rather as a series of transformations on ancestors.

Never in Anger Jean L. Brigg

The central message in this ethnography of the Eskimo of Hudson Bay is that despite the fact that this culture is characterized by a continual suppression of anger and aggression, none of the systems that are typically associated with denial of anger in Western society occurs among the Eskimo. Thus, this culture provides a refutation of the Freudian hypothesis that repression of anger must lead to symptomatology. The obvious implication is that the validity of the psychoanalytic hypothesis is restricted to certain cultures. It follows, then, that there are no universal outcomes of either the suppression or expression of anger, independent of the social context.

The Neural Crest by Nicole LeDouarain

This monograph by a distinguished neuroembryologist describes the growth and transformation of the cells that begin as a small necklace around the embryo’s spinal column and migrate to their final homes in the central nervous system of the newborn. The main point is that although all the cells are alike originally, they become transformed over their journey into structures that cannot be changed. The different transformations each type of cell undergoes is a function, in part, of the cells that are encountered on the way. This story of the migration of the neural crest cells furnishes a useful metaphor for the psychological growth of a human being, who is also transformed through the contacts he or she has in the life journey.

Summing up, before continuing with one final recommendation, he writes:

A salient theme in the six books noted above is that absolutes are hard to find in nature; most laws are constrained by particular contexts. But there must be a small number of universal relations that trace their way back to biology. The final book supplies one of these mechanisms.

And last,

Sensory Inhibition by Georg Von Bekesy

This book, which I read as a young psychologist, is the one exception to the relativism contained in the first six volumes. One basic biological mechanism is that brain and mind are constructed to maximize contrasts and to improve the signal-to- noise ratio. The mind rebels against the ambiguity and relativity in nature and tries to create simple, prototypical conceptions. If one idea is a little more salient than another, the mind tends to exaggerate the former and minimize the latter. Hence, there is a biological basis for our attraction to stereotype and to single ideas that mute the gradations that are inherent in nature. As a result, we are seduced into believing in absolutes, when nature contains only families of relations among events.

Follow your curiosity, for more in this series check out the books that influenced E. O. Wilson, B. F. Skinner, Thomas C. Shelling, and Michael J. Sandel.

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Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide

“So we must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed towards attaining it.” —Epicurus

***

Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide is worth reading. Frederic Lenoir explores what the greatest thinkers — Aristotle, Plato, Chuang Tzu, Voltaire, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Kant, and Freud — have to add to the ongoing conversation on happiness.

The question of happiness is forever being discussed: eventually it gets worn down and loses its edge. But although it’s become so common- place, and seems so simple, it’s still an enthralling question, one that involves a whole skein of factors not easy to untangle. … [T]he pursuit of happiness isn’t a pointless quest. We really can be happier if we think about our lives, if we work on ourselves, if we learn to make more sensible decisions, or indeed if we alter our thoughts, our beliefs, or the way we imagine ourselves and the world.

***
On why there is no recipe for happiness:

Another difficulty arises from the notably relative character of happiness: it varies with each culture and each individual, and, in every person, from one phase of life to the next. It often takes on the guise of things we don’t have: for someone who is ill, happiness lies in health; for someone who is unemployed, it’s in work; for some single people, it lies in being a couple—and, for some married people, in being single again! These disparities are heightened by a subjective dimension: artists are happy when practicing their art, intellectuals when handling concepts, romantics when they are in love.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, shed considerable light on this point when he noted in Civilization and Its Discontents:

In this, [the individual’s] psychical constitution will play a decisive part, irrespectively of the external circumstances. The man who is pre-dominantly erotic will give first preference to his emotional relationships with other people; the narcissistic man, who inclines to be more self-sufficient, will seek his main satisfactions in his internal mental processes; the man of action will never give up on the external world on which he can try out his strength.

***
The origins of the word

In Greek, the word for happiness, eudaimonia, can be taken to mean “having a good daimon.” These days, we would say “having a guardian angel,” or “being born under a lucky star.” In French, bonheur comes from the Latin bonum augurium: “good omen” or “good fortune.” In English, happiness comes from the Icelandic root happ, “luck” or “chance,” and there is indeed a large element of “luck” in being happy, if only because happiness is, as we shall see, to a large degree based on our sensibility, on our biological inheritance, on the family and social environment in which we were born and grew up, on the surroundings in which we develop and on the encounters that mark our lives.

