Earlier this week, Gmail went down. The fact that it happened only a day after my task manager of choice spent 15 minutes refusing to load. Between the two, I probably spent a full hour wondering, ‘what if?’ What if I lost my to-do list? What if I lost the emails that are pretty much my only hope of recreating my to-do list? I really didn’t like the idea.

It’s nerve-wracking to think about, but any of us could lose our system. A Moleskine could go through the wash, a text file could be written over, a web application could shut down. Unfortunately, task systems don’t lend themselves to the easiest of archiving. It seems almost guaranteed that one of these days we’ll lose at least some part of our to-do lists. Depending on just what happened, you may have some hope of recovering your data or finding your list. But once you’ve exhausted your options for retrieving your information, you may feel like you’re up a certain creek.

But it’s not the end of the world to lose your task list. Think of it along the lines of email bankruptcy: it must be refreshing to have absolutely nothing you need to check off your list. The odds are pretty good that, eventually, somebody will ask you about the important items on your list. If no one asks, maybe a task wasn’t so important. The real worry, at least in my mind, is missing a deadline — especially the kind that involves money.

How do you recreate your task list?

If my to-do list disappeared today, I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t be able to get back a good chunk of it. I add ideas for blog posts, thoughts for long-term projects and even errands I need to run to my list. I’m equally sure, though, that I would at least be able to get back the stuff that I’ve committed to — the stuff I really need to do.

  1. Write down everything, immediately. My first step would be to write down literally every task I could think of that was on my list — even the ones that seem unimportant. I don’t think you can put off this sort of thing; every day that goes by makes it harder to remember. It may seem like something that will take up a lot of time, but once you sit down and start making notes you’ll be surprised how fast it goes. Need a starting point? Try to remember everything you had planned for tomorrow.
  2. Go to email and other documents. Have a shared project calendar? Old emails you can go back to? Timelines? Any documentation you have from the planning stages of your project can help you determine not only what is on your to-do list, but the priority. In my opinion, one of the worst things about a missing task list isn’t necessarily figuring out what you were planning to do in the next couple of days. It’s trying to remember what you had to do immediately, and what could wait.
  3. List the major stakeholders in your projects. Whether we’re talking about household chores or big assignments from your employer, there’s usually other people involved in any project you work on. Make a list of those people and start contacting them: they’ll be able to provide you an idea of what’s next. You don’t need to admit that your task management system has gone on vacation, either. A simple email — Bob, I wanted to double check the due date for the widget. — is probably enough to help you get back on track.

How do you prevent another disaster?

Once you’ve gotten some semblance of your task list back, you’re probably going to be thinking about how to prevent such crises in the future. And while I said that task lists aren’t the easiest things to back up, there are some options, as long as you’re using a computerized system. If you’re prefer the pen and paper method, though, I’m afraid I don’t have too many bright ideas.

  1. Back up your new task list — the easy version. If you handle your task list through some sort of file you have easy access to — a text file, a wiki, etc. — making a periodic copy is all it takes. I’ve had a lot of success using Dropbox to sync / back up files across multiple systems, personally.
  2. Back up your new task list — the hard version. If you use Remember the Milk or another web application, you still have some back up options. With RTM, at least, there is now a relatively simple way to back up your tasks: use Google Gears to create an offline version and you automatically have a back up. But if you use something other than RTM (or you don’t want to use Google Gears), you’ll have to get a bit more technical. Using the scripting language of your choice, write a query requesting your data. For RTM, you can use the RESTful interface, for example, and just save all of your data to a text file. It isn’t the most elegant solution, but it will get the job done.

What suggestions do you have for someone trying to recall the important items off his or her task list? Any ideas that don’t involve going through the last year’s worth of e-mail? Or perhaps a suggestion for backing up your task list?

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