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The three-list system

Predictable as life can be for me, I still manage to surprise myself at times.

A couple of days last week brought one of those surprises.

I didn’t imagine myself capable of engineering a gut-wrenching experience out of mostly mundane, predictable and manageable tasks.

But I did.

I had not felt that bad in years. Nauseated to the ground.

I had not felt that bad since writing my doctoral dissertation. Those days, I’d wake up sick to my stomach because I was doing something I didn’t want to do. I’d put in 10-14 hours of work sick to my stomach making steady progress on something I didn’t want to do. Then I’d go to bed sick to my stomach because I knew I would be doing the same thing the next day, and the day after, and the day after, with no end in sight.

I was served up some harsh lessons in those days, although I never doubted – not for one instant – that I would get it done. I felt like a god. I felt like I could walk through walls because that was exactly what I was doing. I just wanted to hurl every single moment of it.

What made a huge difference this time was experience, which I had distilled into mental and physical practice.

You don’t need any solid reasons to feel at rock bottom. Most people who are depressed or just having a bad day don’t. So I won’t bore you with the details of why I was in hurling mode again. They would make even less sense to you than they do to me.

The fact is that over a couple of days I felt like I was stomping on my own stomach.

Over the years, one principle has always served me well in such situations: running towards.

When you approach mental distress from the position of a victim, you become a victim of your own feeding the monster.

You don’t feel well so you take a day off work and roll up in bed. The day’s been lost and there’s no guarantee the cycle won’t repeat the next day. It usually does. And you get fat and medicated.

So I’ve primed myself to do the exact opposite – move quickly into a task or situation that would INCREASE the distress. And it works every single time I actually do it.

There are two reasons why this is so effective.

First, Mind is made of movement and for movement. That’s the Mind’s native habitat, and where it’s most likely to feel well. So, movement into action is movement towards a healthy mental dynamic.

Movement is primal healing for the Mind, in a hunter-gatherer sort of way.

Second, mental distress often has unconscious sources that we have little direct control or knowledge of.

Freud found a surefire method to zoom into such mental blocks.

In psychoanalysis, mental resistance (experienced as dithering, denial and distress) is a sign that you’re moving towards a breakthrough. The greater the resistance, the closer you are to identifying the obstacle. You overcome it by moving into the resistance.

Obviously, no-one has the time to spend hours daily on the psychoanalyst’s couch. Instead of analysis, I simply do things that amplify the mental distress. That way I know I’m moving in the right direction. Until release.

This works regardless of results in the tasks I’m doing. All that’s required is that I run straight into the unpleasantness. It makes little difference if the outcomes are unsatisfactory. The mental dynamic improves anyway.

I’ve been through this cycle enough times to have learnt my lesson.

When something is bothersome or daunting, I’m reminded to run towards it as fast as possible, with a laugh and a smile.

This is my definition of GRIT.

And I have built a simple support system to make jumping into action easy. This system can help you keep focused and prioritized in a life where the typical day is loaded with uncertainty and multitasking.

It’s taken many years to optimize it to the best balance of simplicity and effectiveness.

It’s not fancy, it just works.

My system consists of three lists, each on a separate piece of paper.

The lists are made on paper because anything electronic is a distraction by definition. Why would you put your one method for enforcing focus and persistence on a distraction machine?

Paper also gives the lists a physical presence. A heft of sorts. They are literally there, in the room with you – not some intangible entities residing in the electronic ether.

Crossing items off the page makes the act of completion physical and tangible, even if it was just a phone call. It feels good. It feels decisive. It feels effective to a degree, even if you didn’t get the best outcome.

I always use a pen to keep the lists. Pencils invite corrections and backtracking. Writing in ink has a finality to it. If you have to drop something off or modify it, the pen forces you take responsibility. It simply has more gravity.

The lists never leave my side and travel with me everywhere ago. When a sheet is close to filled out, I simply transfer any unfinished business to a fresh one.

Longer-term goals and ideas go on the creative list. Think of it as metaphysical. It’s where the “what if” stuff goes.

Mine usually contains potential client work, business ideas or technologies to research, people to find a way to connect with, books to read (i.e., browse). Things that could add long-term benefits, but haven’t translated into concrete plans.

The creative list could work just as well for a car mechanic as it does for me.

You heard of a new tool that could make your work easier, but you need to research it or try it out in the hardware store? – Put it on the list.

Should you buy more appealing signage for the shop? – On the list.

Developing a checklist to improve safety at the shop? – Write it in.

The creative list has two very powerful functions: to reduce distractions and to improve procrastination.

Big ideas can easily distract us from daily tasks, which are more important. Your business plan doesn’t matter if you can’t pay the rent at the end of the month.

That’s where the creative list comes in. If there are urgent things to do, but I’m distracted with some idea that can’t be executed right away, I put it on the list. The physical act facilitates mental release. Works like magic.

