Show me your todo list, and I’ll tell you who you are

Posted by in Productivity

From the moment we wake up, we start doing things – some of which we must, and some of which we want. Brush our teeth. Have breakfast. Go to work, or stay at home. Pave a road, or draft a presentation. There’s a seemingly endless number of things to do – but where do they all come from?

Different perspectives make for different insights

According to author David Allen of Getting Things Done fame, most of us have in the range of a hundred to three hundred tasks vying for our attention at any given time. Provided he’s right (he is), that means all you would need to reveal how you spend your life… is a pen, a piece of paper and a little patience.

When someone writes down their entire inventory of tasks for the first time, they get a glimpse of how others see them, instead of how they imagine themselves. It’s at one time sobering, humbling and motivating: we are what we do, and only through changing what we do may we aspire to whom we want to be.

Unlike our self-perception, tasks don’t lie, which makes a complete inventory of them a treasure trove of insight which can be extracted through a carefully considered set of perspectives. In this post, we’ll explore the perspective of origins, which divides tasks into five of our major arenas in life to reveal how you live your life – as well as how others see you.


It’s a funny thing with families: they’ll sneak up on you like a team of Navy SEALs and lay down the hurt without any kind of advance warning. Even though you were part of one growing up, you’ll never realize just how much work is involved in maintaining a relationship or becoming a parent. Wonder and awe aside, there will come a time when porridge and diapers consume such an inordinate amount of your attention and focus, that you’ll find yourself debating the finer points of each. In public.


This is usually the category that generates the least amount of tasks, populated as it is by volunteers who choose to spend their time with you in reward for little else than the pleasure of your acquaintance. Anecdotal evidence also supports the theory that this is the first category to hit the chopping block when the ‘Family’ category is added.


Also known as the tasks-you-may-not-care-particularly-for category. Taxes. Forms. Fees. Applications. And taxes. Then again, giving back to society through volunteering is often considered to be particularly rewarding. Perhaps it’s merely different sides of one contributary coin, where one is voluntary and the other is not? For many, there’s also a spiritual or religious aspect to this category.


Straight from the mouth of Captain Obvious this one, but it’s a category nevertheless. Interestingly, this is the sole category for which most people attempt to keep a task list, either mentally or in the shape of a poorly organized e-mail inbox combined with post-its. It would seem that the very nature of work forces the issue of a task list, which is due both to the inherent complexity, demands and expectations of the workplace. Miss a few too many deadlines here, and the consequences could be dire.

Early on in life, they call this something else and don’t even pay you for your hard work. It’s a conspiracy, I tell you.


Whenever I start exploring the perspective of origins, whether it be with an individual or with a group, it inevitably takes a while before this category is suggested. I still wonder why that is, and though there seem to be several reasons I’ve begun leaning towards hurry as the main culprit. Few are those who deliberately schedule time to think and reflect; we’re in such a hurry to react to the ever-increasing pace of our surroundings that we unwittingly allow the balance between proactivity and reactivity to tip in favour of the latter.

“Men occasionally stumble over the truth but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.” -Winston Churchill

What the perspective of origins divines

Whether you already have a system for managing your tasks or not, there is only one way you will be able to gain insight from the perspective of origins – and that is with a complete inventory that covers at least these five categories. A complete inventory will let you discern the following:

  • How your attention is divided across categories
  • How systematically you work to improve within each category
  • How other people see you – not through your mindset, but through your actions

It’s a valuable lesson for anyone, as what can be gleaned from a truthful inventory of tasks will inevitably stand in contrast to the perception we have of ourselves.

Intriguingly, we willingly accepted what’s on our task list. If you’re inclined to disagree, consider this: could you not simply, in this moment, look up from the screen you are reading this on and decide to leave everything but yourself behind? Granted, it wouldn’t be comfortable – but you could do it if you really wanted to.

Of course, this realization means that every excuse we have for something being our task list that we don’t want to be there just went out the window. The good news? You probably also just realized that you have, in fact, complete and utter control of absolutely everything that is going on in your life.

How’s that for motivation?