The Tyranny of the Task List

The Tyranny of the Task List

This post is by Clint Watson,  former art gallery owner/director/salesperson and founder of FineArtViews. You should follow Clint on Twitter here or sign up for his newsletter here.







I recently surprised myself by realizing that I have an internal wariness of the to-do list.  

This revelation would probably shock anyone who knows how I work. In fact, I use tasks lists all the time.  Most days I start by listing the things I want to accomplish on a list.  And, during the day I proceed to check items off the list.

Task Lists are Efficient

Recently I took it further.  One day, I figured I had approximately seven focused hours to work.  I calculated, based upon my tasks, that I could complete roughly three tasks per hour.  So I listed the 21 (7 hours x 3 per hour)  items I wanted to accomplish that day.  I then took seven post-it notes and wrote three tasks on each note and assigned each note an hour of the day (note 1 was 8:00 am – 9:00 am, note 2 was 9:00 am – 10:00 am, note 3 was 10:00 am – 11:00 am, etc).  At 8:00 am I put the first sticky note on the side of my computer monitor and put all the other lists and notes out of sight so that I could be constantly reminded during the hour only of my three most important tasks.  I was later told that I had unwittingly “reinvented” something called scrum.

This method of working was extremely efficient and kept me “on task” all day long.  I completed all 21 tasks by 3:00 pm (which was fantastic since it was a Friday).  What a huge feeling of accomplishment!  We all get a little rush from checking things off a list [1].  So, I  was able to enjoy our standing Friday night “wine tasting” knowing I had completed “everything I had to do.”  Over the next few days, I utilized my “scrummy” method several more times, with equally efficient results.  

“Play” Allows Great Ideas to Surface

A few times during those scrummy days I had thoughts of new, intriguing ideas that I might like to explore pop into my head.  Software features.  Articles for this blog.  You name it.  But since I was on-task and unwilling to drop everything [2], I pushed those ideas to the back burner and stayed focused on completing all my tasks.  You know, “plan your work and work your plan”.  After a few days, I had “caught up” to the point that I decided to be a bit more relaxed and just “play.”  

During my “play day”, I banged out code like a mad-man.  The ideas flowed (fortunately).  I launched prototypes of many new ideas and features (including the editor that I’m using to write this article).  The thing with creative ideas is that you can’t always just “save them up” – ideas beget other, sometimes better, ideas.  I find that the best ideas I have usually happen when I’m working on other ideas or at least thinking about the ideas that I’m currently working on.  At the end of my “play day”, I had a list of undone tasks but, overall, I had accomplished so many more important things.  Looking at the “big scheme of things”,  I would have to admit I was more productive on the “play day” than on the “scrum day” if we’re defining productivity as doing great work that matters.

This is when I had my revelation about to-do lists.  

Task Lists are Constraining

To-do lists are constraints.  They are chains
.  Now, constraints are not always a bad thing.  Sometimes we need constraints to achieve positive results.  If you’ve got a plane to catch, it’s probably not the best time to start a new work of art and try to get into the “zone”. Constraints are needed.  But we need to remember that constraints are, well, constraining.  And that’s not a good thing in creative work.   

So I think we need to develop a healthy respect for the task list and the danger it can present.  I suggest approaching the task list the way the old government “food pyramid” approached sweets:  use sparingly.  Use them to keep you on task when you have to, but be willing to take the chains off when inspiration strikes so you can do some work that really matters.

What do you think?


Clint Watson
BoldBrush/FASO Founder and Art Fanatic


[1]  I believe “little rush from checking things off a list” can represent a form of addiction, which I plan to discuss in an upcoming post.

[2]  I also believe the ability to drop everything and pursue creative ideas is underrated.  People should do it more often.





Editor’s Note:

 When you’re ready to take a fresh approach to marketing your art, a professional and secure website can be your most valuable tool. And FASO is the easiest way to build (even for non-techies) and maintain a gorgeous website, we also include amazing marketing tools that automate many common marketing tasks for you. To sign up for a free, no obligation 30-day trial, click here.