What makes your todo list work for you?
June 18, 2006 4:19 PM   Subscribe

What makes your todo list work for you? I don't care if it's digital or on papter, I want to know how you got in the habit of using a todo list everyday.
posted by the giant pill to Work & Money (33 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I know from experience that if I don't, there's a good chance I won't get the important things done, and so will waste time on other things. I have to keep it in front of me constantly (e.g., a sticky note on my monitor, or looking at my PDA) to make it work for me.
posted by davcoo at 4:25 PM on June 18, 2006

It's a great way to feel like you've accomplished something at the end of the workday. And, it reminds me that I've completed the tasks assigned to me by my boss. So when she asks I can easily say "Done. Done. And done."

Feels good, looks good, is good.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 4:33 PM on June 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

Have particular times that you review your lists. I keep ToDo's by "project" (example projects I have right now: a software project from work, Learn Calculus, Organize Move, Translation Website). The routine is to have a time of day when I look at my todo lists. So I look at what I have to cover in calculus today after I get back from work, whereas I look at my software project ToDo list in the morning when I get to work.

And though you didn't ask, I can't reccomend Progect highly enough.
posted by phrontist at 4:40 PM on June 18, 2006

For me, it's the satisfaction of crossing an item out when I've finished it. For that reason, it's gratifying to list nearly everything you have to do in a day, even if some of them have already become rather routine or if there's no way you're going to forget it or not do it.
posted by penchant at 4:52 PM on June 18, 2006

In my experience todo lists work best if they contain actual tasks you can sit down and do and complete. Quite often lists get clogged up with abstract goals or long term things that you can never really cross off, at which point they're useless.

Basically, what penchant said.
posted by cillit bang at 4:57 PM on June 18, 2006

Buidling on cillit bang's comment, I find that it helps to begin each task with a verb, as in "Buy Groceries," not simply "Groceries." Getting in the habit of assigning yourself real tasks will help when you come up against those nebulous items that aren't well defined. Either you'll spend the time to actually define the task(s), or you'll pass.

It's a To DO list... it's all about action.

And yeah, those Check Marks at the end of the day are really nice. I find that my archived task lists have become a defacto journal, which has been very helpful in verifying when something was done.
posted by friezer at 5:03 PM on June 18, 2006

the FranklinCovey Planner helped me. It is simple. I used the paper one until I got a Palm.

The To Do note pad works quite well too. (they are out here but several other places have them).
posted by nimsey lou at 5:51 PM on June 18, 2006

In my experience todo lists work best if they contain actual tasks you can sit down and do and complete. Quite often lists get clogged up with abstract goals or long term things that you can never really cross off, at which point they're useless.

The Franklin planner makes room for long term goals and to-dos that take more than one day.
posted by nimsey lou at 5:54 PM on June 18, 2006

One problem I run into often is overloading my list. On weekends it's the worst because I'll feel like a Saturday is going to be a super productive one so I load up my list with about 15 different projects. Then a bunch of unplanned stuff comes up and when dinner time rolls around and there's only 4/15 items crossed off the list it's a huge motivation killer.

In a nutshell, leave room for spontaneity and keep it realistic. Good luck.
posted by saraswati at 5:55 PM on June 18, 2006

Mine are on paper, because it's so easy to see what's crossed out as well as what's still there. If you don't finish, you'll still feel accomplished with ten things crossed out.
I need these lists because I'm usually working on 3 different experiments at the lab, while having to e-mail people back, and not forget to buy cat food all at the same time! I just can't remember otherwise.
posted by easternblot at 6:03 PM on June 18, 2006

For me it's two things:

1. The list has to be composed of 1-5 items, where the total amount of work they represent is 4-6 hours of solid effort spread out over a full day. The point there is to be realistic about the amount of work you're going to get done in one day. I get way more done when I do less work consistently every day than when I sprint for a couple weeks and then burn out.

2. I have to compose it in bed, at night, so that when I wake up in the morning, it's fresh in my mind, and I have a sense of purpose for what to do. Since I work from home, it's easy for me to just start surfing the Web in the morning and never get anything done if I don't wake up knowing what I have to do.

Obviously, YMMV.
posted by Hildago at 6:05 PM on June 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

I don't use either myself, but a lot of people like Getting things done and TaDa Lists.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:18 PM on June 18, 2006

One thing I like about paper todo lists as opposed to PalmPilot (or whatever electronic) lists is that as the list fills up with crossed-out items, you periodically have to copy it over onto a new piece of paper. This forces me to review everything on my list, so I don't forget things that are there, and can update the list as my goals change, etc. My Palm list tended to fill up with a bunch of crap that honestly I was never going to do, and the things I actually wanted to do would get lost and forgotten among these things.

(I know this isn't really an answer to your question. :-) )

I like the 43F/GTD/whatever approach of keeping track of not just "things to do", but "what is the next action?" for each of these things. "Put in new bookhelves" might be on my to-do list, but it's too nebulous. Things like "measure the space", "design the bookshelves", "buy the hardware", etc., are small enough to just do, and they're small enough tha they can bubble up to the top of the list and get done in a spare twenty minutes or when I happen to be going near the store, unlike "put in new bookshelves" which pretty much requires me to allocate a weekend to it before even considering the details.

