The Delicate Balance Between Want-To and Have-To

Organizing tasks is no small effort as anyone who has tried surely knows. While a simple list of tasks suffices for a few days (the good, old To Do list), such lists customarily outgrow their format; there’ll simply be too many items and the list once devised to make our life more structured and organized becomes the very evidence that it isn’t.

However, there is a remedy to this situation and that is to devise some form of system according to which our tasks can be organized. Some common dimensions considered in such undertakings are given in the following:

  • Urgency: Can the completion of this task wait or does it have to be done right now?
  • Importance: How important is the result of the completion of the task for us?
  • Risk: How big is the risk associated with doing the task?
  • Resources Required: How much time and other resources are required to fulfil the task?

After we would have categorized tasks according to these dimensions, we could pick the most important, most urgent, or less risky tasks – which can be very useful. However, the more dimensions we consider in the system, the more complex and potentially unmanageable this system becomes. Thus, it is very important to focus on the dimensions which help us achieve our goals in the best possible way.

I assume here that the underlying goal in trying to organize our tasks is twofold: firstly, to get more things done in less time, and, secondly, to be able to live a happier and less stressful life. I want to argue that, in regards to this goal, the single most important dimension to consider is that between ‘want-to’ and ‘have-to’.

Evidently, there is no other sensible reason for us to engage in an activity apart from us having to do it or us wanting to do it. Unfortunately, it is often not obvious into which of these categories a task belongs.

Take for example brushing teeth. You might truly hate brushing your teeth and consider it an utter waste of time. Thus, come morning, evening and after lunchtime (if it were up to your dentist), the task of brushing your teeth easily falls within the ‘have-to’ category. But ask yourself the question WHY do you have to brush your teeth. If you are a child, clearly because your parents tell you to. But what if you aren’t? Maybe you want to feature a fresh mouth odour, maybe you want to avoid a painful procedure at the dentist, or maybe you want to have beautiful, white and shiny teeth.

You can do this exercise with any other chore of your choice. Think about something you have to do long and hard enough and you will surely discover that you only have to do it because of something you want.

Therefore I suggest here as the ultimate measure to become the master of your tasks rather than be mastered by them to identify their ‘want-to’ distance.  For all things on your lists of tasks you dread doing, think about how they are related to what you want to do.

This doesn’t help you to find out which tasks are important and urgent – but chances are you intuitively know what is important and urgent anyway and thus there is little value in writing this down. However, determining the ‘want-to’ distance of your tasks accomplishes something of far more value: it implicitly but inescapably reveals there are no ‘have-to’s in your life.

With this insight, you can do what you need to do with purpose – the strongest force known to make our lives successful and fulfilled.

 

Why the Ideal Task is Necessary, Rewarding and Fun

When it comes to organizing our lives, structured and logical approaches are in no short supply. Divide large projects into small tasks. Prioritize what is more important over what is less so. Identify the critical path of tasks leading most surely to success. All these are activities of the conscious and deliberate mind.

Some psychologist like to call this dimension of our mind System 2. System 2 takes care of conscious reasoning and helps us to think through things logically. As might be implied from the very designation of this system, there is a corresponding System 1. This system is generally responsible for subconscious and automatic activities of our brain; which helps us to drive cars and climb stairs without us having to ‘think’ about it explicitly. Some people also like to call these two aspects of our mind the conscious and the subconscious in a dramatic simplification of scientific terminology.

However, notwithstanding the terminology employed, System 1 and System 2 don’t get very far without each other’s help. If we would be consciously thinking about every action we have to take, we would move as fast as a computer from the 1960s rendering msn.com. If we wouldn’t be consciously thinking about anything … well, no need to think too much about that.

It is concerning then that modern methodologies to organize our work rest firmly on the principles of system 2. Anybody who has employed these systems on any significant scale certainly can relate to the picture of being stuck moving at a speed which feels like it could be so much faster. System 1 is undoubtedly the system with more raw power; even if this power is often not directly available to us. However, there are various ways how we can harness the abilities of system 1 – especially if we speak its language of values and emotions.

Thus, I have a proposal here how we could bring a bit of System 1 into the way we organize our tasks. Specifically, I propose that for every task we need to undertake we assess the following three dimensions:

  • Necessity: Does this task need to be done.
  • Reward: Do I expect that completing this task will feel personally rewarding.
  • Fun: Do I think it will be fun to complete this task.

Depressingly, I have little doubt that many of our To Do items will score heavy on the first dimension, necessity – while being less accentuated for the latter two. All the more reason to think carefully about these dimensions and asses their impact for our well-being and productivity.

Necessity

If we do not do what needs to be done, we won’t progress in life. Increasing the level of necessity of our tasks is an exercise in reduction. Cutting out the tasks which are really not that important to have more time for what really matters. There are many systems available to accomplish this, for instance the very popular Getting Things Done.

Reward

We all had these days were we are running around like crazy all day working on one important matter after the other. Only to be rewarded with the stale feeling at the end of the day that really we haven’t accomplished anything at all. On the other hand, sometimes we do something small and seemingly unimportant – such as sending a short message to our loved one or finally sending off this message to Aunt Mary -, which leave us with a feeling of grand satisfaction with ourselves and our life. A lot of the research in the field of Positive Psychology has looked into the various aspects which moderate what leaves us feeling good and what doesn’t.

To some degree it is our individual preferences which affect how rewarding a task feels. Is family the most important for you in your life? Then picking up your daughter from school will certainly feel rewarding. Do want to become the most successfully mergers and acquisitions lawyer in history. Then putting in another hour for the next big case will feel rewarding without a doubt. However, while we are usually quite good at figuring out which tasks will be necessary and which not when we put our mind to it (that is system 2, of course), we are often complete failures at figuring out what tasks will be truly rewarding. Also, just as necessity is not fixture and can change based on our goals, how rewarding something feels is not unalterable. It depends to a large degree on our attitude towards the task.

Keeping this in mind, I have assembled a few rules of thumb to make the tasks we need to do more rewarding and to figure out ways to identify tasks which are rewarding:

  • Do things for others.
  • Attempt difficult things.
  • Think about how a task relates to your life goals (Surely, there’ll be some connection).

Fun

We are usually quite good at indulging in things which are fun to do. Watching our favourite drama show with a good cold beer, go out drinking and bet on horse races, checking the latest gossip about Aunt Mary on Facebook – the opportunities are endless. Unfortunately, many activities linked to issues of greater import in our life, such as family chores and – behold – work, do not overlap with what we consider fun (the exceptions proving the rule).

Unfortunately, we are not great experts in fun either (that is after passing into the second decade of existence). Since, often what we consider fun in the beginning quickly turns into a habit – until we forgot why we started doing it to begin with (think watching television, drinking and betting on horse races and checking Facebook). Thankfully, how entertaining an activity is not only determined by what we do but also by how we do it. Clearing out the rain gutters just becomes this much more fun if you do it with your best buddy while wearing fish masks.

Thus, here a preliminary short list of ideas how any tasks can become more fun.

  • Do things with others.
  • Do things differently or with different tools.
  • Do new things.
  • Do little things in a weird and stupid way.

You might have guessed the punchline of this article from its subtle title: Key to a successful organization of your tasks is to maximize how necessary, rewarding and fun your tasks are. This would assure you are getting more done while being more productive and altogether more happy.

However, this is easier said than done. Thus, if we cannot find tasks that fall within each of these categories, at least we should try to have a healthy mix of tasks falling within the different categories. For instance, to assure that in a day or week, we have some tasks which are necessary but also some tasks which are fun and rewarding.