Ticking off for the list habit

24th February 2006 at 00:00
Sir Christopher Bland, chairman of BT, is famous for keeping lists. That's quite a comfort, because the rest of us tend to think of list-making as a weakness - Sir Christopher himself described this in a recent interview as "a serious character flaw". In my experience, you turn to lists when there's so much to do that you're starting to hyperventilate. There's a relief as an inchoate mass of tasks magics into clearly-defined bullet points: "revise school improvement plan", "advertise for new caretaker", "ask ICT manager what 'bandwidth' means". And, the one that appears on everyone's list, "book car in for service (ching-ching noise when turning left.)". One of my college friends made "to do" lists all the time. He composed them while playing the saxophone, the worse for drink, in his underpants. (This recalled image kept us comfortably amused whenever, in later years, we observed him as principal of a large higher education establishment.) There's some interesting research on "to do" lists in Chuck Martin's book Tough Management: the 7 Winning Ways to Make Tough Decisions Easier, Deliver the Numbers, and Grow the Business in Good Times and Bad.

Most lists, he writes, have six to 10 items, although it is daunting to learn that 6 per cent of lists have more than 40. He has also looked into how well the tasks are completed. Most people, it seems, get somewhere between a third and two-thirds of their daily jobs done and, entirely predictably, just one person in a 100 manages the whole lot. Martin includes some pithy quotes from people who use lists. There's the person who finds that the job changes so much it is hardly worth making a list at all, and the manager who uses the list as a low key entry to the day: "I generally start by completing an easy item before trying to tackle the top priority."

I reckon, though, that many school leaders will be on the side of the one who writes: "The number of incoming items and areas requiring vigilant monitoring continues to replace if not outpace the speed at which items can be considered complete." (I say if it takes this guy 25 words to say, "I've got too much to do", no wonder he's in trouble.) None of Martin's subjects, though, seem to emulate Sir Christopher's alleged habit of adding items to his lists that he's already done, just to have the satisfaction of ticking them off. I wonder if he plays the sax?

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