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Back to Basics: Your Task List

Back to Basics: Your Task List

Todo List

    Everyone makes a task list (or “todo list”) at least now and again. Usually, we wait until we’re overwhelmed with stuff to do, and then we’ll sit down and list everything we need to get done in the next day or two. Then, one by one, we go through the items on our list, do them, and cross them off.

    We do this because it feels better when we do. One minute, you’re at wit’s end, your attention divided 60 different ways, with no idea what to do next, and the next minute you’re in control, with everything neatly plotted: do this, then do that, then do this other thing. And, eventually, we cross the last item off and throw the list out.

    Until the next time we’re overwhelmed.

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    We make todo lists when we’re under pressure because they work. Imagine how much better they’d work – and how much more rarely we’d reach that “freaking out” stage – if we simply integrated the list-making into our day-to-day routines.

    Your brain is for doing

    Todo lists are important because every unfinished task you’ve made a commitment to causes stress. What’s more, your brain knows its own limits, so as you add more and more unfinished tasks, your brain starts thinking that some of them aren’t going to get finished – causing even more stress.

    That’s why it feels so good to write that task list – your brain lets out a sigh of relief, knowing that now, at least, it doesn’t have to try to keep track of all that stuff. Your brain doesn’t want to be remembering all the things you haven’t done. It wants to be doing them, so it can feel good about itself. The neurology of all this is a bit more complicated, but that’s the basic idea.

    Of Paper and Processors

    Your todo list doesn’t have to be anything fancy. A pocket notebook, a 3×5 index card, any of about a hundred computerized task lists whether online or off. I use a two-part system.

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    I have a section of the same notebook I use for capture that I use to list tasks; it’s marked with a Post-it Tab Divider. I use this as a kind of “task inbox” – what I don’t get done right away gets transferred into an online task manager called Toodledo. I use a computerized one because a) my list is usually longer than a page, and I don’t like having to flip back and forth and sort through finished tasks and unfinished ones to find the one I’m supposed to be doing next, and b) I can sort them by due date instead of by when I thought of it, as well as by project. And, I suppose, c) it’s a lot neater than my handwritten lists.

    It’s helpful to write not just the task but the reason for the task, to give you a pointer to what’s next after you’ve finished any particular task. I use a formula like this:

    • [Action verb][task] for [project or goal]

    For example:

    • Call Caroline at 555-xxxx to transfer insurance into my name (for car registration)
    • Write “Back to Basics” post for Lifehack
    • Grade papers for WMST 113.210 by Wednesday

    Note that I put in all the information I need (or as much as I have available) to complete the task. I don’t want to give myself an excuse not to do it, because I have to go find the phone number or I can’t remember which class folder I need to get. On the first one, I put “for car registration” so I’ll remember when I’m done transferring the insurance that I need to schedule a visit to the DMV.

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    Keep it with you

    Whatever format you decide to keep it in, make sure you have access to your list at all times. I use an online system because a) I’m rarely far from a computer, and b) I carry an Internet-enabled smartphone with me at all times. If that weren’t the case, I’d use a paper-only system.

    It’s crucial to have your list available under any circumstance. For one thing, you never know when you might have a few minutes to work on a couple of tasks; if you don’t have your list, you might waste those opportunities. Second, you never know when you might have to add something to the list.

    I keep Toodledo open in my browser at all times when I’m working at the computer; as I process my inboxes, I can easily switch windows and add tasks directly. If you use paper, it’s even easier; lay your notebook in front of you on your desk and add to it as needed. Make a habit of this, so you never have to wait until later to add a todo item – that defeats the purpose!

    What about context?

    If you’re a fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, you might be thinking “but what about contexts?” To be honest, I don’t use them, but many people do. The idea is, you keep not just one list but a set of lists, one for each “context” in which you regularly do tasks (or, using a computerized list, you add tags to each list item noting the context it belongs to).

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    A context is a place or situation. For instance, you have tasks you do “at home” and tasks you do “at the office” and tasks you do “on the phone” and tasks you do “out and about”. So you have a list of tasks you do on the phone; whenever you have a few minutes and your phone is handy, you can take a look at your “@phone” list and see if there’s a call you could make. When you’re at home, you can look only at the items on your “@home” list. This way, you’re not constantly searching through tasks that you can’t do right now; you only ever look at tasks you can do right this minute.

    Like I said, I don’t use contexts. I work at home, so all my contexts pretty much overlap. But for people who have clearly defined environments they move through over the course of the day, contexts can be a big help.

    Your lists

    What about you? How do you manage your lists? What works for you – and what have you tried that hasn’t worked? Let us know in the comments!

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    Last Updated on August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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