Getting Things Done By Doing Things

Confessions From a To-Do List Addict

I admit it. I love creating to-do lists.

When I am creating to-do lists, I envision what I will accomplish and often think that simply by having that baseline understanding of what needs to be done, I will be able to accomplish what I set out to.

It is magnificent and gratifying.

However, oftentimes my to-do lists end up being a sham.

What I claim I will accomplish in a day, often ends up being too much to handle.

And sometimes, my extensive to-do lists are not actually so extensive. Instead of saying what actually needs to be done they provide a vague suggestion of what should be done.

Over the course of the current Fall semester, I have come to the realization it is not the creation of to-do lists which accomplishes things. It is the actions that enable their completion.

This may sound obvious, but admittedly it is something that I need to remind myself of constantly.

Action is what accomplishes tasks, not planning.

The Job-To-Be-Done

This semester, I have learned much about a framework titled jobs to be done.

Jobs to be done, is about framing problems in a way that explains the benefits a user wants to receive, as opposed to observing issues with the current way in which the user receives similar benefits.

For instance, John wants to complete his assignment, to do so John needs to overcome a long strenuous research process, followed by extensive analysis where he will be required to synthesize the facts that he discovered during research. In this situation, the job-to-be-done is the completion of the assignment. That is where the problem lies.

Accomplishing the job, moves the user’s life from one state, to a preferred one. The way in which they can accomplish this job varies (Klement, 2016). The role of an entrepreneur is to help users complete their jobs to be done in easier ways.

When I create a to-do list, the to-do list itself is only a part of the process that is enabling me to be productive. The creation of the to-do list is not the job-to-be-done, it is an ancillary effort that enables the job-to-be-done which is the completion of the task requiring the to-do list.

In creating this post, I am hoping to explain to you, the audience, that action is the key to productivity and that to-do lists alone accomplish nothing. A secondary purpose for creating this message is to explore research done by others and learn new things for myself about to-do lists and action.

The job-to-be-done for me in creating this post is to communicate this message and learn things for myself.

Accomplishing this requires an extensive amount of additional work and while that work most certainly needs to be done, communicating this message and learning more about the subject is the job-to-be-done.

Action Accomplishes, Not Planning

Once again, planning is useful. Creating to-do lists, detailed schedules, and outlines are incredibly useful tools. They are also essential parts to the productivity system that I have established for myself, but the truth of the matter is: creating to-do lists does not accomplish anything, doing the work itself does.

To challenge myself on this, I am writing this post with no prior planning. I am simply researching as I go, with a vague outline of how I want to construct this message in my head.

In fact, when I put my fingers to the keyboard and type out the words that you are reading on your screen right now, I feel a certain sense of presence that I fail to engage in, when I am planning.

Planning is great, but it’s also easy to get lost and distracted when planning. While I am most certainly not an expert, my theory behind this is that accomplishing a task requires a lot more attention than simply planning out what you need to do for that task. That extra attention you are required to pay fosters greater commitment, and as a result of this commitment you become more engaged in the work that you are doing.

Doing things requires commitment and once you have committed it is often harder to turn back (see the sunk cost fallacy), when you can no longer turn around, you will accomplish what you set out to do.

Action accomplishes, not planning.

Planning Enables

I must admit, when creating this post there was an act of planning. The truth of the matter is, everything impactful you do requires some degree of planning. 

When planning it is critical to recognize what it is that you want to accomplish, then you can realize steps that will enable you to get there.

For instance, when creating this post, I realized that I wanted to make a post about the importance of doing things as opposed to the importance of planning things, and the step that I chose to get me to the creation of this post was simply putting my hands to the keyboard and typing away to communicate the message I want to share.

Thankfully, Not Everything Goes According To Plan

Things do not always go according to plan. Your current self who is creating the plan may see that as a bad thing, however oftentimes it actually is a good thing.

If things went to plan everytime, you would know exactly what is going to happen.

That would be very boring. 

Thankfully, uncertainty looms in everything we do.

Oftentimes we go out with a plan, sometimes everything happens in accordance with it, but I would argue more often that not things do not.

However, it is critical you realize the reason for this is not because planning is bad, rather it occurs because we learn new things when doing things that we were not aware of when we were planning.

For instance, this entire subsection under the heading “thankfully, not everything goes according to plan,” was not planned. However, I do believe that it is a critical part of the story that I am writing about and you are reading right now.

Act, Recognize, Plan

In the book, The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, Eric describes a framework for startups he calls build, measure, learn. Building is about creating something, measuring is about examining what that things does, and learning is about improving that thing that you have built. This process is notably iterative, meaning that you are meant to do it over and over again. 

Here, I would like to propose an analogous iterative framework for the completion of tasks in everyday life. 

Act, recognize, plan.

Acting is about getting started on what it is that you want to do.

Recognizing is about realizing changes that need to be made to what it is that you are doing.

Planning is about incorporating what it is that you have recognized into an actionable plan to accomplish the job-to-be-done.

Acting is how you get started, recognizing is how you learn about what you are doing, and planning is realizing the best way to do what you need to do.

Going through this process repeatedly is almost automatic when you start by acting. However, cognitizing and recognizing it can also be incredibly helpful for individuals who struggle to get started.

For me, this means that sometimes the to-do lists need to be developed after I start a task, rather than before.

If you need to begin, just act.


Klement, A. (2016). What is jobs to be done? Jobs to be done.

1 Comment

  1. Jamieeeee
    December 10, 2022

    This post is so relatable!!! I often find myself lingering around the planning stage, then wondering how I haven’t accomplished any of my tasks. I’ll definitely refer to your frameworks from now on!


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