There are days, like today, when I really don’t want to do what I need to. Sometimes I’m procrastinating so badly that I don’t even know what I need to do. But I still need to get my necessary tasks done. I’ve used to-do lists for a long time. I’ve used them in a variety of situations, in various forms, using various tools, and with varying amounts of sophistication (“complication”), and varying degrees of success.
I’ve finally settled on a new to-do list “workflow.” It’s a “workflow,” because tasks flow through it: Tasks are formulated or assigned, added to the to-do-list, and swirl around, being prioritized, completed, procrastinated upon (heh), or even dropped.
A double-barreled disclaimer, at that. First, this system works for me. For today, for now. It will change. It may have changed before you read this. (And again before you finish.) Second, this system is an ideal, a goal, some of the time. This is how I would do things if I had immense intellectual stamina and an attention span longer than a gnat. Some days, everything runs according to plan. Others, they don’t—but I still grind away.
So read on. Look at some of these links, if you like. If you see something you like, please try it. If you like it, and it works for you, great! If not, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I’ve tried all of these ideas, with varying degrees of success—but you’re not me.
Me, Me, Me!
I have four basic rules, or techniques, I’ve been using, or trying to, of late, that have been working well. I’ve borrowed these techniques from the Lifehacker productivity blog, http://lifehacker.com, from an article called “How to Make Your To-Do List Doable” (http://lifehacker.com/270404/how-to-make-your-to+do-list-doable): two modes, chunks, 3 + 2, and KISS.
I think of working on my to-do list as being done in two modes. One mode is thinking mode, where I’m the boss; the other is action mode, where I’m the personal assistant. There’s a simple division: In thinking mode, I plan what I need to do, and in action mode, I do it. I have weekly meetings scheduled with my (real) boss, which help keep me focused. The meetings also emphasize for me that when I get or create projects, I’m in a different context than when I actually get work done.
Also, if you were setting out tasks for a personal assistant, you would simplify what needed to be done. I break tasks down into doable chunks, whether putting tasks in my to-do list or breaking those tasks down and doing them. (Breaking tasks down on the fly is not a best practice, probably, but see my last rule below.) Merlin Mann, creator of the no-longer-updated productivity blog 43 Folders (http://www.43folders.com/) gives examples of how to do this in his post on “project” versus “next action” verbs (http://www.43folders.com/2006/11/14/project-versus-next-action): use “draft” rather than “implement,” or “call” rather than “handle.” This works because next-action verbs are concrete and specific: “Call Fred about pricing karaoke system for office lounge” is much more doable than “implement Friday karaoke party at work.”
Mann also suggests, in another article (“Building a Smarter To-Do List, Part I,” http://www.43folders.com/2005/09/12/building-a-smarter-to-do-list-part-i) that:
Framing your work in the physical world is easiest when you imagine what’s being done, and the best trick here is to simply phrase your task in a form like: “verb the noun with the object.” That means instead of reminding yourself with the mystery meat of “Year-end report,” you’d more accurately first “Download Q3 spreadsheet from work server.” And, instead of “Get with Anil,” you’d probably want to “Email Anil on Monday to schedule monthly disco funk party.” Get specific in whittling the task down to one activity that you can accomplish completely at a sitting. “A sitting” will vary for you, but I try to never plan a task that would take more than ten minutes (your level of busy-ness might command even smaller-sized tasks).
3 + 2
No matter how organized my to-do list itself is, I find it hard to actually look at the list and pick a task when I’m in action mode. And looking at my whole to-do list can be jarring, disorienting, and kind of a downer. So instead, at the beginning of the day I pick a few tasks—some long, some short—to concentrate on. One technique I really like for this is the 3 + 2 rule, discussed on the Lifehacker blog at “Take a More Realistic Approach to Your To-Do List with the 3 + 2 Rule” (http://lifehacker.com/5853732/take-a-more-realistic-approach-to-your-to+do-list-with-the-3-%252B-2-rule – the original blog post, by Jakub Stastny, is at http://blog.101ideas.cz/posts/the-3+2-rule.html). The simple version: Take three long to-do tasks and two shorter ones, selected by priority, convenience, desire to complete, and write them on an index card, and you have that day’s list. You can even select to-do items that will get your day off to a good start, even if they aren’t the absolute highest priority on your list. Even if my 3 + 2 list is overwhelming, it’s still not as depressing as looking at my entire list when I’m trying to just get work done.
