The What and How of a What and How list

This thing I keep talking and talking about

I keep referring here to my awesome What and How Lists (they rock!) without really explaining what they are. No fair to you! What if it’s useful to you? Or at the very least, what if you really want to spy on this one weird corner of my brain? So here is a little bit more about them.

I can’t be the only one who doesn’t like to-do lists. Not in the sense of I’d Rather Be Playing!, though certainly that comes into play. Over the past year or so I realized that every time I went to work and looked at my to-do list, I was overcome with confusion, resentment and irritation, which usually resulted in a day-long funk in which I would REFUSE to accomplish anything on the list out of sheer spite.

It sucked. It wasn’t my job that sucked, I realized after a lot of thinking. No, I liked my job when I was doing my job. It was just that damn to-do list that kept getting in the way!

Completely fed up with this vicious circle, I sat down and wrote my very first Very Personal Ad and it resulted in my amazing week of productivity.

Wow. I wanted to keep writing Very Personal Ads for every single task I wanted to accomplish, but that seemed silly. When I thought about it, what really worked about that first VPA was that it broke down a single task into micro-units.

Micro-units. Okay…

Micro-units might sound like a techy thing, but actually it’s a concept borrowed from a friend who works in special education.  She works with students for whom Write a Book Report might seem an insurmountable task, but if you break it down into micro-units, the student is actually capable of a number of individual steps to get there: picking out the book, writing their name on top of the book report worksheet, and so on, even if they are not (or not yet) capable of summarizing the story without help. Most importantly, each micro-unit identifies whose help is required to complete it.

I really had an ah-ha! moment when my friend told me about that part.

Because that’s why my to-do lists weren’t working! Not only was each individual item actually comprised of too many small steps, some of those small steps involved getting help — documents, consultations, approvals (you know the sort of thing if you’ve ever worked inside a bureaucracy, even a nice one). Without knowing enough about all those micro-unit steps, I didn’t know who I needed to talk to and couldn’t even comprehend approaching the meta-task, the big kahuna that was actually written down on the list — as if it were so simple to check it off when I was done. Ha, ha! Ha.

The WHAT and HOW list was born

With this insight in my pocket, I banished to-do lists and created my WHAT and HOW list. Because to-do lists let too many (unproductive, scared, overwhelmed) monsters in the cracks!

At the end of each day, I create a new WHAT and HOW from a template. At the top, it outlines my major tasks and goals for the day.

In the past, my to-do list might simply read Finish grant application package, but now I know that’s ridiculous. So I document each tiny step involved, sometimes (depending on my level of overwhelmedness) to the point where I’ll even tell myself to create a new Word document. Because sometimes my procrastination-induced fear is SO INTENSE that it’s hard to even click on the little Word icon to open the program. Yup.

Not reinventing the wheel. Talking nice to the wheel.

This isn’t about making a “better” to do list or borrowing from project management concepts or whatever. This is a map to my day. It tells me Go talk to _______ about that scary thing so I can avoid things getting out of control. It gives me permission to treat a small thing as a big deal, because sometimes there really are huge monsters hiding behind simple actions.

Furthermore, below my WHAT and HOW list for each day is a running list of monthly goals — larger things I’m supposed to be working towards but until now had no clue how to track. Things I’m supposed to think about but can’t tackle yet. Things migrate up from the “Later this month” list into the WHAT and HOW list when I’m ready.

(I think this is sort of like the mythical tickler file that some people talk about — who actually uses those? Do you know someone? What the hell are they and how are they supposed to work? I have no clue. But now I have this tool that helps me with stuff like that.)

Borrowing from past selves

WHAT and HOW is more than just micro-units and my map and permission to calm down the monsters. It’s past-me talking to tomorrow-me.

