Most-Important Tasks: Origins

Humans have been making lists for as long as there has been writing. Umberto Eco called the list “the origin of culture.”

What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.

"Things To Do Today!" by Johnny Cash (found at Lists of Note).
“Things To Do Today!” by Johnny Cash (found at Lists of Note).

If list-making is natural, so is augmenting our memory by making lists of things to do. To-do lists make us more productive by getting our plans out of our heads so we can stop obsessing about them. (I’ve even read that checking something off a list can trigger the release of endorphins, but I can’t find anything to back that up so it may have been made up by a productivity guru.)

Productivity systems like Getting Things Done impose structure and habit on list-making, which increases the productivity potential, but they also increase the difficulty of keeping lists. Writing down a few Most-Important Tasks every day, on the other hand, is incredibly simple and incredibly effective.

Gina Trapani may have been the first to mention Most-Important Tasks as a productivity concept, on Lifehacker in 2006. She recommended picking a single MIT for each day:

Near the end of the day, deliberately decide on your MIT for [tomorrow] morning. Make sure it’s tiny, achievable and important. Write it down and place it somewhere you will see it, even if it’s a Post-It note on your keyboard.

In 2007, Leo Babauta mentioned Most-Important Tasks as part of his morning routine on Zen Habits, then explained his approach to MITs in greater detail. Babauta recommended writing down three MITs every morning:

I’ve tweaked it a bit so that I have three MITs — the three things I must accomplish today.

There has not been a whole lot more written about Most-Important Tasks, which is a shame because there is probably nothing else that is as simple, effective, and easy to implement for increasing your productivity. As I wrote on Lawyerist:

Setting aside a few minutes every day to put your Most-Important Tasks down on paper will make you more productive. And knowing what’s most important every day will probably lower your stress level a bit, too.

I built this site because writing down Most-Important Tasks as a daily practice is a worthwhile productivity system all on its own. Stay tuned for tips, tricks, and tools for MITs and other simple productivity hacks.

Woody Guthrie's new year's resolutions.
Woody Guthrie’s new year’s resolutions.

Featured image: “Beginning?” by Francisca Ulloa is licensed CC BY 2.0.

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