One list or many?
April 15, 2011 8:25 AM   Subscribe

OrganizationFilter: When scheduling tasks for a day, do you just throw them into a giant list and move through it, or do you come up with specific times and orders for things?

Previously, on my own personal crazy: 1 2 3 4 5

After dealing with a lot of depression, ADHD, and other issues, I feel like I finally have academic, personal, social, and other commitments under thumb. With the help of my lovely wife who is a monster organizer, I've been able to keep track of things, complete tasks, and actually have some free time where I can enjoy my life, instead of being in a perpetual state of "always working." This question is just about the little details.

I've tried two ways of organizing my "todo" list for the day - large, unscheduled, context based lists vs. a scheduled list of tasks.

On any given day, I may have stuff like grade papers, read an article, write a few pages, practice bassoon, make reeds, make a phone call, plan my lesson for the class I teach, etc. If I put them all in several large context-based lists (like GTD suggests), I end up blowing all of my mental energy on a task up front, and then not being able to the bottom of the list, or I knock off a bunch of easy things, and I run out of time for something that's more mission critical in an attempt to not pick and choose tasks.

On the other hand, when I schedule tasks, sometimes the schedule gets thrown off due to another commitment or problem that pops up, and then everything goes to hell. I've realized that I really thrive on a schedule, but when that schedule gets shifted, I really haven't been able to learn how to cope with it.

Lastly, the biggest problem is that my days all have different schedules. Each day has different activities, classes, lesson I have to teach, groups I have to play with, etc, so consistent work time across days is out. Some days, I'll have energy at noon, because I've only been teaching private lessons before then; some days, I'll just have finish teaching 4 hours of college class, which makes me a lot more tired. Mental and physical energy levels differ across the days, making scheduling even harder.

So how do you do it? One large list? Several context based lists? A scheduled list? Which works best for you, and if you are in a similar situation to mine, how do you make it work?

Bonus question: There are some tasks that have no deadlines - looking up research articles to read, compiling them, practicing my instrument, etc. Those kinds of tasks always get pushed past the ones that are more time sensitive, even if I try to schedule them. Do you have any ideas regarding these types of tasks, and how to make them work in any of the above systems?
posted by SNWidget to Grab Bag (17 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I make three lists: MUST do, SHOULD do, and would be nice to do. Then I work the lists in that order. I make new lists each day and transfer over the stuff I didn't do the day before.
posted by desjardins at 8:36 AM on April 15, 2011

I should clarify that the MUST do list is things I actually must do to be able to function. I must put gas in my car, I must have clean clothes for the next day, I must buy milk or I won't have any for breakfast. This is actually pretty easy to get through since the consequences of not doing these things are unpleasant.
posted by desjardins at 8:39 AM on April 15, 2011

My system is similar to what desjardins described. MUST do gets done first, and then I look at my SHOULD do list and do the thing that I want to do least. Otherwise thinking about it will sap my energy all day, and once that thing is done the whole day feels easy. After that I let myself do things in whatever order I feel like.
posted by vytae at 8:55 AM on April 15, 2011

I actually go back and forth or use a combination; I have one running to-do list that I try to work my way through, but I ALSO schedule specific tasks for specific time-blocks on an as-needed basis. Something I keep putting off will get scheduled; those no-deadline tasks get scheduled; etc.

Typically my mornings are all about things I gotta do and chores and errands and going places and just working on the list; I have a nice time block MOST afternoons of about 3 hours where my toddler naps and I can be pretty uninterrupted and I schedule specific tasks during that block. But I try to only schedule things a few days a week so that when my schedule gets thrown off, I know I have a couple blank days with that blank block of time. And when I have nothing to do, that's my sitting-on-my-butt-relaxing time. (Since I work evenings.)

Even if you have NO consistent time (evenings?), you probably have a block of time in each day, and you could identify blocks on each day, or even just a couple days a week, that you'll set aside for tasks that require scheduling; otherwise, just work through the list.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:48 AM on April 15, 2011

I make my to-do lists on paper rather than on the computer. For each day (or few days) I have everything on one piece of A4 paper so I can see it all clearly.

I group things together according to what type of task they are. So one section for university work, one section for personal projects, one section for general housekeeping stuff, some section for social obligations and so on.

Within each section I break things down into clear tasks (not 'clean all the things' but 'clean this thing, then clean that thing' or whatever). That way I can easy start crossing things off and that gets me going.

Within each section I try to colour code the tasks, so that things I absolutely have to do are one colour and things I just should do are another colour. I do the priority things first, but I have enough little non-essential tasks that if I get stuck on something I can do something else for maybe just 5 minutes and that clears my mind and gives me the satisfaction of getting something done.

Appointments or anything that has to take place at a specific time has the timing written next to it in another colour too. Sometimes, if I have a lot of things like that, I'll draw a little time planner and block out the times I have to physically be doing something, so I know when I can fit in the other stuff. But I never really assign myself set times to do any work as I find I get too stressed about sticking to that schedule; when I'm more flexible I get more work done.

