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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!

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    Last Updated on July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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