Use a Todo List to Make 2008 Your Best Year Ever

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:

  • Keep a notebook in your back pocket, where you’ll feel it every time you sit down.
  • Rubber-band a notebook or stack of index cards to your wallet or pocketbook, so you’ll have to remove it every time you reach for money, a credit card, your ID, a business card, or whatever else you keep in your wallet.
  • Use an online todo list like Remember the Milk, Tada, Toodledo, or Todoist and set it as your homepage.
  • Embed your online todo list in your desktop (see instructions for XP here [flash video]; you can’t do this in Vista)
  • Install a separate browser with your todo list as it’s homepage, and set it to open automatically when you start your computer. Never close it, and never use it for anything else. So if you regularly use Firefox, use IE or Opera or Safari for your todo list and keep it running whenever you’re at your computer.
  • Use a reminder system (whether built into your online todo list service, or using a service like Sandy, or using a desktop timer, or setting an alarm on your smartphone) to give you hourly reminders to check your list.
  • Place your paper list on your desk in front of you with a pen or pencil while you work.
  • Use a sidebar gadget or widget in Windows Vista, Google Desktop, or other desktop widget software. Set it to always be on top.

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.

  • Use your list as a central repository: Use your list not only for the tasks you have to work on immediately, but for planning, recording random thoughts for later consideration, and recording your goals. I’ve divided my Moleskine using Post-It tab dividers into four sections: the front is for immediate tasks, a middle section of a few pages is for books and music I’ve heard about and want to look into, a longer middle section is for listing out all the projects I’m working on and fleshing them out, and the last is for notes and thoughts. But I find myself using the last section less and less often — instead, I’ve started putting notes directly into my todo list with the preface “T/A” (“think about”). I also use my list to record things I’m waiting for, whether that’s a package I’ve ordered, a piece of information I’ve requested from someone, a bank deposit, or whatever; I use the preface “W/F” (“waiting for”) and put the date I added it in parentheses at the end, like this:

    [ ] 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

  • Use categories: I found using categories in a paper list to be a waste of effort (although the tags I used above are a kind of categorizing, I suppose). However, I’ve recently begun using an online todo list manager and the good ones make categorizing much more seamless. People who follow David Allen’s GTD system use contexts for their lists, categorizing tasks by the location or occasion in which they can be done. So for instance, they might have an “@phone” category, listing everything they can do on the phone, so when they have a quiet moment when they can use the phone, they can focus on working though all their calls at once.Contexts don’t really work for me; instead, my lists are categorized by project, and I block out time in my schedule for each project and work through the list for each. I find that the mindset I get into when working on a task from a particular project helps me build up momentum to work through other, related tasks even if they’re different in nature — that is, I’d rather make a phone call about some project and then write up a report for the smae project than make a phone call about one project and then make another about a different project.
  • Break projects into small, discrete tasks: When we look at our todo list, we need to see clear instructions about what to do next. If you have to ask “how do I do that” about a task, you haven’t broken it down enough. As a general rule, you want to reduce everything to the level of activity just above the instinctive — that is, if you need to write something, you’ll more or less instinctively reach for a pen and paper, sit down, take off the pen’s cap, and assume a writing grasp; everything beyond that should be a separate task.
  • Most Important Tasks (MITs): Review your list first thing in the morning, or last thing at night, and highlight a few things you absolutely have to get done, or that will most advance an important project, in the coming day. You can use a highlighter, move them to the top of your list, mark them “high priority” in your task management software, it doesn’t matter as long as you know those are your MITs. Do these things first. If you do nothing else in the day, you’ll still end the day having accomplished something important.
  • Weekly review: My reviews aren’t exactly weekly; instead, I tend to do one about every 4 or 5 days, but whatever frequency you choose, take some uninterrupted time on a more or less regular schedule to look over your lists and think about the “bigger picture”. Think about what you want to accomplish in the next week, consider your overarching goals in life and whether there’s anything new you could be doing to move towards those goals, write up detailed plans for each of your projects, make sure your “waiting for” items are all closed, actually think about all your “think about” items, and so on.

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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