Longer term, I also have a list of the main projects of working on, so I end up with one sheet of all my projects, one sheet of all the things I have to do in a specific week, and one sheet with details breakdowns of the tasks I need to do that day (or maybe over 2-3 days).

But I will say this is one area where it is very much YMMV. In the past I read lots of things about various strategies for planning and making lists like this (GTD and stuff like that) and I found I could never stick to them because there was always something about it that wasn't right for me. Eventually I have just come up with my system through trial and error, through noticing what elements help and focussing on those. So I know I do better when I have a paper list rather than one on a computer; I know I prefer to arrange things in diagrams and groups rather than linearly; I know I respond to cues like colour-coding; I know I'm good at sticking to external deadlines but have to be flexible with managing my own time.

The only decent advice I can think of if to try different approaches (like the suggestions people make in this thread) and pay attention to why some work and others don't.
posted by maybeandroid at 10:07 AM on April 15, 2011

I use a context-based list, but I include tags for degree of focus needed and degree of energy.

Focus is fuzzy, moderate, and sharp. Sharp is for stuff where I really need to be attentive (writing a job cover letter, doing something that has a high impact on other things that are important to me). Moderate is for things that need some attention, but I don't need to be totally on top of everything (sending a thoughtful email, writing a blog post.) It's also for times when I might get interrupted by something else: the stuff I do when I'm expecting someone to call me for something, for example. Fuzzy is for those times when I just can't get my brain going - sorting computer files or paper files, dealing with very routine stuff.

Energy works the same way and runs high/medium/low. High energy is stuff like cleaning the house (for more than very brief tasks - mopping the floor, for example), medium is most stuff, and low energy is for when I need to take a break.

The combination along with actual contexts lets me pull the stuff that works for that particular moment in time. At the beginning of the day, I try to go through and identify the 3-4 tasks I really want to get done that day, and figure out times when I'm likely to have the appropriate focus and energy for them, and make those things a priority at those times.
posted by modernhypatia at 10:31 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I do the worst, ickiest, hardest, most unpleasant, one-I-don't-want-to-do first. Could take 5 minutes, could take 1 hour, but once I knock that sucker off the fence, everything else flows.

I do make separate lists for work and family/personal, and sort of alternate between the tasks.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:43 AM on April 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

My to do list is in excel, each "To do" is a row, I have columns for subject matter, the required action and for priority. The priorty gets assigned as high, moderate or low. There's a filter on the headings and the priority is conditionally formatted so I can quickly filter by subject and see what's more or less urgent at a glance through the conditional formatting. I can also easily see if I am in trouble because everything is high or moderate priority all of a sudden etc. And nothing vital slips my radar. The list gets reviewed more or less frequently, depending on how many things I'm juggling and stuff gets added or removed as required.

Stuff that I need to remember that isn't so much a to do, e.g. what day the paper collection is (it is only once per month so I really do need to remember it is the next day and then put my paper out that evening..) goes in my calendar at work, as do reminders for anything else work or private that I need to do on a specifc day or time but that is not very time consuming. My calender is set to remind me at least half an hr before I need to do something.

The combination seems to work reasonably well for me.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:11 PM on April 15, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the advice, everyone. It looks like there are lots of options for what I want to do - I'll try some of them, and I'll post back here after a few weeks if I figure out what worked for me (and I remember to post back!).

I like the concept of making tasks with focus levels - that might get away from the large page of things todo that usually pops up. If I'm feeling completely out of it, I can still take care of some maintenance item that will help me in the long run.

My problem with having a "must" and "should" list is that I can't open separate the two. I have to practice, have to make reeds, have to read articles, have to do everything. I can't separate out those two categories, and I wouldn't even know where to begin doing that, unfortunately. In my mind, everything is zOMG absolutely necessary.

To Eyebrows McGee: even my evenings are messed up, due to late lessons some days and evening rehearsals others. I really don't have any consistency to my schedule except when I wake up - I try to keep that even across the board, even when I don't need to be up that early.
posted by SNWidget at 12:16 PM on April 15, 2011

For daily work, I have one big list with all my tasks and the approximate amount of time each task will take to do. I usually put between 7.5 and 9 hours of stuff on the list. I include lunch as a break between about 4 hours of work on the top and bottom. I also have a small section on the bottom labeled 'other' for things that come up during the day. I create the next day's list at the end of the day (i.e. I create Thursday's list at the end of the work day on Wednesday). I do this hand written on an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper. I cross things out as I complete them. So, it would look like this:


Task 1 (1.5 h)
Task 2 (1 h)
Task 3 (1.5 h)


Task 4 (.5 h)
Task 5 (3 h)
Task 6 (1.75 h)