I don't usually make a to-do list for a given day; I just have a list of stuff that needs doing, and things get done when they get done.
posted by hattifattener at 6:29 PM on June 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

This guy had an interesting take on todo lists.

I like the time bar idea.
posted by any major dude at 6:31 PM on June 18, 2006

My Palm list tended to fill up with a bunch of crap that honestly I was never going to do, and the things I actually wanted to do would get lost and forgotten among these things.

I have the same problem. What I've been doing lately is reviewing my palm lists every night and putting down on paper only the things that absolutely must get done the next day. Those are the things I tackle first so I am then free to freelance the rest of the day - unfortunately so much of my day gets filled with the must-do's that freelancing never happens...but at least the must-do gets done. I think that's a sign that I need to start delegating - to who is another story.
posted by any major dude at 6:37 PM on June 18, 2006

I take the Kinkless GTD approach. Mind you, I already had a Mac and OmniOutliner Pro and had read Getting Things Done, so it was pretty much predetermined that I'd go that route!
posted by kimota at 6:47 PM on June 18, 2006

pocketmod, by a mile
posted by webtom at 6:52 PM on June 18, 2006

For me, I use an iCal list. I put everything, absolutely everything, in various categories (Work, Kid, Hobbies, Friends) so I can turn certain lists on and off.

Under large tasks, I break those down into smaller steps so I can make progress, even if I can't check them off.

I put everything down so I can always check something off. If I don't have something to check off, I'll feel bad and avoid looking at the list.

It loads when I boot up in the morning. I do a few personal tasks before the work day and then turn my personal list off until lunchtime.

Also, staying off MeFi. If I'm goofing off here, I'm not getting stuff done.
posted by Gucky at 7:09 PM on June 18, 2006

I like to put lists on relatively small peices of paper (like, 1/4 of a standard notebook page) because it fits in a purse/pocket/wallet nicely, and keeps me honest about what I can realistically accomplish in a day.

Put absolutely everything on there cause you will feel so good about marking stuff off as done, even if it's as mundane as "take trash to the curb".

And finally, limit distractions. If I really need to accomplish stuff, I will log out of AIM and quit my email client.
posted by ilsa at 7:16 PM on June 18, 2006

Have a todo list on your computer that you can sort by priority. Todo lists never worked for me till I did this. Now, I know I'm getting important stuff done when I take off the first few items from the list.
posted by lunchbox at 7:36 PM on June 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

I use notepad at work, and Nullsoft Sex at home. Since Sex runs at startup, I have no choice but to use it.
posted by fvox13 at 7:51 PM on June 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

I use a Moleskine plain page Reporter notebook. For each to-do item I write down an (A) -- that's an "A" with a circle around it -- which stands for "action item". As I accomplish things, I put a line through it. If I know I need to do some research or refer to someone else I write down a (?). If I need to write a phone number down or some other small piece of info it's (I).

Then every few days or so, I regroup any unfinished tasks, add new ones and keep going. I like the reporter style notebook because it makes it much easier to flip back and forth between pages and overall it's easy to handle when I need to flip it out and write something down, plus it's small enough to fit in a shirt pocket.

Having priority-less to-do items frees me up a great deal because I could easily get lost in what item is more important than another. I'd rather just quickly review my list and make decisions on the fly.

Quick accessibility and ease of use make my system work for me.
posted by SoulOnIce at 8:23 PM on June 18, 2006

There are countless todo systems out there, all with their own strengths and weaknesses. I've found, however, that the single most important concept involved in getting things done is commitment do using the system you select. Pick a system that works for you, that helps compensate for your shortcomings, and stick with it!
posted by tnoetz01 at 8:58 PM on June 18, 2006

I've always found that a small whiteboard todo list helps me get things done. There is something very officey about it, that makes me feel like I oughta be doing something.
posted by Serial Killer Slumber Party at 9:07 PM on June 18, 2006

I keep a running todo list at work that lists everything from small tasks to big, long-term projects. I divide them out according to what I will do today, things that I need to work on a little at a time to complete in the near future, and ongoing projects and projects that are in the wings. To compose my daily todo, I think about the stuff in the second and third column and try to take a piece out that I can complete today and add those to my daily todo list. That way, I can get some immediate satisfaction in completing a small part of a big project everyday AND I can tell my superviser of my progress. I keep list on paper next to my computer. for some reason it makes me think about it more.
posted by Foam Pants at 9:53 PM on June 18, 2006

The keys to a successful TODO list:
1) Completely review the list at least once a week.
2) Have one master list and put all tasks (from meeting notes, pocketmods, emails, etc) onto that.
3) Have a heirarchy of lists - grand projects --> goals --> tasks - and update all of them in the weekly review.
4) Be ruthless in removing things from your list, or making them top priority, if they stay too long.
5) Make a way of scheduling future tasks -- a calander or tickler file -- so you don't forget them.
6) Copy what you complete into an accomplished list. Also review this every week.

