Keep your Someday list from being clutter

A creative, productive person has a motor. Much like a car or scooter, that person is driven by his or her motor — driven to do, to make, to create, to find fun things to do with the kids, to build a media room in the basement, to learn French, to pursue innovative carrer goals, or to plant a flower garden.

The problem is that sometimes the motor won’t shut off and you get more ideas than you have time or attention to achieve right now. Many people put these on a “Someday/Maybe” list of goals to consider for another day. I think a list such as that is organized clutter. The someday list can cause a lot of guilt. So, instead I put my own spin on this type of list.

Someday/Maybe is a tenent of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology. He refers to it as (I’m paraphrasing), a way to capture the projects you’d like to complete in the future, lest they continue to nag at your thoughts. Additionally (critically, even), those items should be a part of your weekly review. Every seven days, ask yourself, “Is it time to move on any of these things?”

My problem is, the answer is always “No,” and that fantastical trip to Japan remains untouched, emphasizing my inaction for another week. Here’s what’s worse: noticing the pattern, I add items that I know I won’t act on, consciously or not. The someday list is my personal waiting room.

I’ve no doubt that it’s important to have long-term goals, even those whose only benefit is dining in an out-of-the-way noodle house. However, there must be a better way to keep track of them and taking action.

The Culling

A few years ago, I attended Macworld | iWorld in San Francisco (it was still called Macworld Expo back then). One of the highlights was hearing Merlin Mann speak. He said, among other things, that one should take a good, hard look at the Someday/Maybe list. Ask yourself, “Will I ever do this?” If the answer is no, ditch the item completely. Will I ever become fluent in Japanese? It’s highly unlikely. Off it goes. But will I ever travel to Japan? That item is much more likely, so it stays.

While understandable, culling the improbable has a “crush your dreams” vibe that bothers many people. “Spend a month in Japan” is a huge project, but there’s a little more likelihood I’ll achieve it than learning an entire language.

Baby Steps

Before ditching that trip all together, let’s consider how it can remain on the list of things I’d like to do without any of the guilt.

Years ago, I worked as a special needs teacher in a residential school for children with Autism and other developmental delays. I taught in a classroom and eventually supervised a group home with 8 students and a staff of 12 teachers. We practiced the Ivar Lovaas method of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). I’ll do Dr. Lovaas (and by extension, B. F. Skinner) a great disservice here and offer too brief an explanation of his life’s work.

ABA uses positive and negative reinforcement to change behavior. One method is called chaining, or breaking a complex task into several simple ones that can be taught in succession and, when successfully performed sequentially, comprise the original task. I never guessed that training would be so influential in my everyday life.

In GTD, “visit Japan” is not a task, it’s a project. Fortunately, my old job helped me get good at breaking complex behaviors (or in this case, projects) down into very small, observable, concrete actions. Perhaps “discuss life in Japan with uncle who used to live there” is a doable first step. Maybe “research seasonal weather in Japan” or “find a well-written book on Japanese customs or food” could be other first steps. In breaking down the project, two things happen.

First, I feel like I’m making progress on this huge task, rather than letting it stagnate. Second, I’ll get a true measure of my willingness to go through with completing the project completely. If my interest wanes, I can safely remove it from the list as Merlin suggested. If I have an increase in interest that will suggest motivation, and I’ll continue to devise small steps that move me closer to completing the project.

The Research List

What’s really happening here is I’m turning the someday list into research tasks. Therefore, I’ll suggest changing the name from Someday/Maybe to Research. It sounds more pro-active and suggests something to do other than sit and wait until I get around to it “someday.”

I’m not going to tell you to ditch your Someday/Maybe list completely. Again, let’s not crush those dreams. However, I will say be very honest with yourself and consider:

  1. Is this list a dumping ground for the unachievable?
  2. Am I dropping things here that are too unpleasant to consider for some reason?
  3. Is there a way to actually make progress on this?
  4. What is the first tiny baby step I can actually do?

Figure out the answers to these questions and get moving. Avoid the clutter and guilt of a Someday/Maybe list and start working toward these projects in the present.

9 Comments for “Keep your Someday list from being clutter”

  1. posted by Leslie on

    My hoarder sibling took an amazing step last week. She had been culling a large amount of “stuff” for a yet to happen garage sale. While there is still much to get rid of, she actually called for a donation pick up. AND put out two large boxes and one giant garbage bag filled with clothes and holiday decorations. Ok, she did dart out in the middle of the night to retrieve a few items, but she left the rest out there and it was picked up. She also felt better and was in better spirits. In short, she was relieved.

    It only took several months of me trying to explain the financial logistics (how much her time is worth, amount of hours spent prepping for a garage sale, the ROI or time, etc) before she realized that she would not make any money with these particular items. But she took those steps. Awesome for her.

  2. posted by Jodi on

    Shortly after my daughter was diagnosed with autism, I attended a series of (very high-quality; professional level) parent training classes, including the “chaining” method.

