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How Turning My To-Dos Into A Story Solved My Procrastination Problem

We all create stories to explain what happens in a day. A story is a tool to help us make sense of the world. But what about the future? What would happen if you turned your to-do list into a story as a rehearsal for the next day? That approach has helped me not just Get Things Done, but also boosted my memory so that I’ve been able to ditch complicated to-do lists and schedules for good.

Two months ago I started writing my calendar for the next day — including to-do lists, scheduling and everything else — in the form of a story. My story for the day is no work of Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction, nor is it filled with Michael Bay-style highs and lows, but it has helped me better map out my day, schedule it and try new things. The most curious part is that it actually also helps me remember everything on my lists, no tech tricks required. The idea is to grab the hardest details of your day (the lists, tasks, schedules) and make sense of them in the same way your brain makes sense of the world: through a short, simple story.

I came across this idea after listening to an interview on the science podcast Radiolab, where neuroscientist Paul Broks mentioned a theory that we define ourselves by a story and that story is defined by language. The theory suggests that your entire personhood is a story you tell yourself. His comment was in reference to the present and past, but after hearing this I decided to see what would happen if I applied this same logic to the future.

I have a few theories on why this worked that we’ll get to in the final section, but let’s start by taking a look at the step-by-step process for how you can use storytelling as a means to better structure your day.

The Step-by-Step Process

Like any new scheduling technique, this one takes time to get used to and start. At first, the idea of writing out a story-driven narrative for tomorrow’s tasks instead of a series of bullet points and time slots sounds like a waste of time.

Truthfully, for the first few days it is. You have to look at those paragraphs again to remember what you’re doing and that takes more time than glancing at a calendar. However, I started to settle into the process and within a week it replaced my various lists for good. Here’s the breakdown of implementing this for yourself. Photo by Braden Kowitz.

Step 1: Pull Out Your Calendar and Your To-Do List

First, pull out your calendar, schedule, and to-do list and take at look at the next day. Eventually you may be able to skip this step, but for now it’s necessary to get an idea of what needs to get done.

Step 2: Map Out Your Day Including Times and Tasks You Need to Accomplish

Next, mash your to-do’s, goals and calendar together into one linear list. Put your to-do tasks and goals wherever you think they’ll fit. When you write this out as a story you’ll see if they’ll actually work. For instance, here’s a (slightly abbreviated) sample of one of my days:

  • Wake up: 5:30.
  • Lifehacker posting: 7-8:30.
  • Exercise: 10:30-11:15.
  • Call and reschedule dentist.
  • Lunch 12:00 (remember leftovers).
  • Write/edit 12:30-4 (finish draft of feature).
  • Supermarket: pick up (list). Say something random to a stranger. Return Redbox rental.
  • Clean bathroom.

Obviously your day is different and every one of mine has variations. When you’re first plotting this out it’s easiest to get a quick look at your schedule in a simple list format. After about a week, you only need to keep a running list of dates and times.

Step 3: Write Down Your Day as a Linear Story in the Third Person

Now comes the tricky part: actually turning this list into a story. Initially, this might take you 10-15 minutes depending on the complexity of your day, but as you get better you can get it done in about five minutes. The key is to visualise your day as best you can and write it out as you’d like it to go. Toss in a few jokes, bad metaphors, and offbeat visual cues as you go along. I do this with a pen and paper, but a computer, tablet or phone works just as well.

Here’s a section of one of mine:

After some chest-pumping and grabbing a piece of gum (it temporarily makes you smarter, right?), Thorin is prepared for the inevitable grocery store visit. As he walks from the car to the store he drops his copy of SSX into the Redbox return slot and makes his way past the burly security guard who’s always chewing a cigar. The list is an easy one this week. Starting in the produce section he grabs some spinach, bananas, carrots, and capsicum. He skips the personal products and heads straight for the cat litter before rounding the corner and snagging up some beef and chicken. He makes a comment to a woman in spandex with a blinking light on her hat as she stares confusingly at the ground beef selection: “The meat here sucks,” Thorin says. She chuckles and notes, “I just want some ground beef that doesn’t look like vomit.” Thorin turns and strolls down the soup aisle to pick up a couple cans of tomato soup. Finally, he snags a block of cheddar cheese, tortillas and a loaf of bread.

You don’t really have to worry about grammar or spelling when you’re doing this (though the more often you’re accurate with spelling, the better you’ll get over time — Oz ed). It isn’t meant for anyone but you and doesn’t really need to reflect some innate storytelling talent.

The only rule is that you keep it in the present tense. You can embellish with all the metaphors and adjectives you like if you want to spice it up. In my case, I try to throw in one extroverted thing each day as a reminder to myself to do something out of the ordinary. I picked this up when reading Dr Timothy Wilson’s Redirect as a way to influence change by simply stating it as a fact. It’s on my to-dos, it’s in my story, and therefore it has to happen. For what it’s worth, I did make a comment to someone about the bad selection of meat at the store, but it wasn’t a woman in spandex.