Key #4 is probably most important in sticking to the list. The biggest reason I abandon these lists is that they get filled with pointless tasks that I will keep procrastinating forever, but refuse to give up on.
posted by DrJJ at 10:40 PM on June 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

My wife bought me a nice dayplanner for Christmas last year and I swore that I'd try it out, even though I'm an IT guy through and through.

It's actually worked out really well for me, one of the reasons being because it sits on my desk ALL the time, listing what I need to do for the day (as mentioned above). It's easy for me to scribble something into it when I need to and scribble stuff out when it is done. I also do something my dad taught me, which is move items between days, so if I don't get it done by the end of the day Monday, I cross it off Monday and move it to Tuesday.

Another reason for my dayplanner/todo (that I don't see mentioned) is all about dumping my brain onto a piece of paper. I've got a pretty good memory, so I don't often forget stuff to do, but if I get too much on my list and I'm trying to remember it all, then it requires a significant mental effort on my part and I get stressed. If I can dump it all down on a list, then I don't have to remember anymore and I feel much more relaxed... I used to do this with scrappy bits of paper before I got my dayplanner, but the planner helps keep it mobile and in one place!

It's really helped my productivity and I'd recommend it to anyone...
posted by ranglin at 10:44 PM on June 18, 2006

I use a program at work called ToDoList. I'll have to find out the specifics tomorrow when I'm at work, but it's really a great program. It lets you assign priorities, subtasks, percentage done, etc. You can use as little or as much of the functionality as you want. The catch? Windows only, of course. So, I'm watching this thread for similar programs for the Mac.
posted by rossination at 10:58 PM on June 18, 2006

I appreciate all you answers so far, but what I was really looking for was the attitudes and/or habits that you had to cultivate to get a todo list to work for you, not neccessarily the todo list system. I've seen all sorts of those. Perhaps I'll repost this later and reclarify the question.
posted by the giant pill at 1:34 AM on June 19, 2006

There's too many nerds here -- you're all talking about the software tools to use, but the best software in the world won't help you do the things. What if the guy doesn't use a computer/palmpilot constantly? Then software isn't very useful. (Personally, I use a dry-erase marker and my bathroom mirror.)

Something that helps me is a clock with an hourly chime. I frequently get focused on something, get distracted but still have that same narrow focus. When the chime goes off, I stop whatever it is I'm doing for a short while, and do something else. Usually this is stepping outside, and looking at my to-do list. If what I was doing isn't on my to-do list, then I change what I'm doing to something that /is/ on my list.

Stopping myself with the chime is annoying ("obey the clock," I will mutter to myself), and it feels disappointing to break concentration, but I find I really am more productive by taking breaks to reassess whatever it is I'm doing.
posted by Mozai at 5:21 AM on June 19, 2006

I think it's important to find a system that works for you, because hopefully you're going to use it a lot as you get more productive :-) I ended up writing my own.

I try to be aware of when I've lost focus, or when I'm procrastinating, and then use my to-do list to get me back on track. There's an index card on my desk with "Divide and conquer" and "What's the next action?" written on it. It's there to remind me that if I'm stuck I can try breaking my current task into smaller pieces to find something I can start, or to focus on working out what the "action" is for this item, if it's too woolly. I'll often then use my to-do list to note down all the broken down tasks so I don't forget them.

Or, I'll use my to-do list to see what else I've got to do. If I really can't face carrying on with the current task now, I'll allow myself to choose something else from the to-do list, as it's all useful stuff (else it wouldn't be on the to-do list right?)

It also helps me jettison tasks that I'm never going to get round to doing. After something has been sat on my to-do list for too long it will begin to bug me a bit. Then I'll either decide that it's something I want to do, so I better work out how to find time to do it, or it's something I'm never going to get to so I can abandon it and never have to worry about it again.

All these things mean that it's useful to have as much as possible in my to-do list, so helps reinforce the habit. And over time, I'm getting better at just cranking through what's on the list, rather than spending lots of time agonizing about what to do next...
posted by amcewen at 8:16 AM on June 19, 2006

Stopping myself with the chime is annoying ("obey the clock," I will mutter to myself), and it feels disappointing to break concentration, but I find I really am more productive by taking breaks to reassess whatever it is I'm doing.

I second that.

For me, a small timer (I use TakeABreak) that forces you to take a break every while can help me focus.

I work 10minutes full force on a task, whether it can be finished in that time or not. Timer goes off, I click "Take A Break" button which I have set to 2 minutes, during which I force myself to stretch/break. Then alarm goes off, I get back to completing tasks until the 10 minute alarm goes off. (I can get lots done in a single hour - and the periods fit well - 5x10min=50min and 5x2min=10min time slots ==> 60 minutes.)

Once I start moving on getting things done earlier in the day, I tend to be able to get into producing a lot. The key is those 10 minutes, when I can block all the distractions floating around in my mind (tasks I think I might be neglecting/forgetting, etc.) and have a clean mental slate so to speak, so I can do nothing else but work.
posted by parma at 11:33 AM on June 26, 2006

per this thread i started using Tedium, and although still under construction, I'm very impressed!!
posted by Izzmeister at 12:09 PM on June 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

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