    I often use those skills. Partly because my daughter still lives at home, and those methods work for her (i.e. visual schedules etc), but more often I find myself putting organizational systems in place with that high level of detail.

  3. posted by Kevin Miller on

    Not sure how this fits into the plan above, but something I’ve done for trips in particular is give them a solid date that’s significantly in the future. In 2001, I made the firm decision that I would take a long trip to Australia sometime in 2006, no matter what. Sure enough I ended up getting married, but my girlfriend/fiancee knew all about this trip, and it ended up being our honeymoon.

    Doing the same thing for a trip to Iceland; I realized it was another “someday” kind of thing, and so last year I decided that I’ll be going there in 2017, no matter what.

    It’s a nice way to firm up something in your list without needing to scramble in preparation for it.

  4. posted by customic on

    That’s a great piece of advice. Thank you! You’re completely right, my Someday/Maybe list started looking like I-wish-I-did-it-but-I-probably-won’t kind of list, but your approach seems more reasonable and I like the fact it stays both with GTD spirit, as well as with an uncluttered one. Thanks again!

  5. posted by Jo on

    There are some things we have accomplished that we never thought we’d do (we’re only 27 and 28), just from keeping our eyes open to opportunities to fulfill things that match our interests. We signed up for groupon before a trip, and this resulted in getting a great deal on fencing classes which we were sure was on the ‘probably not’ list. My husband had an opportunity to attend a conference in China, so we turned it into a proper trip and stopped over in Japan for a few days on our way back. Going to Japan alone would have been exorbitant, but was much more affordable since we tracked flights and got there once we were also in Asia. Also, when you go, go see the Snow Monkeys.

    Of course, one has to weigh the potential opportunities presented by signing up for groupon/living social/eversave/flight-deal emails against the amount of email clutter you will receive. Is is worth spending the extra time everyday to look at the email and delete it?

    As for goals, I like using It has a great community of people who want to achieve their dreams, and it’s built in such a way for you to choose and elaborate on an item from your ‘someday’ list to a ‘current project’ (if sometimes long-term).

  6. posted by ChrisD on

    “We practiced the Ivar Lovaas method of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). I’ll do Dr. Lovaas (and by extension, B. F. Skinner) a great disservice here and offer too brief an explanation of his life’s work.
    ABA uses positive and negative reinforcement to change behavior.”

    The chaining method you describe doesn’t mention reinforcments and seems to be very useful and effective.
    However, I was just reading Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn which argues that Skinner, behaviourism and the pop-behaviourism that we see in the work place and at school is entirely wrong. We are not pigeons to be motivated by external rewards, we have internal motivation. External punishments and rewards (e.g. performance related pay) actually diminish our interest, lower our performance and can lead us to spend more time gaming the reward system than doing the work, also we will take shortcuts to the rewards, and by providing artificial scarcity in rewards to pit people against each other, we reduce cooperation, which is more effective than competition.
    Kohn also pointed out that children with developmental problems are treated far more with rewards (and punishments?).
    Instead people should be treated with dignity in shared learning and working. Rewards give someone power over others and reduce the liklihood of the rewarder making an effort to get to the root of the problem and deal with the real cause.
    As of the time of writing the book there was not a single study that showed LONG term improvements in QUALITY of work, and many that showed rewards diminished performance.
    I realise pop-behavioursism is quite endemic in the US (perhaps it explains your inequality? Wage distribution is wrong because, according to pop-behavioursism, getting something for nothing will only diminish effort?). However, I hope, if this information is new to you, you will make an effort to look at alternatives to controlling others with (punishments and) rewards. It’s more hard work but the results are better.

  7. posted by nkmcalli on

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, especially since I recently moved and had to carry many research items with me. I love the 4 questions to consider, especially #1, which I’ve been grappling with, and #4, which is the strength I want to focus on in the future. Thank you so much for the great post!

  8. posted by James Harrison on

    I use the GTD principles everyday and the Someday list is not a good place – it really is akin to the junk room in my house…

    However, breaking a big task into really tiny steps, although great in principle, can (for me at least) only make the task seem like a never ending list of To Dos.

    I get the idea, and I do apply it to most of my big projects, but somehow when things go into the Someday list, it’s really because I just don’t want to do it. (There lies my answer I suppose!)

    Life will always have its tedious moments – the Someday list for me only highlights them!

    Great article though…

  9. posted by Iris on

    I like the idea of calling the list “research” as something that feels more tangible and achievable. However, beware of doing “research” as a way to procrastinate on the ultimate goal.

    You’ll never be able to know all and everything about a project, so at some point you’ll just have to do it.

    To use your own example: why buy a book on Japanese food? Unless you’re planning to cook yourself, just visit a Japanese restaurant and try it out.

    What is so fascinating about Japan anyway? I find it interesting that so many people are sucked into that vortex… Just like myself, actually – I have just decided to leave my old life behind and start afresh – in Japan. I don’t believe I have even done remotely enough research for this, but now was simply the right time. The freedom and happiness I feel about my choice right now is unbelievable…

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