***
The philosophical journey and the path to wisdom

We are conditioned but not determined by various factors to be more or less happy. So, by using our reason and will, for example, we have the ability to increase our capacity for happiness (though the success of our quest is not thereby guaranteed). Because they shared this conviction, many philosophers have written books purportedly on “ethics,” devoted to what will encourage us to lead the best and happiest lives imaginable. And isn’t this philosophy’s main rationale? Epicurus, a sage from Athens who lived shortly after Aristotle, points out that “in the study of philosophy, pleasure accompanies growing knowledge; for pleasure does not follow learning; rather, learning and pleasure advance side by side.” This quest for a “good” or “happy” life is called wisdom.

[…]

So it is a philosophical journey, in this broader sense, that I would like to propose to the reader. There is nothing linear about the route, which won’t be following the chronological order of the authors’ lives or the emergence of concepts: this would be conventional and boring. It is, instead, a ramble, the most exciting imaginable, with many questions and concrete examples on the way.

***
The intellectual distrust of happiness

The essayist Pascal Bruckner offers another view: “I love life too much to wish to be permanently happy.” Indeed, there is a movement against the pursuit of happiness, which I’ve discussed before. Lenoir, however, adds to this conversation and speaks to a reason for the intellectual mistrust in happiness: vulnerability.

I think that there is another reason why certain academics and intellectuals mistrust this theme and are reluctant to tackle it—a reason that they find difficult to admit to: to discuss it properly, we have to expose ourselves on a personal level. We can discourse ad nauseam about language, hermeneutics, the theory of knowledge, epistemology or the organization of political systems without this necessarily involving us intimately. Things are completely different when it comes to the question of happiness, a question that, as we shall see, affects our emotions, our feelings, our desires, our beliefs and the meaning we give to our lives. It’s impossible to give a lecture or a talk on this subject without a member of the audience asking, “What about you? What’s the meaning of your life? What system of ethics do you follow? Are you happy? Why?” A lot of people find these questions embarrassing.

In the end, happiness is a philosophical pursuit. Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide is a great place to start your inquiry.

Louis Gerstner: An Elementary Management Lesson

IBM CEO Louis Gerstner

Louis V. Gerstner Jr. is a pretty shrewd psychologist.

In this excerpt from Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?, which details how he turned around IBM, Gerstner echoes Warren Buffett.

I’ve had a lot of experience turning around troubled companies, and one of the first things I learned was that whatever hard or painful things you have to do, do them quickly and make sure everyone knows what you are doing and why. Whether dwelling on a problem, hiding a problem, or dribbling out partial solutions to a problem while you wait for a high tide to raise your boat— dithering and delay almost always compound a negative situation. I believe in getting the problem behind me quickly and moving on.

This is a short post but one that I feel is worthy of reflecting upon. There is a lot to unpack in there.

The Last Thing We Need Right Now is a Vision Statement

elephants

In this excerpt from Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?, Louis V. Gerstner Jr. says something I wish tech companies would heed.

I said something at the press conference that turned out to be the most quotable statement I ever made:

“What I’d like to do now is put these announcements in some sort of perspective for you. There’s been a lot of speculation as to when I’m going to deliver a vision of IBM, and what I’d like to say to all of you is that the last thing IBM needs right now is a vision.” You could almost hear the reporters blink.

I went on: “What IBM needs right now is a series of very tough-minded, market-driven, highly effective strategies for each of its businesses— strategies that deliver performance in the marketplace and shareholder value. And that’s what we’re working on.

“Now, the number-one priority is to restore the company to profitability. I mean, if you’re going to have a vision for a company, the first frame of that vision better be that you’re making money and that the company has got its economics correct.

“And so we are committed to make this company profitable, and that’s what today’s actions are about.

“The second priority for the company,” I said, “is to win the battle in the customers’ premises. And we’re going to do a lot of things in that regard, and again, they’re not visions— they’re people making things happen to serve customers.”

I said we didn’t need a vision right now because I had discovered in my first ninety days on the job that IBM had file drawers full of vision statements. We had never missed predicting correctly a major technological trend in the industry. In fact, we were still inventing most of the technology that created those changes.

