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The Myth of Getting Things Done and Inbox Zero

Ever felt buried under the sheer overwhelm of work dropping into your lap like a hot potato? The notifications aren’t just for the latest cat video. Many are Slack message alerts whose dinging you’re pretty sure will one day give you an anxiety-driven heart attack.

In order to corral the deluge of demanding tasks, you start writing a to-do list.  If you’re serious and want a fancy and sophisticated system, you attempt David Allen’s Getting Things Done. First, you perform a brain dump of anything that passes between your ears. Next, you begin to tackle it, pretending that somewhere between Do, Delegate, Delay, and Deter, your sanity is right around the corner.

Mind Like Water or Mind Like Swamp?

If you just transfer everything out of your head to paper, you’ll have mind like water.  All will flow calmly into your inbox, ready for quick processing, right?  Not so fast, sensei.  By the time we clear our minds, we have 99 problems, and we haven’t yet figured out how to organize or prioritize them.  Even with everything bursting out of our heads onto page, that doesn’t mean they won’t show up again in our thoughts. Once that list grows into the monster you know it will, you might find that your mind turns more into a swamp, never really sure if something made the list, thus returning back to worry mode.

Additionally, every time you finish a task and cross it off your list, others seem to conspire to fill your life with further unanticipated work items. Perhaps if you just had the right system, with a few tweaks and hacks only the pros know about, you’d finish in no time flat. You’re just 80/20 percent of the way there, right?

Reality check – a good system will only get you so far – you also need the right mindset. Let’s examine the 3-Step Process below to get us thinking more holistically (not in an organic, crunchy mom way, I promise) about our to-do lists.

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Step 1: Make Peace With Your To-Do List

There’s a difference between finishing and being done with your to-do list.  By the time you do a one-fourth brain dump, you’ll discover it’s impossible for you to finish what’s there. You’ll also have to contend with real-time requests that enter your orbit abruptly.

With this reality in mind, make peace with your to-do list – it can never be finished. I say “Make peace” with this idea because, like a plate of unfinished food, an incomplete to-do list feels like a failure. You took initiative to organize and do better, and then didn’t make the cut (I suspect this is true for many of us. If it’s true for you, let us know in the comments below. If not, let us know how you cope with incomplete to-do lists).

This isn’t true at all. You’ll have goals, dreams, ambitions, bucket lists, honey-do lists, inboxes, outboxes, messages and then some crashing at you – get rid of the idea that you have to finish “everything” today, or that it’s even possible. There’s no end to adding tasks, so make peace with your to do list – it’s not disappearing any time soon.

Step 2: Prioritize Daily, Weekly, and Monthly Habits in Your To-Do List

Any time a friend asks me what the best workout plan or diet routine is for weight loss, I tell them that the #1 performance enhancing drug one can take is consistency. All successful programs targeted at a specific goal, in which large numbers of people have had positive results, all have the same characteristics. You’ll find calorie deficit and healthy eating, combined with a sustainable training plan. What remains is for you to grind day in and day out, allowing the process of change to gradually take place over time.

Any time a friend asks me what the best workout plan or diet routine is for weight loss, I tell them that the #1 performance enhancing drug one can take is consistency. Click To Tweet

The gym isn’t the only place this applies – it’s also how you’ll grow on the spiritual, intellectual, and relational side.  Your habits and routines will determine who you are and what you’re growing into daily. Don’t glut your day with a half dozen random to-dos. Instead, plot out the key habits and routines you’ll perform daily, as this is what will truly make for a strong, positive quality of life.

If we looked at this from the perspective of worship, you might have a wird you complete daily – du’as and adhkhar recited in the mornings and evenings as recommended by the Prophet

ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him)
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. You may also make a weekly habit of reading Surat al-Kahf each Friday.

Don’t let your to-do list push you this way and that. Make your own quality of life and that of others around you the priority. Do the boring, tedious slow growth / slow change items consistently. You’ll find yourself able to handle whatever life throws at you from that to-do list.

Let us know below which areas of life you’ve found the most success in, and which routines you’d recommend to help others.

Step 3: Focus on Your Top 2 Priorities In Your To-Do List

Finally, we get to the to-do list itself.  Look over the list and pick your top 1 or 2 priorities, and make sure to keep laser-focused on them.  If you complete them, feel free to stop and consider what you’ve done a job well done.  Go relax, read a book, spend time with family, or unwind with a halal entertainment activity of your choice.

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How do you choose which tasks should be your top priority?  Here’s how I break it down:

  • Priority #1 – Do or Die Tasks: This is the type of task that needs completion now – as in, within the next 24 – 48 hours, or dire consequences follow.  We’re talking project deadlines, final notice bill payments, etc.  They tend to be high risk / high pressure.
  • Priority #2 – Game Changers: This type of task doesn’t have immediate impact, but completing them now will have a significant impact later. You might be thinking “Habits”, but it can also include one-time items. For example, beginning work on a class project earlier, planning a family trip, or exploring investment opportunities.
  • Priority #3 – Procrastination Pain: These are items that hurt your heart and brain.  You know you have to get it done, but you absolutely detest it and keep procrastinating completion. Sometimes, the best thing to do is take this thing head-on and grit through it.  I find the best motivation is simply looking forward to being free from this awful feeling hanging over my head.

In saying focus on the Top 2 priorities, I’m not saying that you can’t complete other tasks – sometimes I like to batch similar tasks together (e.g. all tasks related to setting meetings) and plow through them in one go after the top 2 priorities.  If you have time, energy, and ambition, by all means, go for it.

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The point of picking the top 2 is to give you a sense of completion. If this gets done, along with most of your daily habits, consider this a successful day.  Remember, we’ve made peace with the idea that not everything gets done. What’s important is that you’ve intelligently chosen the best, highest quality, highest impact items, to complete. In addition, you’ve given yourself space to be productive as well recuperate.

This is what it means to be done with your to-do list, rather than to finish everything on it – you complete what’s most important, and then don’t go looking back at it – once you’ve done the most important items, you’re done with it for the day – the list itself never truly finishes.


To-do lists are impossible to finish. Total completion isn’t the goal.  The best use of your day is performing consistent habits with at least one or two top tasks.  If you want to do more after that and it won’t overburden you, go for it. Otherwise make yourself a nice cup of coffee or chai and chill, enjoying a job well-done.

What are your best tips for handling to-do lists? Let me know in the comments below.

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Source: Muslim Matters