As far as I can remember, I’ve used lists as a strategy to keep track of what I needed to do. Lists of things to pack when I was a child, lists of things to deal with when I was a scout leader or youth camp organiser, lists of topics to revise or courseworks to work on when I was a student… and so on.
In 2006, I discovered “Getting Things Done” and the concept of “next action”, which was hugely helpful. I’ve used various tools and methods over the years but the one I fall back to in times of stress (which tells me it’s the easiest for me to manage) is simply to write down my tasks on a double page, as they come, and cross them out when they’re done. Once the double page is full, I start a new double page, copy over the remaining tasks from the old one, and go from there.
But what is a task? What goes on this comprehensive to-do list?
In short, anything that I’m going to have to think about, or need a reminder for, or risk postponing or forgetting in the daily flow of things. Anything that will not naturally get done. Brushing my teeth doesn’t go on it, because it’s part of my routine and I do it automatically. Things in my calendar (appointments, etc.) aren’t either. But “contact garage to get new tyres” is, as is “sort through mail”, because it tends to pile up and I haven’t succeeded in building a routine for it yet. I also put things I want to do in my list, like “go to the museum for the samurai exhibit” or “write poetry” because I know now that they won’t just happen if I don’t prioritise or plan them.
If I find myself going “oh, I need to do this!” or “omg, I’d forgotten about that!” it means it needs to go on the list. Time horizon? Within a month or two.
Isn’t a comprehensive list overwhelming?
It can be, but it’s certainly less overwhelming than trying to keep it all in your head and running around like a headless chicken (forgetting important things along the way or staying up late because you forgot a deadline).
How do you use it?
Making a list is one thing, actually using it is another (and maybe the topic of another blog post). The trick is to set aside (plan!) a little time each day to check in on the list and update it. What I do these days is excerpt a weekly list from my comprehensive list when I prepare my week. During the week I work with the weekly list to produce and plan my daily set of tasks.
What about work?
I’ve always had a separate planning system (and list, or notebook) for work and non-work. Work usually happens in a defined timespace, particularly if you’re an employee. This, by the way, explains why I often struggled with my personal life organisation even though things were going fine at work: it’s quite obvious that at work I will keep track of my tasks, plan my days, etc. It’s taken me time to realise I also needed to manage my personal life in a similar fashion – and implement it.
I’ve tried, it doesn’t work!
In that case, what is interesting is to examine how it didn’t work for you. For example, looking back to when lists and planning failed for me, I realised that the key element of failure is that I was not scheduling time to plan, update my list, and schedule. Planning is a task and it needs to be planned for.
What about priorities, deadlines, task classification?
Over the years I tried many shiny task management tools, and saw that anything more than just jotting down something or crossing it out adds friction, and decreases the likelihood that I will keep using the system. If something has a hard deadline I might forget, I’ll write it down with the task. As for priorities, I find that my intuitive feeling of dread when I look at a task on the list is generally a good indicator of what needs to be dealt with first. However, bear in mind that setting priorities for my personal projects is still tricky for me (not enough constraints, compared to a work environment which makes things way easier), and I may have more to say about this as I progress in that regard.
How do you word a task?
I’m more relaxed about this than I used to be. The most important thing is to write it down, so if how you formulate it is keeping you from writing it down… don’t worry so much about the words. But over all, “next concrete action” is always good, especially if you can express it in terms of behaviour. A typical example is “find garage phone number and call for tyres” rather than “change tyres” or even “tyres”. The less your brain has to work to transform the item on your to-do list into an action, the better. I find that when I’m copying over what’s left of my comprehensive to-do list, I’ll often tweak the wording of the list items to make them more actionable (and avoid copying them over a third time in a few weeks!)
Got more questions? Ask away in the comments.
Also published on Medium.