Help me be more anal
May 8, 2008 11:23 PM   Subscribe

I want to be better at making to do lists.

Everybody I know who is successful and productive seems to make a lot of to do lists. I hardly ever make to to do lists and when I do I tend not to look at them after words. I would appreciate tips on how to make lists that are useful, and any applications that make list making useful. Please keep in mind that I am the opposite of anal retentive, so motivation in keeping the lists organized and up to date is a major problem for me.
posted by afu to Work & Money (16 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
sounds like you may need some help Getting Things Done
posted by phredgreen at 11:45 PM on May 8, 2008

Some good advice here. Here's the best bit:

Each night before you go to bed, prepare a 3x5 index card with a short list of 3 to 5 things that you will do the next day. And then, the next day, do those things. I sit down at my desk before I go to sleep, pull up my Todo List (which I keep in Microsoft Word's outline mode, due to long habit), and pick out the 3 to 5 things I am going to get done tomorrow. I write those things on a fresh 3x5 card, lay the card out with my card keys, and go to bed. Then, the next day, I try like hell to get just those things done. If I do, it was a successful day.

posted by one_bean at 12:28 AM on May 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Three Words: Remember the Milk

I use my own system which is kinda based on GTD (as recommended by Phredgreen). Whenever something pops into my head, like 'Oh I write that report on Friday', I create a task for it at Remember the Milk and date it for Friday. I have a saved search which presents me with a list of tasks due on a particular day. so when friday comes along.. all my tasks for that day are presented.

I don't worry about Next Actions and Someday lists like GTD recommends.

The GTD principle is all about getting stuff out of your head and onto a list. That way you are not constantly thinking about WHAT you need to do (as it is all written down), rather you can focus on getting it done.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 12:57 AM on May 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

One of the best list-making and thought-organizing tools I've found (discovered through Metafilter, of course,) is Freemind.
One of the hard things in to-do lists is getting the order of operations right, and capturing all the little sub-tasks. Freemind is an easy tool for making branching diagrams (like a family tree or org. chart), letting you cut and paste items and branches until you have your outline, schedule, project plan, whatever ordered correctly.
If you don't want to stick with the diagram, you can export it to HTML, and save that as a Word doc: automatically converting your diagram to an indented, bulleted outline format. Cool tricks like making the notation for any branch or item a hyperlink to another document, website, folder, etc. are also easily accomplished.
Free, works the same on Windows, OSX, Linux.
P.S. It's about capturing things you want/need to do in something other than your head, thus freeing your headspace for making them happen. Capture everything, sort it out into a plan, then you can just work the plan without more thought until you've gathered enough new stuff to re-sort for the next plan. Much less lost effort than trying to gather, sort, plan, and execute all at the same time. Measure twice, cut once.
posted by bartleby at 2:18 AM on May 9, 2008

I prefer a much more simple system. I've tried some of the online methods and while they seem really nice, it was taking too much time to produce the lists.

I just keep a small notepad next on my desk and write down everything that comes in on that. The trick is to write down EVERYTHING (even if you think you are going to remember it and get to it later that day). The only exception is anything that I will do right then (and if I don't finish it, it goes on the list.

If I'm busy and need to prioritise what I should do, then I simply look at the list and write down the tasks I'm going to do that day on a seperate sheet.

As bartleby mentions above the trick is getting everything out of your head - I think much more than that can waste more time than it saves.
posted by Mattat at 3:55 AM on May 9, 2008

Go simple, three post-its with your next three tasks, and maybe, if you could be bothered, a text file on your desktop so that when you think of something that needs doing (send birthday card to grandma, get dog pills etc) that you're not going to do right now, you can put it there so you don't forget it. Get Outlook (or something) to remind you to check it once a day. (You could of course schedule it all in outlook, and put tasks in there too, but that starts becoming too structured, and you start automatically closing all reminders as soon as they open because they're so damn annoying.) Three tasks a day, post-its on yr monitor or whatever. Do that for a bit, and then once it's a habit, come back and ask again.
posted by b33j at 6:30 AM on May 9, 2008

Two things that work for me:

1) A notebook. After trying RTM and Todoist, I've returned to the simple notebook. One day for every page. Every day, I copy the incomplete items over from the previous page. When I complete something, I cross it out. Rinse and repeat. It's my lightweight, cross-platform, infinitely portable solution. Many people use a Moleskine notebook for this; Black n' red makes hardbound ones that suffice for me.

2) Verbs. My super secret to do list trick is this: every item on the list starts with a verb. It's not enough to say "training materials" or "training materials review" -- the list item is "Complete training materials review" or "Review all training materials." I like "Complete" and "resolve" particularly because it keeps me on the hook for the final 10% of something. Otherwise I cheat.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:36 AM on May 9, 2008 [5 favorites]

My secret (which I learned from an earlier mefi thread) is to include things that I have done, even if they weren't on the todo list. So let's say the list says:

1. Call Mom 2. Buy Milk 3. Phone Andrea

but I also happen to pay my phone bill, I add (and then cross off)

4. Pay phone bill

Being confronted with a long list of uncompleted jobs is daunting and often scares me away from the list. But it is amazing how much accomplishing things on the list makes me motivated to finish the other tasks. Sure, paying my phone bill wasn't on my list for today, but it is something that was going to have to get done at some point, so I include it, and I feel good about getting it done.

