Productivity Tips: ToDo Lists

In an effort to increase the number of posts I write, I'm planning to discuss different methods which have helped me be productive. After recently overhauling my task management and scheduling methods, I feel comfortable with the new system and able to speak about the benefits.

When people have seen my different methods, I have gotten a lot of remarks similar to "you need to show me how to do that!" Well, this is how I'm going to show how to do everything (sort of; I'll describe how to do it, but I don't have plans to create videos actually showing how to do everything). However, it should be noted that my intention is not to say "do everything the same way as me." Workflows are different from person to person, and it is important to find what methods work best for you. Just as an example, many of my colleagues still prefer to have paper calendars and todo lists because it works for them, and to them I say "keep it up!" Instead, my intention with these posts is to show one way of doing things, which has worked for me, so people can think about what system will work for them.

With all of that said, let's discuss ToDo lists!

I try to use electronic versions of just about everything; for me, having everything synced to the cloud and accessible on all of my devices is key. Having this consistency is something I may talk about in a future post.

The electronic ToDo list manager that I have recently switched to is +Todoist. I used to use Remember The Milk (RTM), but a lack of updates and a stagnant UI pushed me away (along with a lack of some features that have proven useful).

What I have enjoyed about +Todoist  so far is not only the minimalist design (another potential future topic), but the flexibility it offers. Although I have never read Getting Things Done (GTD), through experimentation I have found that ToDo list managers that offer GTD features (e.g., priorities, labels, due dates) have naturally fit into my workflow.

To illustrate how each of these is key to being productive, at least for me, I'll go through them one by one. I'll also focus specifically on some +Todoist features.

1. Priorities: Many services are starting to provide this feature, and it's understandable why. Even if you don't use them, you're naturally prioritizing tasks in your head when you look at your ToDo list. If you don't specify a priority for a task, then you end up constantly reading through your list and holding a mental tally of the priorities in order to determine which things to work on first. One of your goals should be to reduce cognitive load as much as possible (yet another future topic) so you can spend more time actually working on your tasks. Don't keep a mental list of the priorities; set the priorities once you've decided what they are and you can forget about it.

For me, all mandatory tasks are Priority 1, all tasks that need to get done but I could get away with not doing (e.g., readings for a class) are Priority 2, all optional items are Priority 3, and something that needs a priority is Priority 4 (or, for some services, without a priority). 

2. Due dates: This one has always seemed like an obvious feature to me, but it's amazing to me how many services don't offer the feature (and, even more shocking, how many people use a service that does but they don't utilize the feature). Not only is this more information you can offload from your brain onto the list, but it helps with deciding the priorities. It also helps with deciding when you're going to do something; more on that below.

3. Labels: Labels may or may not be useful for any given person, but I have found them to be useful for creating pseudo-subprojects. For example, I have a project called School in which I enter all readings and assignments for all of my classes at the beginning of each quarter (we're on a quarter system instead of semesters). I can use a label for each class so I know which class the assignment is for, without having to create a separate list for each. I also use labels for research labs.

4. Assignment Dates: I'm not sure what else to call this feature, but it's essentially a way to visually break up your ToDo list into the separate days you will work on each thing. For example, +Todoist offers a Next 7 Days view and a Today view. I'm able to look at the next week, figure out if my tasks are spread appropriately depending on my schedule for each day, and I can reassign to different days easily. Again, it's a way to know that you can get everything done that week and not have to worry about it, reducing the amount your subconscious will nag at you and cause anxiety. It also makes it easier to take time for yourself at night (i.e., when your list is empty you can stop there, you don't need to keep going because you can be fairly confident that you'll get everything done on time).

5. Recurring tasks: Many services seem to offer this now. It's mainly great for remembering to pay bills, including ones that can be easy to forget (e.g., annual dues, fees that are automatically charged but you need to balance in a budget-tracking program).

6. Custom filter: A feature that is surprisingly uncommon, and the feature that kept me using RTM until I found out +Todoist can do it, is the ability to create a custom filter. Many services will allow you to use preset filters (e.g., All Priority 1 Tasks, Due Within Two Weeks), but that has limited utility. Instead, I really want to see all Priority 1 tasks that are due within two weeks, all Priority 2 and 3 tasks due within one week, all items on a certain list, and so on. It basically allows you to take whatever method you would use to think of what items to put on a physical ToDo list, but you can automate it. It's a huge time saver, and again reduces cognitive load.

7. Email integration: I'm a huge fan of inbox zero (though that phrase seems to describe different methods, so I may write a future post on how it works for me). I used to archive all emails that didn't require an action from me, so my inbox became an additional ToDo list. In an effort to consolidate everything (see below), I have started to use the Gmail integration +Todoist offers, which allows me to create a task from an email and then archive that email. That way I can keep my inbox completely empty, my email tasks are part of my other tasks, and I can pull up the email by simply clicking on the task.

8. Calendar integration?: This is a feature that I feel would be useful because of what I described above: spreading out your tasks throughout the week. If you could specify an expected duration for a task, then easily move those tasks around on your calendar (with it taking up the amount of expected time), that would be wonderful. To my knowledge, there isn't a service that can offer this. It sounds like +Todoist is considering adding it (or at least some kind of calendar service), but right now the closest you can get is adding a calendar feed to Google Calendar, which just lumps all of the tasks together as All Day tasks. I'm looking for a new calendar to use (trying Sunrise right now), so I'll make another post if I find anything that works well.

With all of that said, I also have some general tips for using any ToDo list.

1. Consolidate everything: This is a mistake I had started to make. It's easy to have one type of list for one type of task, and another type of list for others (e.g., I used RTM for school tasks, post-it notes for daily tasks, a notebook for lab tasks). In the end, it just means more lists to manage and it increases the likelihood that things will get lost or forgotten. Instead, putting everything in one list/service simplifies things and reduces the cognitive burden on yourself. Granted, this makes sense for a cloud services that backs up automatically, but it can be problematic for physical lists (i.e., if you lose it, it's gone).

2. Be realistic: Don't expect that you'll be able to do everything in one day and end up postponing things constantly. Also be realistic about the priorities. If everything is Priority 1 and due today, then you need to evaluate the situation you're in. You'll need to postpone some things, but try to prevent that from happening. If you're more realistic, it will be easier to keep momentum (you won't get overwhelmed), and it will increase your amount of truly free time (that is free from worry).

3. Invest time in it: It's worth taking the time to get everything onto your list. Yes, it takes a decent amount of time for me to put in all class assignments at the beginning of each quarter, but it means I don't need to worry about it for the rest of the quarter. Overall, the amount of time spent is lower if you invest upfront rather than constantly having to check things.

I think that's everything I can think of at this point. Having a functional ToDo list is one of the greatest things you can do to increase your productivity, decrease the likelihood that you'll forget to do anything, and decrease the amount of mental strain you have related to remembering what all you need to do.

If you have any feedback, leave it in the comments. I'll update the post with any other thoughts I can think of, and any tips others share.
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