Master Your To-Do List, With the Flip of a Coin

Photo: Coin Toss, by Daniel Dale (Flickr) Photo: Coin Toss, by Daniel Dale (Flickr)

O f late, I’ve been letting my mind run free and imagining a wealth of possible directions for my professional life: starting a new venture; going to work for someone else; consulting; writing; some combination of all of the above… and while there are many options I am happy to strike off the list more or less immediately, it is still a very (very) long list.

On a more mundane level, I have a similar challenge when it comes to prioritizing a day’s tasks. While I’m a diligent user of productivity tools like to-do lists and David Allen’s venerable Getting Things Done, I still find there’s room for improvement when it comes to aligning my to-do list with the fact that priorities shift – and my perception of the relative urgency of tasks varies from day to day.

I know some people who advocate ditching the to-do list altogether. That doesn’t work for me, but I have been experimenting with an alternate approach. Bear with me, because it might seem a little kooky (or possibly downright insane) to some of you.

I’ll lead with the crazy part: It involves flipping a coin.

Yes, yes, your (and my) inner critic is already having a field day with this. What’s that you say? (cries the somehow terribly upper-crust-Brit-sounding critic) You are letting a coin toss determine matters of life and death? Matters of massive import to your livelihood?

Well, uh, no. I mean, a) my career choices are not a matter of life and death, and b) I have free will, and can therefore decide to ignore the coin toss if need be. But I’m getting way ahead of myself.

Here’s how this technique works – and it comes directly from Kate Sutherland‘s wonderful book, Make Light Work: 10 Tools for Inner Knowing, so if you like it, I recommend picking up a copy of your own. I’ve adapted it for my own digital preferences. (Kate uses index cards.) Do whatever works best for you.

  1. First, ground & centre yourself – whatever that looks like for you. I like Karen Maezen Miller’s incredibly simple approach. (Sidebar: I recommend her book, Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood, to anyone experiencing – or about to experience – parenthood.)
  2. Set an intention for the exercise you are about to do. I like to include something about it “serving the highest for all” to get me out of my self-centered default frame of mind. For a daily task list, I might set an intention like, “To engage in today’s work with high energy, efficiency, and in a way that aligns with my purpose and serves the highest for all.” (Yes, yes, “setting an intention” sounds terribly West Coast New Age-y. Shut your trap, inner critic – it’s still an important step. You can call it something else if you like. “Clarify your purpose?” “Decide what you’re here to do?” You get the idea.)
  3. Open up a blank document (paper is fine; so is Google Docs or Notepad or whatever works for you) and make a numbered list of everything you might possibly want to do today. Don’t censor yourself – if something comes up that you might not normally include (“leave work early,” “take a nap,” “go look at some art,” etc.), include it and keep moving. Your work here is to develop a complete list of possibilities and let your intuitive mind take the reins. Feel free to refer to an existing to-do list; that’s perfectly fine. Just don’t dwell on it to the exclusion of letting other possibilities percolate.
  4. Once you come to the end of your list – when it feels like you have cleansed yourself of the obvious possibilities – stop. Ask yourself what else might belong on the list. Write down any other possibilities that are slower to raise their hands.
  5. When you come to the end of your list, add one more item: “Other.” (I sometimes include “Other” more than once, e.g. if I have written several variations on a theme, such as “write blog post on X,” “write blog post on Y,” I will add “write blog post on another topic.”)
  6. Number all of the options you’ve written down. (Here’s where I like using Google Docs or another word processing app so I can just throw everything into a numbered list.)
  7. Grab a list of numbers that matches the number of items in your list, and plug it into the Random.org List Randomizer. (This is my digital equivalent to shuffling a pile of numbered cards, which is what Kate suggests. Feel free to use whatever tool feels right to you.) I like to copy the resulting, randomized list and paste it into a fresh text file, so that I can add a “Y” or “N’ next to each number as I do the next step. You can use paper for this, or whatever you like. The important thing is not to refer back to your original brainstorm list at this point. Just let it sit in the background while you focus on the numbers themselves, without the attached words/meaning.
  8. Now, start at the top of the list, and frame a statement in your head (not a question, but a statement), such as: “Number X is a priority for today,” or “Number X is something I can make progress on, easily and effectively, in the next 48 hours.” I recommend including a specific time frame.
  9. Here comes the coin toss! Ready? Grab a coin of any denomination. (I like quarters, because they’re a nice weight & size.) Decide which side will represent a “yes” and which side is “no.” (I, being a terribly traditional and boring sort, stick to heads for yes, tails for no.) Beginning with your first list item, frame your statement, and toss the coin. (You could use Random.org here as well, if you like. I prefer to do this physically, though.)
  10. Record the yes/no result, and move on to the next item, and on through the rest of the list.
  11. As Kate says, “Act on what you get.” In other words, get to work on your yeses, and leave the no pile for another day.

