How to Make and Maintain a To Do List (and Do the Items on It)

October 19, 2009 at 4:30 am | Posted in Productivity, Wellness | Leave a comment

Don't let this be your system -- you need better tools to acheive your goals.

Don't let this be your system -- you need better tools to acheive your goals.

I’ve been writing all along assuming you keep a list of things to do, but perhaps you’re part of the puzzling majority that just does things without writing them down.

Perhaps your memory is better than mine, or you prefer to let things slide, figuring that if you don’t remember it, it’s not important. There is some wisdom in procrastinating about certain items until history overcomes them and they no longer need to be done.

However, if you have detailed goals; if you’re bipolar, or just breathing; if you have a poor memory, or are just a little bit obsessive-compulsive; why, then you should probably keep a running list of things to do, and indulge yourself with the minor but satisfying sensation of checking them off as you march through your day.

You’d think there would be no particular trick to making a to do list. You get a pencil and paper, you write down everything you can think of, maybe you prioritize a little, and you get started. As it turns out, though, there’s a lot more to a to do list than just writing things down and doing them. If you really want to be as productive as possible — and for me, productivity is the Holy Grail of wellness — then it pays to learn a couple of tricks from the self-development trade.

I’d like to begin today with the best-known system, that of Dave Allen, the management guru who wrote Getting Things Done: That Art of Stress-Free Productivity, or GTD as his acolytes like to call it. The system includes several excellent elements, but overall is needlessly (or, rather, dauntingly) complicated. Here’s how it goes:

1. First, you keep a little notebook or PDA with you at all times, and every time you think of something you need to do, you dutifully write it down. I follow this rule, and find that it works well. Let’s face it: a lot of things that you need to do, you think of only when you’re in a particular situation. You remember that you need to get your oil changed when your gaze settles on your odometer; you remember to scrub the tub when you climb into a grimy one for the dozenth time (or, in my case, hundredth time). You don’t keep paper and pen in the bathroom, though, so the nasty tub ring nags at your subconscious without graduating to your list. Allen’s system helps to overcome this phenomenon, though it means developing the habit of bringing your little notebook literally everywhere and committing to writing tasks down the instant they occur to you, whether you’re meditating on the toilet or driving on the freeway.

2. Periodically — typically daily — you sit down and transfer all of the items you’ve captured to a series of lists. You distinguish projects — items with more than one step — from tasks, which have a single step, and you break these into two separate lists. Each project gets its own sheet of paper, and you list as many steps as you can think of for each project. Your list will almost certainly be incomplete because when you begin a major project, it’s almost impossible to see to the end. Once you’ve broken each project into tiny steps, you transfer the next little task or “next action” to your to do list. As you complete a task for a given project, you move the next task onto your list. The project/task distinction may seem a tad OCD, but it’s actually quite powerful, since most of us shudder and turn away when confronted with list items such as “Write dissertation,” or even “Work on dissertation.” Specificity engenders productivity.

3. There’s another step to all of this, alas, and this is where Allen loses me. He insists that you break up your task lists into mini lists by context. That is, by where you do them and what equipment you will need, so your context lists might include “Phone,” “Housework,” “Work Desk,” and “Online at Home” or whatever. That way, the thinking goes, when you’re in a particular context you’ll be faced only with tasks that you can do there. So when you’re sitting in a waiting room you can read or answer phone calls, and when you’re online you can do your banking or check in with your online dating site (or if you have a smart phone you can do anything, short of brushing your teeth, anywhere). I find this to be needlessly time-consuming and not, as they say at work, value-added, so I skip this step.

4. When you’re done with all of this, you do have some very powerful tools, but you’ve also spent an hour or more creating your day’s lists, as opposed to actually completing tasks. If you’re going to follow Allen’s system, it’s a time-saver to use either a web-based app like Toodledo (which is my fav), or to keep specialized paper lists like those found on the DIY Planner website. In fact, DIY has a GTD flow chart, which confirms my determination not to use the whole system — I hate processes so byzantine that they require a flow chart. Flow charts mean nothing to me. They might as well be random shapes labeled in Cyrillic characters.

If you’re depressive and easily overwhelmed, as I am, GTD probably isn’t the ideal solution. That’s why I was so excited to discover Gina Trapani’s Upgrade Your Life, a book put together by the widely worshiped founder of the rightfully famous site Lifehacker, which is devoted to a series of tips that make every aspect of your life speedier, simpler, and more manageable. I’ll cover Trapani’s streamlined system in tomorrow’s entry.

Love to all.

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