There is no such thing as "to-do list zero"

Oliver Burkeman writes about the “three or four hours rule for getting creative work done.” As you’ve guessed, the rule says that “you almost certainly can’t consistently do the kind of work that demands serious mental focus for more than about three or four hours a day.” But more than that, this is a sort of negative rule. Physically, mentally, you bump up against diminishing returns after a certain point. The hidden proscription is that, after three or four hours, you stop.

Burkeman rightly acknowledges that many people do not have the luxury to stop after three or four hours, but academics like myself (and other related knowledge workers) do. And if not stopping in the sense of turning off the computer and playing video games, at the very least, stopping in the sense of closing the LaTeX file and switching to less mentally-demanding tasks like scraping data, responding to emails, reading articles, etc.

The three or four hours rule is not revolutionary. Or, not any more. Especially after the past year and a half, my perception is that the oppressive “butts in seats” ethos is on the decline while the recognition that people are not robots—and therefore have cognitive limits and need breaks—is on the up-and-up.

Even so, stopping is hard. Harder, sometimes, than doing the three or four hours of work. Burkeman recognizes that even when no one is forcing us to work past our three or four hours, we nonetheless feel compelled to do so—whether out of a sense of obligation, or “culture,” or a desire to be in control or on top of things. He writes:

The truly valuable skill here isn’t the capacity to push yourself harder, but to stop and recuperate despite the discomfort of knowing that work remains unfinished, emails unanswered, other people’s demands unfulfilled. 

This desire for an Inbox Zero for life—a To-do List Zero—compels us to keep working. But achieving such a goal is impossible. And more than impossible, undesirable. Practically, zeroing out your to-do list puts you back at square one tomorrow. For example, if I were somehow able to send every in-progress article to a journal tonight, tomorrow, I would not be able to just wake up and play video games for the next 40 years—I’d have to start a new article. From scratch. Which is hard—harder than working on an article that’s 68 percent of the way there.

And philosophically, I chose this line of work because I am curious about how the world works. I have questions, and I want to find answers. Publishing articles A, B, and C does not mean that all of my questions have been answered. It just means that it’s time to move on to questions D, E, and F. Other knowledge workers have similar motivations.

Finishing your to-do list does not mean that you close the book on work and get to go sit on the beach. You are probably the kind of person who is going to create more work for yourself. And that is good in the long term. As Austin Kleon writes:

The creative journey is not one in which at the end you wake up in some mythical, happy, foreign land. The creative journey is one in which you wake up every day..with more work to do.

But if you’re just going to create more work for yourself, if you’re on a treadmill of problem solving, then there is no rush—and no way—to get to To-do List Zero. As Burkeman points out, on such a journey, the skill to cultivate is not how to get more done, but learning when to stop so that tomorrow you can perform at your best.

I am reminded of something Napoleon once said:

“Various subjects and affairs are stored away in my brain as in a chest of drawers. When I want to take up any business, I shut one drawer and open another. None of them ever gets mixed, and never does this inconvenience me or fatigue me. If I feel sleepy, I shut all the drawers and go to sleep.”

Shutting the drawers—stopping, resting—is a skill, one I am trying to get better at. But, then again, “getting better at resting” sounds a like work.