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5 Responses To A Missing Task List Crisis

5 Responses To A Missing Task List Crisis

    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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