That’s it. I have found this exceptionally helpful. I know that may sound batty, but honestly, whenever I do this exercise, my days are more productive and I spend way, way more time in flow. Whether it’s the sheer fact of consciously setting aside the things I’m not going to do, or some other element of the practice, I have consistently amazing results. I make more connections with people I’m trying to reach; I get more done than I think I possibly can; and I feel great doing it all because I have a sense of purpose and alignment as I go about my day.

Caveats:

Short version: This isn’t a magic trick. It’s just a very useful tool for aligning your outer work with your inner guidance. So, that means…

If you have a hundred items on your list, you will likely only narrow the list down to about 50 items. That’s just the laws of physics talking. And you probably can’t do 50 things today, unless your list consists of very small tasks, or you are superhuman. So be realistic about the length of your list. (Kate recommends that in this case, you decide on a number of tasks to focus on, and draw that number of cards from the pile. A digital version of this might be to select the first X numbers from the List Randomizer results, though I haven’t experimented with that.)

That said, I have found that I am often able to get more done than I might otherwise after doing this exercise. I have also become more diligent about doing one small piece of a project and moving on to the next, rather than obsessively polishing each thing before setting it aside. This post is a case in point: I’ve got several other posts to write today, so I’m burning through this quickly with an eye to getting through the rest of my list.

Of course, this is also not going to magically trump other people’s priorities. So if you have a client or a boss breathing down your neck, you may not have the freedom to work with this exercise. Same goes for a schedule jam-packed with commitments.

I find I use this most often when I’ve got a more open schedule and I’m stuck trying to decide what to do first, or how to organize my time effectively.

Also, and most importantly: If this doesn’t work for you, that’s OK. But I do recommend trying it, even if it sets off your woo-woo alarm a bit. If you decide to give it a shot, do remember step #10 – it will only work if you follow through on the results. Otherwise, you’re muddying your data set & you won’t be able to evaluate your success (or failure). And you can always test it out with some low-risk planning, like what to do with your first day of vacation, or how to spend the next two hours when a meeting gets bumped off your schedule.

Well, there it is, folks: Super-simple decision-making, brought to you by the quarter in your pocket. Let me know how it works (or doesn’t) for you – and feel free to share your hypothesis about why this works (or doesn’t) in the comments.

5 Responses to “Master Your To-Do List, With the Flip of a Coin” Subscribe

  1. Luke 27 Sep 2012 at 4:32 pm #

    I like the concept of a “Could-do” list. I can put lots of things on the list and i have explicitly given myself permission to not NEED to do them. Then I can pick away at the ones that are interesting – if i feel like it.

    • Lauren 27 Sep 2012 at 7:32 pm #

      I love that idea! Thanks, Luke.

  2. Randi Buckley 28 Sep 2012 at 6:03 pm #

    When I need to make a decision and I’m in paralysis analysis, I flip a coin. The moment it’s in the air, I know what I want.

    Cool post, Lauren!

  3. abi 1 Oct 2012 at 10:22 pm #

    I love the idea of this, but it gives me massive anxiety just thinking about it. I can barely get the list written before I start freaking out about how I’m not getting anything done…
    There might be something wrong with me.

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