Ah, the humble todo list. With all the high-tech, whiz-bang productivity applications, mobile gadgets, office tools, and genuine Corinthian leather dayplanners out there to spend our money and attention on, in the end the single most productive tool we can use boils down to a list of crap we need to do. Look under the hood of any GTD app or productivity system, and the engine that drives them all is the todo list — whether organized by date, priority, project, or just according to whenever you thought of doing it.
As virtually every productivity guru says, somewhere near the front of every one of their books, the main reason most people fail, get overwhelmed, or drive themselves to the cardiologist with worry and stress is that they don’t have a good grip on what they need to be doing. So they wake up in the middle of the night (if they can sleep at all) in a panic over whether they did everything the needed to do that day, or they look over the piles of clutter around them and wonder how they’ll ever reach the bottom.
When they are just about to their breaking point, they reach for a pad and pen and start writing up a todo list. They write down everything they can think of, stick it up next to their PC or shove it in their pocket, work through their list, feel a momentary sense of relief, and return to their regular state of being overwhelmed until the next time they reach their breaking point.
This cycle of inefficiency and ineffectiveness is crazy and stupid — and it’s most people’s lives. Which is why breaking that cycle is the first order of business in almost every system aimed at helping people become more productive, whether in their work, their creative life, their family life, or just in general.
The key to an effective todo list is not the list itself, how it’s organized and managed, but the habit of using, adding to, and reviewing the list. People who make sporadic lists only when they’re almost completely overwhelmed tend to do a good job of writing up their lists and working through them — and they’re typically very productive during the time they’re working through their list. In other words, they know the value of todo lists, and even more or less how to create them, but not how to spread that value throughout their daily lives.
Like any habit, using a todo list on a daily basis takes some time to establish to the point where it’s automatic. So the first order of business is to put your todo list somewhere intrusive. Don’t count on willpower, logic, pride, or luck to help you keep on track. Put your list in your face, every moment of every day, so that you have to deal with it somehow. For example:
You won’t always need to be reminded to use your list; eventually, it will become a habitual part of your daily routine. But for the first month or so, set your too list up in a way that it actually disrupts your work, forcing you to pay attention to it. You might lose a small amount of time, but the overall productivity gain will more than make up for it.
So, now that your todo list has your attention, what should you do with it?
Short answer: write down everything you need to do. Repeat. For the rest of your life.
Slightly longer answer: add every task, no matter how small, to your list, at the moment you think of it. Break large tasks into discrete, doable chunks — that is, don’t add “Rule the world” to your todo list, add “Call Bob to discuss 3rd quarter tax estimates.” If you’ll need to get Bob’s phone number before you can do that, write “Look up Bob’s phone number” and write it down next to “Call Bob…”. As you finish tasks, cross them off your list; as you think of new ones, add them. Keep doing that.
Full answer: use your list as a central repository for all the tasks, thoughts, and plans you need to accomplish in life. Use categories to organize your list and keep you on target. Break complex tasks into small, realistic steps, and use your lists to plan out the steps you need to take to reach your goals. Review your list for a few minutes each day, adding new tasks and removing old ones, and highlighting the 3 or 4 most important tasks you need to finish to consider your day well-spent. Every week or so, do a more in-depth review, planning out new projects, considering every aspect of your life and what you need to do in each to make your life fuller, richer, and more successful.
[ ] W/F: Response from Barbara about new health insurance deductible (12/17)
When I review my list, I know how long I’ve been waiting — if I feel it’s been too long, I add a follow-up to my todo list, like this:
[ ] Call Barbara about requested information on new health insurance deductible
Finally, if a task is related to a specific project, like an article I’m working on, I add “for [project]” to the end of the task, like this:
[ ] Look up book by Ruth Behar for Sex and Gender article
It doesn’t take a lot of time or effort to keep a good todo list. What it does take is a little bit of thought, so that when you come back to your list, it’s clear what you need to be doing and how it fits into your overall life. Once you’ve developed the habit of using a todo list, though, it becomes almost effortless, like walking or talking — something you just do
Take some time this year to get into that habit, and start using your time and energy to move towards your goals instead of burning it up trying desperately just to stay where you are. Get started now and make 2008 your best year ever — until 2009!
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