Past-me is at the end of her workday, thinking towards tomorrow, and is more clear-headed and able to devote time to thinking about what needs to be done, but she has no energy to do any of it. She’ll write the list. Future-me is kind of sleepy, coming to work in the morning clutching her cup of tea and not really sure what the hell she’s supposed to be doing right now, but hey look, here’s this cool list!

Before I leave at the end of the day, I print off a nice clean copy, put it right by my computer, and clear away the other stuff that will get in the way of looking at it. If I glance away from my monitor, it’s right there, friendly and clear.

It’s both a map and an engine.

The best thing is it acts as its own jump-starter. It has to be new every day.

Here’s what used to happen: I would leave a moldy to-do list on my desk, all the unchecked-off items simply dripping with guilt, after a mopey day of accomplishing nothing and as I’d dash out the door guiltily I would threaten myself with dire consequences because Tomorrow we MUST get more done, or else, mmkay?

Bogus, man. Guess how often that worked? Threatening yourself isn’t really fun or productive, especially when there’s no real consequence.

Now if I’ve had an unfulfilling day, I still have to sit down and update the list. I’ll read through each item. I’ll realize I actually need to change some — wait a minute, I got an email about that thing, let’s revise these steps — and gradually my logical, productive self is coaxed out of hiding.

Warning: will not make your hair shiny

(Well, it might make you feel more shiny.)

When I originally started thinking about my own productivity and hit on the awesomeness that is the WHAT and HOW, I was convinced it would, y’know, save humanity, solve world peace, and make my hair shiny.

But of course there are still blah days, everyone has them. I’m slowly learning to come back to this thing that works, and to trust it. Not to freak out and get mad when it doesn’t solve world peace.

So now you know all about my WHAT and HOW lists, and you’re probably thinking I’m making it out to be a bit more complicated than it needs to be. But it’s what works for me. Tell me about you — how do you get things done? Have you ever had a system break down and need to get rebuilt like this? Would love to hear if anyone else has gone through this.


About jesse k.

Writer. Mama. Spy in the house of self-awareness. Occasional crafter, letterpress geek, and academic snob.
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7 Responses to The What and How of a What and How list

  1. I absolutely LOVE your What and HOW (???) lists.

    And I really think the question marks should be included in the name, as they are very implied. After all, it’s not the “what” in to-do lists that get us in trouble but the not knowing “how.” Then we get that big kahuna, as you call it, stuck in our throats and end up doing zilch.

    So yeah… Love this. I’ve been doing something similar, but I really liked your explanation.

    Big hug!

    • jesse k. says:

      Hi Melody! I’m so glad this resonated with you! Glad to know I’m not the only one who has trouble with the “how”. Even for simple tasks! Sometimes my brain likes to be led like a child.

  2. Karen Sharp says:


    I found you from Havi’s post today, about the Rally, and I’ve been meandering around in your beautiful seed house (as a gardener, that metaphor really tugs at my heart, and tugs at my longing to get my hands back into the soil).

    But it’s this one that drew me to comment. I am having such a hard time with task and time management in these last recent days. The way you’re talking here about your What and How list, with a little bit of lightness and air and faith, brought me to tears. I’m really banging up against a wall with this one, with such a heavy burden of weary lost-faith hard, that even the idea of trying a What and How list feels really daunting. But thank you for your thoughts and words, and amazing congratulations for your Rallyderfulness. I’m going to try some What-and-How-ing.


    • jesse k. says:

      Hi Karen!

      So glad you came over to say hello from Havi’s post. I absolutely understand that banging against the wall feeling — it is hard and painful and scary, and I hope you give yourself some love about it. I struggled through a very scary couple of years prior to this, trying and failing to get productive and not understanding *why*. I do hope if you try the What and How, it might help you (or help you find another form that might be more helpful than this!) and if so, do drop by and say hello.

      Best of love,

  3. Pingback: Not hearing my own message: a Blah turns into an A-ha | my seed house

  4. Pingback: Very Personal Ad No. 7: Workly and Travelness (and wherefore, wishes?) | my seed house

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