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How to Use a Todo List to Make 2008 Your Best Year Ever

How to Use a Todo List to Make 2008 Your Best Year Ever
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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    • 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!

    More by this author

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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