Study Hacks Blog

Churchill’s D-Day Task List

October 6th, 2020 · 21 comments

Last week, I received an email from a reader who had just returned from a trip to the Churchill War Rooms, a London museum housed in the bunkers, built underneath the Treasury Building, where Winston Churchill safely commanded the British war efforts as the Blitz bombarded the city above.

The reader had photographed an artifact he thought I might find interesting: a to-do list labeled “D Day,” written by one of the secretaries serving Churchill.

Here’s a detail shot:

Superficially, I was intrigued because I’ve been consuming a lot of WWII history recently. (At the moment, I’m concurrently reading The Splendid and the Vile along with David Roll’s excellent new George Marshall biography.)

But it also resonated at a deeper level.

On my podcast, I’ve been talking a lot about the notion of “facing the productivity dragon.” The idea is that when you’re confronted with a seemingly untenable set of obligations — as so many are right now during these pandemic times as jobs disappear, or force us to somehow juggle mounting work responsibilities with closed-school childcare — it’s still best to enumerate the full scope of the challenge.

Don’t retreat into frustration and despair. Write down everything that’s demanded of you, even if you can’t possibly satisfy all of the obligations. Then make the best plan you can given the difficult circumstances. The comfort comes from the plan, not the achievable outcomes.

Face the dragon, in other words, even if it’s terrifying. You’ll end up calmer and with more resolve than those who flee.

This is what came to mind when I looked at the above artifact images from the Churchill War Rooms. Even when forced to deal with something as hopelessly complex, and fraught, and impossible, and insanely high stakes as the reconquest of Europe, the first step was to write down, in humble script, the full scope of the tasks required for such an overwhelming endeavor.

You cannot slay the dragon until you can see it.

21 thoughts on “Churchill’s D-Day Task List

  1. CC says:

    Good reminder Cal.

    If I may add one addition based on the archetypal pattern: its not only about slaying the dragon (stick), the dragon also hoards gold (carrot). Even (perhaps especially) in the most challenging times, internal locus of control + high-agency can yield enormous dividends if one can keep their wits about as competitors are losing theirs.

  2. Mike Shukis says:

    Thank you for sharing. This is a great principle to keep in mind, and I love the idea of using a list to improve your view on what you need to do. If you can start with a to-do list, you just might find that you don’t have that much to do.

  3. Carl says:

    Very timely considering the current climate of challenges. Aptly, Churchill was once quoted saying, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

  4. Jm says:

    This is a very timely post for me, thanks for sharing!

  5. David Drake says:

    Absolutely! This is why Cal and many of us, including me, embrace the principles of David Allen’s GTD in terms of capturing, clarifying, and creating projects and actions in a trusted external system. Only by doing this can you plan your day and week by seeing everything that is on your plate – not ruminating in your mind. Bravo, Cal!

    1. James Gibb says:

      ‘Stalingrad’ by Antony Beevor is highly recommended. It was a pivotal turning point in World War II and changed the face of modern warfare. It also acts as a stark reminder of the absolute brutality of war and the comfortable lives we live today by comparison.

  6. Nitin says:

    I’ve been binging books on WWII history too. I’m currently reading ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’ by William Shirer.

    Cal, I’d love to get some more WWII book recommendations from you and other readers!

    1. Grace says:

      I’ve been reading WWII books too, specifically on the spying operations. I recently enjoyed “D-Day Girls” by Sara Rose as well as “Double Cross” and “Agent Zigzag” by Ben McIntyre.

    2. EA says:

      Nitin – I highly recommend William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill. 3 volumes (“The Last Lion”). A magnificent, non-hagiographic work on the very complex man that was Churchill.

    3. Johannes says:

      Nitin,
      I loved Antony Beevors “The Second World War”.

  7. David says:

    Something that I like about this is the sheer number of tasks. I’m in more of a manager role, and the idea of only doing 1-3 things a day that is often purported as ideal doesn’t make sense anymore. Perhaps if I were a creative similar to those who often purport something like that. This list is massive, probably making it that much more important to have everything written.

