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12 Lists That Help You Get Things Done

12 Lists That Help You Get Things Done

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    At the center of just about every personal productivity system are lists – GTD has it’s context lists, Pomodoro has it’s action inventory and daily to-do lists, todoodlist has, well, the todoodlist, and so on.

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    But there are a lot of different kinds of lists besides your task or to-do list that can help you be more productive. Lists in general are powerful tools – open-ended, constantly growing, and effective at extending our memories past the 7 or so things we can keep on our mind at any given time.

    Some of the lists that can make you more productive or otherwise make life easier include:

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    1. Task lists: Naturally, the most obvious is the task list, a simple list of things you have to do. A running list of the tasks you have to get done can make your life significantly easier, provided you use it religiously. For more information about task lists, check out my “Back to Basics” post from last year.
    2. Project planning: Creating a list of tasks associated with a projects can be a great way to wrap your head around the project, as well as a prompt for what to do next when you finish a task. And a list of projects will help you make sure you’re keeping up with all your commitments.
    3. Wish lists: A wishlist is a list of things you want to buy but don’t need right away. For example, I want a new electric guitar, but I’m not going to run out and buy one. When you have the money, or the time, you can take out your list and see what you want most of all.
    4. Grocery/shopping lists: One of my most effective lists is a simple one-page list I made of all the groceries I regularly bought, arranged in the order I’d find them at my local store, with a few blank spaces every so often for one-off additions. Every week, I’d print it off, cross off anything I didn’t need, and add anything that wasn’t on the list, and go shopping.
    5. Gift ideas: Nothing’s worse than the approach of Christmas with no idea of what to get someone close to you. Keep a list of odd, attractive, or just-right-for-you-know-who items throughout the year to help make Christmas, birthday, and anniversary shopping less stressful.
    6. Checklists: Any recurrent multi-step tasks – like packing for a business trip, arranging a presentation, or winterizing your home – can be done more easily and with fewer errors if you write up a simple checklist of all the steps involved and equipment needed.
    7. Reading journal: A while back I suggested that students (and other readers) keep a reading journal. Basically, this is a list of books you’ve read with notes and adequate information to recall the text later.
    8. Links and logins: In these days of proliferating web applications, almost everyone has dozens, if not hundreds, of websites they need to log into on a regular basis. Keeping a list of all these sites and your login info can be a lifesaver! Also, if you keep a list online, you can have active links to each application, making a pretty useful start page.
    9. Life lists: A list of your short- and long-term goals can be a great motivator, as well as a trigger list to help generate new projects. I also like to have a list of areas of focus, the different roles that I play, each of which comes with a different set of tasks and goals.
    10. Reference: Any information you find yourself referring to often can make a useful list – metric conversions, file types, software registration keys, birthdays, the names of your children, whatever.
    11. Logs: Broadly speaking, a log is a list of events tied to specific dates/times. Keeping a list of your exercise achievements, food consumption, words written, or other set of data appropriate for your projects will help you measure your progress as well as identify problems (like if your output drops on certain days of the week or month, or you seem to crave certain foods on certain days).
    12. Daily summaries: A one- or two-line summary of the day’s events can help to remind you of problems that arose as well as how you dealt with them, as well as track behavioral patterns that might point to illness, conflict with certain people, or other issues.

    How to Keep Track of Your Lists

    All those lists seems like a lot to juggle, doesn’t it?

    Actually, it’s not that hard. Whether you’re a committed web 2.0 wonk who wants all your lists to live in the cloud, a hardcore pen-and-paper person, or a techie who’s not quite ready to live on the Web just yet, there are simple solutions to keep your lists handy.

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    Pen-and-paper: A notebook (I like Moleskines and Moleskine knockoffs, but whatever works) can be easily modified to make all your lists accessible. I use Post-It tabs to identify different sections of my notebook, with tasks up front and book wishlists, gift lists, and others towards the back. A tab somewhere near the middle separates my project planning lists from my task list.

    Desktop software: If you’re using Outlook or Lotus Notes, you have a task list manager at hand that can easily hold other kinds of lists by assigning categories to them. Other options include using a note-taking program like Evernote or OneNote, with a separate note for each list. These are easily backed up, which is nice, plus they can be sent to others. And they’re searchable, too. And if you’re a super-geek, check out Gina Trapani’s todo.txt-cli, a command-line based productivity program – just use contexts or projects as list types instead.

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    Web Applications: Any task-list manager that allows categories (Todoist is a great one, since it literally allows you to create multiple lists), or any project management application (each list can be a separate project; make sure your membership level allows you to create enough projects), or most GTD apps (use contexts or projects to separate your lists, or tags if yours offers them) can be a great list manager. For simplicity, I like tasktoy, but whatever is comfortable for you.

    Wikis: Wikis are excellent list management tools. I’ve listed them separately because various wikis run on your desktop (like TiddlyWiki, a self-contained, easy-to-use wiki) or online (try PBWorks or WetPaint). You’ll have to learn some simple syntax for adding to your lists, but after that, wikis are not hard to use at all.

    What other lists do you find useful? How do you manage your lists? Tell us al about it in the comments!

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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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