That allows intuitive processing to work in the unconscious background while I remain focused on pragmatic everyday tasks. It doesn’t just save time – it’s actually better because it mobilizes the massive mental capacity that isn’t conscious. When I get back to the list days later, I usually know whether the idea is worthwhile right away, no “thinking” required. Things get prioritized or crossed out worthless distractions automatically.

Touching the creative long-term strategy list also prompts me to check back with my other lists, where the tangible work is. Which makes it easier to reset to what actually needs to be done.

I get back to the ideas on the creative list when there’s little urgent stuff to do. Or when I need time to replenish my mental energy. I fiddle with the creative ideas, flesh them out or reject them when my mind isn’t racing and I don’t have 20 other things to get done for yesterday.

Such slow time is when it’s much easier to ruminate and expand on an idea that needs fleshing out. Even if nothing useful comes of it, you didn’t waste any of your high-energy high-productivity time. And you get a change of pace for a bit.

The creative list is usually somewhere off to the side or in a drawer. I may not look at it for days. If things are moving really fast, I make sure to review it at least once a week to 10 days. That way things that have matured can move to the execution list in good time.

The pun is totally intended. What goes on the execution list must get done one way or another – there’s no going back. It’s all concrete tasks with concrete outputs that serve concrete objectives.

Usually, items on the execution list fall within a 3-day range, perhaps a week. Time-sensitive stuff by definition goes on this list. The execution list is about top priorities that confer immediate benefits or essential assets for long-term growth.

This is not where you put trivial distraction like answering basic emails. Do that in the moment or not at all. Littering the execution list with trivialities is not the way to be effective. Serious business only.

At the time of writing, my execution list contains a reminder to publish an update for Patreon supporters over the weekend, a business project to write up and a financial report to revise.

Some of that will take minutes to do. Other things can keep on going for a week or more once I get to them. But each and every one must and will get DONE.

The dump list is the most important list because the dump list is the get-over-the-slump list.

Chores that aren’t urgent, pet projects of questionable value, periodic calls to keep relationships fresh and the like go here. The list is designed so that no item on it is life-changing but generally needs to get done at some point. Like cleaning the basement or selling an old air-conditioner.

It’s the list itself that’s more important than any task on it. Because I use it to climb out of sudden ruts in the matter of minutes.

When things aren’t going well for whatever reason, the list is the rope you use to climb out of the energy sinkhole.

Because the items on it are minor and unimportant, you don’t have to be anxious about doing any one of them. You can get some easy wins, and quickly. Which unblocks more energy.

Moving to do these things is energizing in its own right. And if you mess something up because you’re mentally unsettled, the consequences don’t matter. This makes it easy to grab anything from the list and get to doing it when you’re too unsettled for anything serious from the execution list. If you’re stuck, you get unstuck by seizing the dump list and MOVING.

Sometimes I make a fourth sheet with tasks to be completed within the day. They usually are transferred from the dump list and the execution list as soon as I’m out of bed.

This trick adds effectiveness on days when I have a larger number of tasks to finish – dozen or more – beyond my daily routines. This allows me to set aside the other lists and focus on what’s at hand.

The first task on that daily cheat sheet is always to do my affirmations. This is more of a mental trigger than anything else. When compelled to make a daily cheat sheet, I’m automatically reminded to do affirmations first. Affirmations help me keep my eyes on the infinite game even when I’m working on simple chores.

If you need to pump breast milk for your baby, it should go on the cheat sheet automatically. If you have infants in the house, the cheat sheet should probably be a daily practice. You already know why. And it’s OK to make it electronic so you can synchronize more easily with others. But allow this exception only for the cheat sheet.

The cheat sheet is not recommended for days on which you wake up on the wrong side of the bed. On bad days, making another task list is just delaying the medicine – moving into painful action. When things get shaky, I always resort directly to the dump list. Because this is the way to avoid any delay and overthinking.

Give the system a shot and let me know how it worked for you.

If you have questions or comments, hit email me right now. I read every message you send.

Become a supporter at startupdaemon or startupdaemon, and follow me on Twitter for even more powerful content.

Rise a god,


Your Daemon


Keys to Power:

  • Put long-term visionary goals, strategic ideas and research projects onto a separate list and keep it out of sight most of the time. That way they don’t become distractions from daily EXECUTION or result in analysis paralysis.
  • Put your everyday CORE priorities and time-sensitive items on an execution list, which should be where you start and end your workday. Aim to keep on this list only items that can be finished within a single day; break complex tasks into smaller simpler components before you put them on the execution list.
  • Put chores and tasks that can be deferred onto a dump list, where they won’t distract your execution priorities and time-sensitive tasks. Use the list to get out of a slump or spells of procrastination by moving through some nonessential tasks to generate momentum and a sense of accomplishment.
  • If your three lists are getting long, move a few tasks which you can complete in 24 hours or less onto a cheat sheet at the start of your day to avoid feeling overwhelmed. This can include items from the execution list and the dump list. Make sure to discard the cheat sheet at the end of the day, so it does not become a distraction.

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