    1. James says:

      I’ve found that a To Do list is more important than ever in a managerial role. They are used differently, however. It’s less about creating a list of tasks that you work through form the top to the bottom, and more about setting a list of tasks so that when things go sideways you can re-prioritize on the fly and still get things done. You have to get 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 done today. You can’t do 1, 2, or 4 until you get approval from someone, so you switch to 5 and 6. As soon as you get approval you send staff to handle 1 and 4–but the folks with the training to do 2 need to finish 6 before they can start. Then 1 and 5 wrap up early, so you send both teams to hit 3 hard.

      It’s really, really hard to have that sort of thinking going on without having a list. You need to know what needs done in order to switch from one task to another and make sure nothing falls through the cracks.

      In my To Do lists, I use a sort of made-up number system (I’m a giant nerd and started making my own language in high school), in part because it’s a small thing that makes me smile, and in part because my brain doesn’t treat the symbols as ranked priorities the way a numbered To Do list does. What I mean is, if you write tasks in an order with numbers beside them you tend to think 1 is a higher priority than 2. If they’re all equal, you just need something to designate “This is a task, separate from other tasks”. That removes the small amount of resistance to re-prioritizing that numbers create.

  8. Thank you for sharing, Cal! He should have time-blocked instead!

    Churchill on Leadership is another great book.

  9. Andrea Winchester says:

    Doing a list or mind-map type of “Brain dump” can be a good technique for pausing and getting a little distance between ourselves and the scope of our work, for sure.

    I am also reminded of something David Allen said or wrote once, perhaps in his “Making It All Work” sequel volume to Getting Things Done, which has helped me. It was diagnostic advice: If you are feeling overwhelmed by the volume of tasks on the Action list, it is time to assess the situation from a higher level perspective such as responsibilities, goals or values. So if there are clear numerous tasks to do but a sense of unease, vagueness, lack of motivation, overwhelm etc. it is probably time to ask about Purpose, and maybe reduce the tasks to a manageable but meaningful level. On the other hand, if Purpose is clear and there is no question about the goal but you still feel stymied about what to do next, more analysis is probably needed on the specific actions that need to happen in order for progress to be made. That helps me when I feel stuck: How am I feeling and does it mean I am lost in the weeds of detail or need a gut check on my purpose?

    Great stuff Cal.

  10. Joel Sanders says:

    I just wrapped up a massive marketing plan for a client for Q4 and all of 2021 (11 team members). It required a large part of my full-time focus for the better part of a month. The bulk of that effort was collecting and organizing data: website analytics, deep keyword research, a dozen or more conversations, combing through old slides decks, analyzing competitors. .

    Then it all came together and took coherent form in 3 days of all-out focus…like writing a term paper in college.

    A few keys:

    * look at everything you can get your hands on

    * chunk it into categories, then quarters, and assignments

    * set up a rhythm of weekly accountability to track progress vs plan

    The clarity is so helpful. The entire team feels confident. There’s less stress and better work getting done.

    1. CloseTheDoor says:

      @Joel : what do you mean by “Q4”? In my mind, it’s stuck as “non-important non urgent” quadrant in the Eisenhower’s Matrix 😀

  11. Antonio says:

    Too bad Churchill could not benefit from reading your work on a “fixed time schedule” 🙂

  12. Nicos says:

    My first post here, having follow Cal Newport’s wise words for years. I live in London and have visited the Churchill War Rooms. It is truly inspirational and an eye opener to see how Churchill and the other personnel lived, worked and ultimately succeeded in defeating Germany, with help from their Allies.

  13. CloseTheDoor says:

    Hi Cal,

    thank you for sharing. I happened to visit the Churchill War Rooms quite by chance, and I agree it’s a VERY inspirational place, for a number of reasons. I keep a vivid memory of the maps covering the walls of his bedroom, as well as the “motto” on depression and victory left upon the table.

    As for to-do-lists, I find very encouraging to use an excell chronoprogramm, where I list my goals, big and tiny, and try to see the bigger picture of my research. I especially like it when I manage to replace them from “to do” to “done”.

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