-Silly thing 1 my boss is asking about
-Thing for sales guy

For long term projects (stuff not due today), I have another big list, where I list all items that are currently outstanding. I use this list to help populate my daily list. Every time I add an item to the big list, it is under the date it was added. I again do this on 8.5 x 11 sheets of paper. When I reach the end of one sheet, then I staple on another. I cross things out as they are done. So it looks like this:

To-Do List
Task 3
[Crossed out Task 4]

[Crossed out Task 5]

This methodology has been working very well for me for over a year. It is very simple and allows to me maintain an internal priority instead of having to give a task an external and possibly artificial priority.
posted by chiefthe at 1:39 PM on April 15, 2011

Why not schedule in a time for re/scheduling? If we assume a 9-5 workday, have a time for scheduling at nine am, noon, and three pm.

That way you have both a schedule to keep you going and a certain amount of flexibility to let you adapt to things not going according to schedule.
posted by sciencegeek at 2:23 PM on April 15, 2011

Do the most important thing first. This is often the least fun, but once you've done it you'll get the confidence to knock off everything else. Some of your tasks are hobbies, or not urgent, so do them last or not at all. They're the rewards you get for doing the important stuff that pays the bills. Don't browse on the internet, turn on the TV or indulge in any time wasting activities till you're done. Sitting and worrying about stuff you haven't done uses up more energy than actually doing it. If you're doing something important and someone wants to interrupt you with something that's less important tell them you're busy. Eat a big breakfast. Remember that Einstein, Leonardo and Winston Churchill had exactly as many hours in the day as you do.
posted by joannemullen at 5:07 PM on April 15, 2011

I am someone who is sort of a cross between 'wacky floopy artist' and 'maniacally organized'. what has worked for me is keeping a list in my 'wacky floopy artist' notebook of 'SHIT THAT NEEDS TO BE DONE', as in, all of these things need to be finished. on one page, uncategorized. then I do all of them and cross them off.

In addition to this book-of-everything, I also keep a nice looking agenda and write down the things that I am doing on that day in order on the page where it will happen (ie if something is at noon, it goes ~the top middle of the page). then I write down everything that has to happen.
If I have to remember to do something, I write it down as 'to do' several days before. that way I remember to do it.

I had a prof this year who was big on getting us to do these four-square-grid 'important/not important; urgent/not urgent' to-dos. that worked for me for like, ten minutes, then I just started freaking out because EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT AND HOW DO YOU PRIORITIZE.

I have two bosses who are slightly insane but also mind-bogglingly efficient. They have a rule that if something takes less than five minutes, they have to do it immediately. At first I resented this rule but now I find it really admirable, and has become a healthy and useful part of my life.
posted by ameliaaah at 7:45 PM on April 15, 2011

Order - yes. Times - no. If I put specific times next to things, the schedule is messed up by mid-morning due to unexpected events or miscalculations. But it's really important to me that certain tasks don't fall by the wayside, so I schedule them first.

You know that thing where you classify tasks as 1. urgent and important, 2. non-urgent and important, 3. non-urgent and unimportant and 4. urgent but unimportant ? I do that (kind of in my head) and then on my to-do list for the day I schedule the non-urgent and important stuff first, and the urgent and important stuff second. The urgent and unimportant stuff fits around the rest when I get time, and the non-urgent and unimportant stuff doesn't get done at all (although it sometimes sits on the list as a reminder of stuff I could do if I ran out of other things).
posted by lollusc at 9:14 PM on April 15, 2011

Oops, I should have previewed. Ameliaaah's point about "everything is important" can be a sticking point. But I tend to class stuff as important only if I will not have a job in a year or so if I don't do it. I'm in academia, so this basically means publications, and grant applications. Everything else might be important to someone else, or important in order for me to be happy with my progress, or important so that I'm not falling behind on other things, but all those things can wait until after I have worked on the tasks that will help me keep my job.
posted by lollusc at 9:17 PM on April 15, 2011

Response by poster: This off, thanks again for a lot of the perspectives. Like I mentioned earlier, I'm going to try out a few things this week, and then see what happens.

Do the most important thing first. This is often the least fun, but once you've done it you'll get the confidence to knock off everything else.

This isn't a bag on your advice, but for the love of me, I could never make this work. Doing the least pleasant, most important, unfun task up front just stops me from starting. I get stuck in eternal 8:30am, there the Price is Right is about to start, and the idea of doing BIG SCARY TASK makes me want to just keep the TV on.

I know that's a bad habit, and I know that it's not the right way to respond to that, but there ya go.
posted by SNWidget at 12:57 PM on April 17, 2011

SNW, I think different approaches work for different people. I've never had much patience with the BIG SCARY TASK FIRST approach either. Rather, I've often found that once I get a few LITTLE EASY tasks done, that BIG SCARY one no longer seems so big and scary after all.
posted by tangerine at 2:43 PM on April 17, 2011

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