When you’re doing this you can gloss over any details or sections of your day you want. I don’t put in the fact I have to take a shower, for instance, because it’s not something I forget to do. Instead, concentrate on the action moments of your day and let the other bits work themselves out on their own. Photo by lauren.

Step 4: Revise

Once you start writing out your day as a story you’re going to notice the inconsistencies in your plan. This is good because it gives you ample time to edit your schedule and rework your day. If the timeline isn’t lining up, it’s not doable. Think of it like a rehearsal where you’re working out the kinks to make everything more efficient.

For instance, last week I was shooting video in the morning, had a lunch planned in the afternoon, and a movie in the early evening. As a list, this made perfect sense, but when I started writing it out I realised that it wasn’t actually doable because all of those things would take longer than I expected them to. When I visualised my to-do list as a story I found the problems that would likely arise and modified my schedule from that. Photo by Jennie.

Be Prepared For A Few Oddities

Doing an experiment like this isn’t without its faults. The bulk of my experience over the last two months has been positive, but a few oddities crept up.

First off, it took me a little while to get used to the idea of letting things flow out of the schedule. A fluid schedule is something I’ve always kept so I could adapt to new things, but the story-schedule felt more concrete. Subsequently, I’d feel weird when I wasn’t meeting scheduled times or things weren’t working out exactly like I’d expected them too. In some ways this is a good thing because I was keeping a strict schedule, but I also needed to learn to allow for more movement. My solution was to remove the sections of the story that specifically dealt with “down time” or periods that weren’t highly detailed. For example, instead of describing what I do during lunch, I just write “eats leftovers for lunch.”

I also ran into a few cases of deja vu that were a bit unsettling. It didn’t actually throw anything off balance, but it did cause my brain to take a second to recalibrate to the present tense. In a way this is helpful because you’ve already worked out a few ways to get through a situation, but it is a bit jarring.

Some Thoughts On Why This Works

For me, the end result is a drastic improvement. I am able to better schedule my day because I visualise it clearly instead of looking at a set of due-dates and mentally trying to figure out how much time it takes me to do something. I anticipate challenges because I force myself through a rehearsal of my day and don’t just check items off a to-do list.

The biggest benefit came after about two weeks when I wandered into the supermarket and grabbed every item on my list without ever pulling the list out. Without noticing it, I went from having to track everything on a calendar, schedule out different times for tasks, and keep several to-do lists, to going through my day naturally without ever worrying about times, items or tasks. How and why was this working? Here are a few ideas based on how we understand language and memory.

You Inadvertently Create A Memory Palace

In US record holding memory champ Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking with Einstein (excerpted here at the New York Times), he talks about an ancient trick for improving your memory called a Memory Palace. The basic premise is that we better remember things by placing them in a specific location inside a room we’re familiar with.

In my case, I was inadvertently tying my to-do list with a specific location and mapping out the process of how I got there. For things like shopping lists, I was doing the same thing. I mentally walk through the entire daily experience twice (once while writing and again while editing) before I do it for real. Each step on my schedule gets tied to a place and action and it sticks better in my memory because of it.

Working out a to-do list or schedule through a story means you have to use your spatial memory to make the story make sense. You can’t walk out of the grocery store and into the bathroom like my to-list is structured. The steps in-between are just as important. Photo by Kevin.

Your Brain Responds to Fiction the Same Way it Does to Experiencing Real Events

New research suggests that the brain doesn’t make a big distinction between reading about something and experiencing it. In an article in the New York Times it’s suggested that stories have a large impact on how we understand the world. One theory even suggests that reading changes the way we comprehend the world:

Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.”

In the case of your own story, it means that when you write it down and read it back, your brain runs through a simulation as if it’s happening. In turn, when you actually perform those actions the next day you are prepared for them as they come up.

It’s Kind of Like Mental Time Travel

While it doesn’t involve a crazy machine or a flying blue phone box, we can travel through time in a mental capacity. Doing so helps resolve our definition of the past, present, and future. It also helps us parse through a series of hypotheticals so we can judge what we need to do now to make tomorrow work. Research published in the European Journal of Social Psychology explains a theory behind this:

Judgments about future events and actions are an important aspect of everyday functioning (e.g., predictions). Indeed, hypothetical thought about counterfactual events that might never come to pass may change the perception and evaluation of present reality.

The difference between a traditional to-do list and this story method is that you have to think about the how in combination with the why and when. You predict and adjust your day, in detail, as it’s going to happen before it happens. By the logic above, this means you change your perception of the present from “How am I going to get all this done?” to “This is how I’m getting this done.” Photo by David Blackwell.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t a replacement for your long term calendars. It can’t help you remember Mother’s Day or your second-cousin’s bar mitzvah, but it does help shape and make sense of your tomorrow.

Of course, it’s important to live in the present tense and take the time to pay close attention to what’s happening around you. However, those insignificant moments — the scheduling, the shopping lists, the to-dos — can be offloaded into a story where they’ll sit in your memory longer and influence you in ways you might not notice. For myself, I’m going to continue using this method to see where it takes me. Next, I’ll see what happens when I write out a whole week. How about you: willing to give it a shot?