What Goes On My To-Do List? [en]

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.

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Trucs en vrac [fr]

[en] A bunch of tips: kitty litter in the bathtub and how to clean the litter box properly and easily, deactivate 3G for better phone call quality, kill all your iPhone app "history" to improve battery life, think about your motivating end objective to find the courage to tackle the unexciting task at hand, keep ginger/garlic paste and other fresh spices in the freezer for Indian cooking, and use the Google Calendar web interface to add tasks to your days - with checkboxes!

Je pourrais faire un article pour chacun, mais non, allez, en vrac.

  • désactiver le 3G sur son smartphone pour que ses appels passent par le 2G, bien moins chargé (données!) — meilleure qualité sonore et moins d’appels coupés
  • pour se motiver, ne pas penser à la tâche à faire mais à l’objectif plus large vers lequel il nous amène (réserver les billets d’avion pour l’Inde… bleh… par contre, je me réjouis d’aller en Inde, et pour ça il faut des billets d’avion!)
  • la caisse des chats dans la baignoire pour diminuer la quantité de litière qui se balade dans la salle de bains (et dans l’appart); bonus, on nettoie sa baignoire chaque jour avant la douche (c’est vite fait)
  • pour vider la caisse, ma technique, inspirée par la vidéo en bas de cette page (super informative) sur tout ce qui touche à la litière pour chats:
    1. utiliser de la litière “clumping” (vous aimeriez gratter dans un bac de sable imbibé de pipi, vous?)
    2. soulever la caisse et l’agiter de droite à gauche comme un tamis: les divers “blocs” remontent à la surface
    3. mettre avec la pellette tout ce qui est visible dans un petit sachet plastique que vous nouerez une fois l’opération terminée et stockerez “quelque part” en attendant la prochaine sortie poubelles (balcon/rebord de fenêtre en hiver, ou boîte hermétique)
    4. taper une ou deux fois la boîte au sol (attention les voisins de dessous!) pour décoller ce qui serait resté coller, agiter, ramasser…
    5. faire un dernier “tour de bac” systématique, en raclant le sable d’un côté à l’autre, pour être sûr qu’on a rien oublié et ramasser les petits bouts qui trainent!

    Répéter 2-3 fois par jour (suivant le nombre de chats et de caisses), et dès qu’il y a des petits îlots dans la caisse :-). En passant, le nombre de caisses idéal c’est “nombre de chats +1” (cf. détention convenable du chat d’appartement)

  • pour la cuisine indienne, garder au congél dans des sachets ziploc feuilles de curry, blocs de pâte au gingembre et à l’ail, feuilles de coriandre, piments…
  • utiliser l’interface web de Google Calendar qui permet d’ajouter facilement des tâches à un jour donné (avec la petite case à cocher, s’il vous plaît!); on peut les glisser-déplacer d’un jour à l’autre, les créer directement sur la bonne journée (cliquer le lien “Task” quand on crée un événement), ne pas leur attribuer de date au départ et en attribuer une en faisant “monter” la tâche dans la liste classée chronologiquement. Reste à synchroniser avec iCal (si ça peut), mais c’est pour plus tard. (voir mon calendrier idéal)
  • [Edit 09.05.12: attention, il semblerait que ceci soit de l’intox! cf. commentaires] tuer tout “l’historique” des tâches sur votre iPhone pour récupérer une autonomie de batterie respectable (je crois que c’est ça qui m’a fait passer de “bon sang, 20% restants à 14h” à “bon sang, 76% restants à 21h!”): double-clic sur le bouton pour faire apparaître la liste, appuyer longuement sur une des applications pour faire afficher les petits boutons “kill” en haut à gauche de chaque icône, puis s’en donner à coeur joie; confirmez-moi si ça marche!

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Prune Your To-Do Lists, Mercilessly [en]

[fr] Plus tôt on admet que l'on ne fera pas une tâche, mieux c'est (avant qu'elle nous pourrisse la vie durant des mois avant de mourir de sa belle mort). Soyez donc sans merci en révisant vos listes de tâches. Posez-vous honnêtement la question: vais-je vraiment faire ça?

Yesterday, I opened Things for the first time in… a year, maybe, to see if the link to a video I wanted to watch was still in my old lists there. It wasn’t, but trawling through the state of my to-do lists from Going Solo times made me realize just how much stuff was in there that I never did. And I’m still alive.

I’ve known this for some time: a good way to make our lives miserable is to stack our to-do lists (or next action lists, if we’re GTD-enabled) with piles of tasks that we will end up not doing. Seeing all those old tasks I never got around to doing reminded me, once again, of how important it is to realize as early as possible if I am not going to do something.

I think the first time I really heard somebody talk about this explicitly was at the Going Solo conference in Lausanne, when Martin Roell gave his talk on “Self-Organisation for Effectiveness” (watch the whole video, but the moment in question is about 10 minutes in). He told us that, contrarily to some understanding of GTD (who is to say what’s right or wrong?), he recommended throwing out as much as possible from action lists. YANGTDI: You Are Not Going To Do It.

It’s a bit the same frame of mind as when you come back to your e-mail inbox after a holiday. You can usually safely ignore the stuff that’s marked URGENT in all caps, because chances are if it was urgent a week ago, it’s simply not relevant anymore.

I think that this is where lies the trap in GTD’s “Someday/Maybe” list. Also because we quickly forget one important step in the GTD process, which is that when we put a task on a next action list, it means we are fully committed to doing it. That, I have found, is simply just not the case most of the time for mere mortals like us struggling around with imperfect implementations of GTD in our lives.

So, here are some ideas. They’re not perfect, but they might help.

If you’ve been ignoring an item on your list for a long time, take a moment to look at it. First, make sure it’s a real next action and not a project in disguise, because that could be why you’re not getting around to doing it. Then, take a deep breath, and ask yourself, honestly, deep down inside in your heart of hearts, if you are really going to do it, or if you’re going to keep on procrastinating it until it disappears into a little puff of smoke, in which case you’d have been better off removing it from your list straight away and preventing it from adding to your stress.

How do you know you’ve been ignoring a task for too long? Some systems have that built-in. For example, when I was in my notebook phase, once a page was filled with tasks-done-and-still-to-do, I’d copy over to the next page all the tasks that still needed doing. Once you’ve copied over a task to the new page five times, you start to realize that you’re not doing it.

Yesterday, somebody told me of another method: at the beginning of the week, make a list of tasks you want to accomplish. Opposite that list, draw columns — one per day. Each day, ask yourself if you are committed enough to spend (say) an hour and a half on that task. If you are, draw a green dot on that task’s line. If you aren’t a red dot. At the end of the week, look at what you haven’t done, and look at the amount of red vs. green. The decisions to make are probably made, by that time.

Another trick I have is that I have a sub-heading, in my lists, which is called “Obviously I’m not doing this”. That’s where I send tasks off to die, when I’m clearly not doing them but don’t have the courage to get rid of them completely. A bit like the “Should throw away but can’t yet” box in your cellar.

A corollary to this “task pruning” attitude is to extract subsets of tasks for given time periods, like I started doing (and still am doing) when I plan my week. Or on a stressful day, when you feel swamped, select three things (or five!) and forget about all the rest.

But the main point here is: show no mercy for those idle tasks that just sit there, make your life miserable, and never get done.

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