And you know when people say that large tasks are easier if you break them up into smaller ones? I never believed that until I started writing every step down on my list. And then, the pleasure of crossing things off led me to gradually get everything done! It was amazing.

Every day, at work, I make a new to-do list in the same notebook. I carry over uncompleted tasks from the day before and I a) have the satisfaction of looking through a whole notebook of completed tasks and b) a record of when everything got done. Making this a habit was the best thing that every happened to me at work, it has increased my productivity tremendously.
posted by chelseagirl at 7:27 AM on May 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

Obviously it depends on your personal style. Try some different methods and see what works best for you.

I use a very small, thin blank notebook that I can slip into the back pocket of my jeans. At the beginning of the day I write down all the things I need to do before the end of the day, and as I do them I cross them off. Crossing things off a list feels great! If I finish everything on my list I reward myself -- oreos or a glass of scotch :) That way it feels less like an onus and more like a game. I also have one recurring task that I do every day: learn a new word, which I write at the top of my list. This gets me into the habit of looking at the list on a daily basis.

Once it becomes a habit it's pretty easy to maintain.
posted by MaddyRex at 7:33 AM on May 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm trying out the Hipster PDA technique right now. There are a lot of mods on this organization scheme, too, if you wanna get fancy. Basically, just a bunch of 3x5s secured with bulldog clips.
posted by ikahime at 7:47 AM on May 9, 2008

I use:

1. Basecamp for team-based goals

2. Ta-da List for non-time-sensitive matters (groceries, books I want to read, etc.)

3. A calendar (spiral-bound) for time-sensitive tasks and appointments

4. A 5" x 8" notebook for daily tasks, used in a manner similar to what one_bean and MaddyRex describe

Revelatory was discovering that it can be ok to occasionally not something done, axing an item on the list for something that actually may be more important.
posted by asuprenant at 7:48 AM on May 9, 2008

Best answer: These answers seem to be about breaking down tasks (what do I need to do for each item on my to do list?) Is this what you're looking for, or are you just trying to remember and prioritize the tasks? I'm a really organized person to whom both these aspects of to-do lists come naturally, but you have to start with the latter. I don't think you really need a system, you just have to discipline yourself to make the darned list. Best time to organize it is end of day or beginning of day, but you want to be writing down (or if you hate pen-and-paper, putting it somewhere electronically) whenever you think of a task. Don't worry about the order-- just write it down when you think of it, either on one master list that you keep going, or any scraps of paper (just don't lose them!) I even keep a pad of paper and pen handy in my car so if I think of anything on the road it gets written down.

What you want to do then is organize the list-- you've got this list of maybe 20 things to do, so just prioritize, by number on the master list. I like to group small stuff (change Mary's address, empty trash and other under-5-minute tasks) into a subgroup called "little shit". That is always number ONE and gets done first. You can prioritize by deadline, difficulty (hardest to easiest or easiest to hardest, doesn't matter), need to coordinate with others' schedule or whatever. Sometimes I re-write the list in priority order, sometimes I just number them and use the list as-is. The best thing about to-do lists is that they give you a strong visual for accomplishment. When you finish something on the list, get a sharpie and cross it off. At the end of the day you will really feel like you've gotten stuff done when you see all those big black bars.

The most important thing about any organizing system is not what the system is, or even that you always use the same system, but that you DO IT.

(Just for full disclosure, first item on my list is always "check Metafilter!")
posted by nax at 8:23 AM on May 9, 2008

I like to keep a daily list of all of my to do tasks on a notecard with one task written beside "#1 priority" at the top. I usually like to make this something significant that contributes to a longer term goal. Smaller stuff like "take out the trash" and "pay bills" go on the list, too, but they get done over the course of the day. At the end or the start of the day I transfer the unfinished tasks to another card and put another priority item at the top.

Regardless, as has already been said a number of times, just having a list and crossing things off is most important. The simple act of crossing an item off is essential. It does give you a little mood boost just to draw a line through a completed task, no matter how small.
posted by mockdeep at 3:24 PM on May 9, 2008

Lots of good comments. I would add that it's really important when I make my lists to not make them too ambitious. sometimes I make a list for the day and then a long term(week and/or month) list of tasks that need to get done. If my list is overly ambitious I get discouraged and can be prone to distraction and abandon the list, which is not good. better for me to get some things done than try to do everything and get nothing done.

I also sometimes add fun things that I want to do but never make time for to the list. which provides incentive.
posted by beckish at 5:16 PM on May 9, 2008

Breaking things down definitely helps. If you write "clean bedroom" it can be too overwhelming and take too long before you can check it off. But if you write "scrub blood off walls, use stain remover on carpet, wash bedding, dispose of mattress" then it's a little easier to handle.
posted by Locative at 11:49 PM on May 9, 2008 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great advice. I'm definitely going to get into the habit of writing a list down everyday. I think my major problem, like Nax said, is just getting everything down in writing in a consistent way. A complete program like GTD, seems a bit overwhelming. I
posted by afu at 8:56 AM on May 12, 2008

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