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The Power of the List: Essential Lists for Productivity

The Power of the List: Essential Lists for Productivity

    If there is anything that I have learned from trying to become “more productive” and “doing” GTD over the last few years is that you are only as productive as the weakest part in your system. Your system can be anything really; it doesn’t have to be a mass of expensive online and digital tools, it can be a crappy notebook and pen as long as you are using and reviewing as much as you need to keep things out of your head and moving forward.

    After almost 4 years of doing this GTD and productivity thing, I have to say that the most important part of my system are lists; they are the core of anything that I have used as a tool and without them my system wouldn’t exist. If you aren’t a list keeper or a wannabe list keeper, take a look at the following lists that are considered to be essential.

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    Context specific Action Lists

    The action list, or what some of you non-GTD peeps might call “to-do lists”, are list of one-off tasks that you have to complete. The list is composed of single tasks that you can complete in a sitting like making a phone call, drafting a letter, reading a chapter in a book etc.

    Action lists that are context specific mean that you can create a list that is related to a tool or location like a list of stuff that needs finished while at home, on the computer, away from home, or even a specific tool like Visual Studio or Photoshop.

    Projects Lists

    Following action lists, we can’t forget about project lists. There are two different types of project lists:

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    1. A full list of projects
    2. A list for one project that outlines the steps of the project

    A full list of projects entails a flat list of all the current projects that you are currently acting on. We are talking about canonical GTD project lists here. You can also get sort of creative with this list by making sperate projects lists that match your “Areas of Focus” in your life, like School projects, Work projects, Home, Personal, etc.

    A list for one project that outlines the steps of the project can be used as a “Master Plan” for that project. This of course isn’t a frozen plan of any kind, it can be updated as you see fit. If you are using a task manager that doesn’t handle outlining very well (think Outlook) you could create an outline of the project in a Word document and then put a link to it in the note field of the project task in Outlook. This allows you to refer to the project when you need to, especially after you finish a few actions off of your action lists.

      Running Lists

      Running lists are lists of things that you add to on a consistent basis like books to read or restaurants to try out. Running lists are super powerful in that they keep the entries out of your “core” task management system and can be referred to when you need them.

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      The way that I handle running lists is that I have all of them stored on Dropbox in simple text files. I can open them from anywhere I have internet access and the best part is that I don’t have to rely on some “proprietary” format like Springpad or Evernote to handle them. They are just plain ol’ text files and because of that, highly portable.

      Some of the running lists I suggest are books to read, bands to check out, restaurants to try (with the city included in the title), things you want to buy, movies to watch, red flags of things that kill your productivity, and even a daily journal.

      Template Lists

      Once I figured out the idea of creating templates for projects that happen again and again, it gave me back a large amount of time that I would have used creating a project and setting up all the actions and dependencies in my task manager. I now create a project template inside of OmniFocus and set its status to “on hold”. When I need to use it I copy it and then change the copies status to active and go from there.

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      The thing is that you don’t have to be a OmniFocus user to use project templates. You can just as easily create a document or text file with the outline of what the project entails and then refer to it when you need it.

      Some of the template lists I suggest would be getting ready for a personal business trip, family vacations, morning and evening routines, end of week routines, bills to pay every month, etc.

      Conclusion

      The power of the list is truly amazing. You wouldn’t think something so easy to make and dumb could have such a huge impact on your life, that is unless you have a set of important lists that you use on a daily basis. Lists help you stay focused and learn from your past successes and mistakes. They help you remember mundane things that you would forget otherwise and provide a way for you to stay organized. They are a good way of seeing where you came from and where you are trying to be in your profession and/or personal life.

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      I know there are some list users that read Lifehack, so with that, what are your essential lists for productivity? Post them in the comments below.

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      CM Smith

      A technologist and writer who shares advice on personal productivity, creativity and how to use technology to get things done.

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      Last Updated on July 21, 2021

      The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

      The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

      No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

      Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

      Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

      A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

      Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

      In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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      From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

      A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

      For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

      This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

      The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

      That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

      Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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      The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

      Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

      But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

      The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

      The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

      A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

      For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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      But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

      If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

      For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

      These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

      For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

      How to Make a Reminder Works for You

      Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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      Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

      Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

      My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

      Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

      I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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      Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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      Reference

      [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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