However, what was also clear was that IBM was paralyzed, unable to act on any predictions, and there were no easy solutions to its problems. The IBM organization, so full of brilliant, insightful people, would have loved to receive a bold recipe for success—the more sophisticated, the more complicated the recipe, the better everyone would have liked it.

It wasn’t going to work that way. The real issue was going out and making things happen every day in the marketplace.

Fixing IBM was all about execution. We had to stop looking for people to blame, stop tweaking the internal structure and systems. I wanted no excuses. I wanted no long-term projects that people could wait for that would somehow produce a magic turnaround. I wanted— IBM needed— an enormous sense of urgency.

The Mortality Paradox

conversations with DFW

David Foster Wallace, in an interview with Larry McCaffery, found in Conversations with David Foster Wallace, comments on our dread of both relationships and loneliness.

It’s always tempting to sit back and make finger-steeples and invent impressive-sounding theoretical justifications for what one does, but in my case most of it’d be horseshit. As time passes I get less and less nuts about anything I’ve published, and it gets harder to know for sure when its antagonistic elements are in there because they serve a useful purpose and when they’re just covert manifestations of this “look-at-me-please-love-me-I-hate-you” syndrome I still sometimes catch myself falling into. Anyway, but what I think I meant by “antagonize” or “aggravate” has to do with the stuff in the TV essay about the younger writer trying to struggle against the cultural hegemony of TV. One thing TV does is help us deny that we’re lonely. With televised images, we can have the facsimile of a relationship without the work of a real relationship. It’s an anesthesia of form. The interesting thing is why we’re so desperate for this anesthetic against loneliness.

You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness, both of which are like sub-dreads of our dread of being trapped inside a self (a psychic self, not just a physical self), has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me. I’m not sure I could give you a steeple-fingered theoretical justification, but I strongly suspect a big part of real art-fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.

***

This reminds me of a passage by Stephen Cave, in his book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization, where he describes the Mortality Paradox:

Our awareness of ourselves, of the future and of alternative possibilities enables us to adapt and make sophisticated plans. But it also gives us a perspective on ourselves that is at the same time terrifying and baffling. On the one hand, our powerful intellects come inexorably to the conclusion that we, like all other living things around us, must one day die. Yet on the other, the one thing that these minds cannot imagine is that very state of nonexistence; it is literally inconceivable. Death therefore presents itself as both inevitable and impossible.

[….]

Both halves of this paradox arise from the same set of impressive cognitive faculties. Since the advent some two and a half million years ago of the genus Homo, the immediate ancestors of modern humans, our brain size has tripled. This has come with a series of crucial conceptual innovations: First, we are aware of ourselves as distinct individuals, a trait limited only to a handful of large-brained species and considered to be essential for sophisticated social interaction. Second, we have an intricate idea of the future, allowing us to premeditate and vary our plans — also an ability unseen in the vast majority of other species. … And third, we can imagine different scenarios, playing with possibilities and generalizing from what we have seen, enabling us to learn, reason and extrapolate.

The survival benefits of these faculties are obvious: from mammoth traps to supermarket supply chains, we can plan, coordinate and cooperate to ensure our needs are met. But these powers come at a cost. If you have an idea of yourself and of the future and can extrapolate and generalize from what you see around you, then if you see your comrade killed by a lion, you realize that you too could be killed by a lion. This is useful if it causes you to sharpen your spear in readiness, but it also brings anxiety— it summons the future possibility of death in the present. The next day you might see a different comrade killed by a snake, another by disease and yet another by fire. You see that there are countless ways in which you could be killed, and they could strike at any time: prepare as you will, death’s onslaught is relentless.

And so we realize, as we see the other living things around us fall one by one, that no one is spared. We recognize that death is the real enemy; with our powerful minds we can stave him off for a while with sharp spears or strong gates, full larders and hospitals, but at the same time, we see that it is all ultimately fruitless, that one day we not only can but surely will die. This is what the twentieth-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger famously described as “being-toward-death,” which he considered to define the human condition.

Conversations with David Foster Wallace and Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization offer glimpses into how we use stories to both hide and unearth reality.