What You Want To Do Is Who You Are

April 9, 2012

On modern social networks, the question of the moment is What are you doing? (or perhaps more provocatively, What's on your mind?). To me, a more interesting question is What do you want to do?. The desire to do anything beyond eat, find warmth, sleep, and mate is what makes us human. Your goals and aspirations, the steps you're taking to achieve them, plus everything you've done to get you where you are right now is the essence of who you are. This is why I've been fixated on todo list making for over six years.

Identify Yourself

People (in the U.S. at least) often define themselves by stuff they consume and brands and appearances: the clothes you wear, your hair style, the type of phone you use, the car you drive, the television shows you watch. In career-minded groups, your status depends on what kind of job you have, what rung of the corporate ladder you've reached, what companies you've worked at. In creative circles, things are a little better: what you've made counts for more than suits or titles or salaries.

Still, I wish there was an easy way to define yourself by what you're trying to accomplish, without being That Guy With An Elevator Pitch. The people who want to get to know you for real will go past the surface stuff and ask. What do you want to do? Where are you in the process? These questions all get down to what you care about, what projects you've decided are worth pursuing, and what the stepping stones are to get there. Your todo lists, and at higher levels, your project list and life list say more about you than the movie you saw last weekend.

Plotting the Map

I live by my todo list. The hardest work of my day is updating that list, making the most important decisions of my life—what stuff is worthy of my time and effort. What's the most important thing to tackle next (prioritize). What tasks seemed important at a different time, but just aren't now (delete). Where/when/with what I'm most likely to get a task done (context). What tasks move along a project, and what projects aren't well-represented.

Living by a todo list sounds austere and uncompromising. Where's the serendipity? You might ask. The accidental creative discoveries? Living and working online means that I'm constantly clicking links, reading articles, finding videos and apps and tweets and blogs and whole new networks that inspire and delight and queue up in my to-read list (another kind of todo list) and remind me that there aren't enough hours in the day. For me, and I suspect anyone whose reading this blog post right now, increasing the chances of discovering new stuff to explore isn't what we need to ship. It's to focus and do.

Think of your todo list as less of a list, and more of a map. It's a map of where you are now that points you in the direction of where you want to be in the next few days or weeks. Your done list is the route you've taken in the past few days or weeks. Your projects list is the next few months or years, and so on. Dissatisfaction is the difference between where you are and where you want to be, and your lists are the map plotting the route ahead.

In a similar vein, on a recent episode of his Back to Work podcast, Merlin Mann was at his best discussing work as a "platform." In short, work on the projects that you love, and they'll lead you to your next destination, even if it's not obvious where they're taking you. (Start listening at 30:27 to skip a bunch of chitter-chatter.)

When You Don't Know What You Want to Do

People ask me for career advice on a regular basis. Usually they listen to my show, or read a piece I wrote on Lifehacker, or use one of my apps, or worked with me on an open source project. The situation is always pretty similar. They're just getting started in their career or they're in transition, they love technology, and they want to do something cool in tech. They ask, What should I do? I ask, What do you want to do? Most of the time they don't know (obviously, since they're asking me).

Not knowing what you want to do is a scary place everyone's been in at one time or another. Working toward a particular thing gives you purpose, and when you don't have that, it can feel like you're drifting, directionless, while the rest of the world is speeding by. When you're in this place, try to minimize the insecurity about not knowing what you want. Take comfort in the fact that many people are speeding toward a place they don't really care about because they didn't fully think it through. Commit to taking the time to find the right direction for you.

In times like this, you go into trial-and-error exploration mode, or as Merlin put it, start "hunting and gathering." If you know you want to work in tech (for example) and don't know where to start, look at the stuff that turns you on, figure out what you like about it, and try it out. If you want to make an app, start learning how to code or design that app. If you want to blog, set one up and write. Casting about is part of the process, and everyone's been there. Just don't let panic about where your next job's going to be keep you from fully exploring what you like and figuring out what you want to do.

To Get It Done, Write It Down (Someplace You Control and Take With You)

Beyond sleeping, eating, showering, getting dressed, and running from the building if there's a fire or earthquake, if I don't write something down, I simply don't do it. I live by my todo list. Its byproduct, my done list, is a very personal log of my life. I believe in data ownership and portability, so I've been using apps I built to write these lists in plain text since 2006.

Today I've got three new releases in the Todo.txt universe to share:

  • Todo.txt Touch for iOS now archives completed tasks to done.txt. This is a tremedous step in the evolution of this app, because it means you can use it standalone, without having to archive tasks using the CLI or a text editor back at your computer. (We're working on adding this feature to Todo.txt Touch for Android now.)
  • The Todo.txt CLI's new release now supports Tab autocompletion for contexts and projects, pulled from both todo.txt and done.txt. To use it, while entering a task, type @<Tab> or +<Tab> to see all the autocompletion suggestions based on your existing tasks.
  • The Todo.txt project web site, todotxt.com, has been completely redesigned. Finally the web site fully explains the project, and includes a list of community-built apps which have sprung up around it. I'm personally making a commitment to design in my projects, and this redesign is my first attempt at that. Doing the image work for the new site was a challenge for someone who sucks at Photoshop (me)—and it could be better, but it doesn't completely stink. I used the fantastic Bootstrap framework to lay out the site, which is fully responsive and looks good on any screen from phone to tablet to computer.

I hope you'll check those out, and that they (or any tools for writing things down) will help you answer the question What do I want to do? early and more often.