You get it. Keep It Simple, Sunshine. (Or it isn’t.) Don’t mix planning and doing, break tasks up, “verb the noun with the object” instead of writing a complex sentence for each to-do, and so forth. An example: I keep a very short to-do list proper, with tasks I can feed into my 3 + 2 list, and a separate project list (as a separate outline topic). That way, I don’t get confused or overwhelmed by a list of stuff.
Beyond that, I’m not going to elaborate. Instead, I’m going to keep it simple.
I also try to keep the capturing and organizing part of my to-do list as simple as I can. In addition to Post-Its (how did law school even happen before they existed?) and paper printouts of my to-do list (useful for large-scale reorganizations of my to-do list), I use only three main tools: Workflowy, a whiteboard… and my office voicemail.
Workflowy (http://workflowy.com/), my to-do list manager of choice; a whiteboard; and my office voicemail. Workflowy is like many outliners and to-do list tools, but it has four features I really like. The first isn’t a feature, really: Workflowy is very simple. It has a minimum of bells and whistles, and what features it does have are generaly useful in a to-do list manager. Completing a task crosses it off, but you can choose to display completed tasks. You can export a single outline heading and whatever is beneath it, or you can export the entire list at once. Each user has only one document, but Workflowy will let you click on an outline heading, and all you will see is a context view—only the subheadings below it. In fact, the list display looks almost as if nothing else exists. (Because of that, I have separate Workflowy topics for work and personal items—allowing me to keep the tasks separate, but still manage them in the same place, just like my separate to-do and project lists under my work list.) The third feature is that Workflowy has a Notes field for each to-do item. It can contain text, but also weblinks, which let me link to project materials (like Evernote notes). The fourth is that Workflowy is ubiquitous. It works well on a PC, pretty well on my iPad, and tolerably well on my Android cell phone. And Workflowy is working on off-line editing, so changes to your list made without an internet connection will be updated when you get a connection back.
A whiteboard is where I put my 3 + 2 list. It’s easy, it’s always visible, and it’s right next to my desk. A downside is that, unlike the notecard suggested in the blog post, there’s no way of recording what gets put up and completed. But I take pictures with my cellphone camera (a minor tool), email them to myself, and print them, if necessary.
I use one other odd tool. As organization guru David Allen, author of the seminal Getting Things Done discusses, collecting open loops—bits of information, including project details and to-do items—can be a major problem. So I have a speed-dial button on my cellphone for my office voicemail. As soon as I remember something, no matter how minor, I call my voicemail and leave myself a message. As Allen says, “Incompletions, uncollected, take on a dull sameness in the sense of the pressure they create and the attention they tie up…. You’ll feel better collecting anything that you haven’t collected yet” (p. 232).
One thing I haven’t address is prioritizing tasks. This blog post is about my to-do list system, not my to-dos in general. And prioritizing to-do tasks is still something I’m working on. Perhaps that will be the subject of a future blog post.
So, my organization system. It’s idiosyncratic, and it works—mostly, most of the time, for me. I’ve been looking at time management and to-do-list management for quite some time now; what I’ve mentioned above is not only the tools I use, but the sources (Lifehacker, http://lifehacker.com/; 43Folders, http://www.43folders.com/; and Getting Things Done, http://goo.gl/VV1NW) I’ve collected most of them from. (Workflowy, http://workflowy.com/ , I got from Becka Rich, my boss and a satisfied Workflowy user.)
I’m beaming this blog post out into the ether. Please, look my ideas—my borrowings from others—over. Try something out, if you like. And please, signal back and let me know what you think.