So, +Ajit George
was talking about todo lists, and I was going to comment, but it got looooong.
Short form: . I don't recommend any particular software, but I do recommend ways to USE it.
Think of your todo list like a tarp, the kind you spread over the important things in your life to keep it dry. You need to secure all four corners to keep things dry. If one corner comes loose, the other three might hold it for a while, but eventually you'll end up soaked. All four corners really matter.
The four corners are Capture, Organization, Action and Review.Capture
means that when you have something you need to do, you have a trusted means of capturing it, whether that is writing it down, entering it in your todo app, speaking into a voice recorder or anything else. "Trusted" is a critically important thing here. Whatever system you use, you need to use it as consistently as possible so you know things aren't falling through the cracks.
In a perfect world, you could rely on a single capture system, but there's a good chance that your day-to-day workflow has multiple inputs which may not all support the same capture method. It is worth committing some effort to minimizing the number of these, but once you have it down to a reasonable number, focus on handling things the same way.
Your goal with all of these methods of capture is that they ultimately end up in the same system. What the system is entirely depends on you, but the key is that you use it reliably.
As an example, I have five capture methods which all resolve into my system (a program called Omnifocus).
- If I get an email that requires an action, I forward it into Omnifocus (I have an address which automates this for me)
- A certain amount of work is delivered to me by my calendar, in the form of meetings. The meetings themselves just stay on my calendar, but if there's work associated with them (like needing to prepare an agenda) that's captured as a task in Omnifocus.
- At work, I have a notebook that comes to all meetings for my notes. If I have an action, I mark it on the paper, and when I am back at my computer, I capture it into Omnifocus.
- I have actual application for Omnifocus on my phone and computer, so I'll sometimes just capture directly into it.
- I always
have paper and pen. Always, always always. Everything else can be out of power, lost or broken, but I have a little field notes notebook an a pilot G2 0.38 in my pocket. A lot of random stuff ends up in there, and as with the work notes, I mark any tasks distinctively, and capture them when I'm back at a computer.Organization
is the act of turning that random collection of task into work. There is no one correct way to handle this, but almost anything is better than just keeping them as a random pile and pulling out the stuff that grabs your interest. Your specific system will offer a number of possibilities for sorting, as do certain philosophies. Whatever your system is, you'll need to do a few things:
1. Make sure these are well formed tasks. "Library" is a terrible task, because while it may make complete sense to you now, in a week, you'll wonder what you were thinking. Write out the action you need to take, and any relevant context, so "Library" becomes "Return My library books". As a rule of think, think of the physical action
that you need to perform, and make that the task.
2. Make sure these task are the full picture. So, you're looking at "Return My Library Books" and thinking that sounds really good, but where are your library books? If you're me (or my son) then they're probably scattered all over the house. You'll need to find
them before you can return them, and if you don't account for that, then when it comes time to return them, you'll likely just throw up your hands at the unexpected hassle. Get ahead of it and create another item "Find My Library Books."
3. Figure out if it's a project. If you follow Getting Things Done
, the thinking around this can get pretty involved, but for practical purposes, let's consider a project to be something which you need to do but which involved many steps. Some might consider returning the library book might be a project, since it has two steps, but for most people that is too small to be a project. There is no "right" number of steps, so go with whatever threshold makes sense to you. Once you decide it's a project, note it as such. If you have an electronic system, it probably has cool tools that let you handle projects like there. If you use paper, you might put it on a single index card or page, with the tasks related to it underneath.
4. Do you need to sort it further? if your list is manageable at this point, then you may be fine. But if it's still being, you may need to split it up. How you do this isn't hugely important. You may divide it into folders by category. You may divide it by the physical context you need to be in to do the work. If you're feeling agile-ish, it may just go into one bubble sorted backlog. What matters is that the system makes sense to you, enough so that it's easy for you to fine.
(One tip, stolen from GTD. However you divide things, crete a "Someday/Maybe"category for things you don't want to lose, but also know you won't get to soon. It will clear up a lot of clutter.)
5. Some of your work may have a due date. There can be a temptation to go nuts with this, especially if your software allows it, but I recommend against putting dates on things unless they are hard
dates, not just when you intend
to be done. If you put dates on everything, then you will be breaking promises to yourself when you miss those fake deadlines, which is demoralizing AND makes you all the more likely to miss real deadlines. The exception to this is recurring tasks. If you need to do something once a month, and your system supports it, go ahead and set it up to be automatically added every month.
6. Make sure your system is reliable and suits your
usage. The best software in the world won't help you if you don't have reliable access to it. A lot of people use their phone or their computer as the hub of their system. Others rely on web services for accessibility. Others have a nice notebook. Go with what suits your patterns.
For me, everything goes into Omnifocus, which has a million bells and whistles, of which I use almost none. It also syncs seamlessly between my phone, Ipad and various computers.. I used to have dozens of finely nuanced categories and projects, but nowadays everything goes into one of 4 buckets: Work: Now, Work: Soon, Home: Now and Home: Soon. This is ugly as hell, but it's been working for me, largely because it syncs with how I handle the next step. Action
addresses the question of what you're going to do today
. Now, your system may handle this as part of organization for you, making a list of today's tasks simple and reliable. If so (and that suits you), then awesome! Otherwise, you'll need to spend some time creating your list for today.
How you decide what to do today can be an incredibly arcane process. There are tons of ways to assign priorities, so go with whatever suits you. My only recommendations is this: do not pull more work into the day than you can handle. If you can say "If I accomplish X, Y and Z, then today will be a good day", the just pull in X Y and Z. If you finish them, you can always find more work, but don't rob yourself of that victory. Every undone task is a weight on you at days end. And, unfortunately, I can't tell you how many tasks that should be, so you'll have to experiment. But as you do, remember this: This is why this is a TRUSTED system. Things you don't finish are not going to get lost or dropped. However today goes, you can pick it up again tomorrow.
Personally, I go old school with this. Every morning I check my calendar and Omnifocus, and write my task down on paper, which I check off over the course of the day. I could
do this electronically, but I find this more satisfying, so it is easier for me to stick to. Plus, the ritual of it? Helps me really get the day in focus.Review
is the corner that is most likely to start flapping around. At regular intervals, you're going to need to go through your system and see if it still aligns with your reality and goals. You'll need to look at items that have been gathering dust and never quite making it onto your daily list and ask yourself if you're really going to do them. I recommend a quick sweep once a week, and some deep thinking every month or two.
This is VERY EASY to not do, especially when your system is working, so make a recurring task for it. This is the maintenance to keep your head in the game, and the act of doing it will help keep you focused, as well as give you an opportunity to improve your own workflow. When I fail, it's because I fail to do this step.
Anyway, most of thus stuff is system agnostic. Grab Wunderlist or Remember the MIlk or a a nice Moleskine or whatever you like, and you can apply these principles.