Empire Falls is a fictional town somewhere in rural Maine. It’s also the name of a decent book (it was awarded the Pulizer prize in 2002) and a rather bland HBO miniseries that revolves around Miles Roby and his failure of a life.

One of the most memorable characters of the story is Mrs. Whiting, a rich widow who seem to control everything that is or isn’t happening in the town of Empire Falls. She’s clearly cast as the antagonist, but I can’t help being fascinated by her aptitude, a feeling I share with Miles. Here’s him describing her:

Mrs. Whiting remained undaunted for the simple reason that she never; ever allowed herself to dwell on the magnitude of whatever task she was confronted with. What she possessed was the marvelous ability to divide the chore into smaller; more manageable tasks. Once this diminishment was accomplished, her will became positively tidal in its persistence. Each day Mrs Whiting had a “To Do” list, and the billiance of that list lay in the fact that she was careful never to include anything undoable. On those rare occasions when a task proved more complicated or difficult than she’d imagined, she simply subdivided it. In this fasion, the woman never encountered anything but success, and each day brought her inexorably closer to her goal. She might be delayed, but never deterred.

Isn’t it quite wonderful? I’d like to be a bit more like Mrs. Whiting myself! I think there are two things she does really well. First of all she knows exactly what she wants; she has a very clear Definition of Done.

The other secret to Mrs. Whiting’s unstoppable advance is her ability to turn that crystal clear vision of where she wants to go, into manageable chunks of action. In the words of productivity guru David Allen, she knows what doing looks like.

And that is no small feat. In fact, failing to imagine what doing looks like is probably the single most important cause of procrastination.

In pre-modern times this used to be easy. Your field had to be cleared of trees and then of stones, then plowed, then cultivated. One action naturally led to the next.

Enter “the knowledge worker”, and all of a sudden part of the job description is to figure out what to do. Nothing is fixed, no boundaries are sharp.

Which is probably why many people find to do-lists anxiety inducing. Or at least the way we usually format them; as long lists of stuff that needs to get done. That’s not very helpful, since deep down we’re already hyper aware of all that stuff.

What we’d really need instead, is a list of concrete actions we can take, a long enough chain of which will eventually have turned any kind of stuff into done.