How do you to-do?

Let’s start with a simple definition of a ‘to-do’, how about – a task that you cannot complete right now.

The issue is what you will do with that task. Basically, you want to forget about it now, but remember to start the task when you have the required time, resources and inclination. This implies that the being a reminder mechanism is the main objective of a to-do.

So, the basic to-do scenario might be:

  1. Open up your to-do list
  2. Add the task to it
  3. Return to whatever you were doing
  4. Sometime in the future start doing the task

An important concept was just introduced! Many to-do tasks make up a to-do list. Your to-do list may spread across many formats:

  • Memory
  • Physical prompt
  • Paper
  • Software
  • An assistant

Time to remember the primary objective – how to remember when to do something. Notice that all of the to-do list formats have a direct method of notification:

  • Memory – It’s Monday, back to work, I have to bring that book in
  • Physical prompt – I need that book at work, I’ll put it by the front door
  • Paper – I’ll add a note to my morning checklist to bring that book in
  • Software – I’ll email a reminder to my home email because I need that book tomorrow
  • An assistant – Hey slave, go to my house, pick up this book that I want at 2pm

All of them work, all of them have issues…

To-do List Advantages Problems
Memory Portable No/low overhead ‘entering’ a new task Forgetfulness Stress Basically unreliable
Physical Prompt Effective set and forget method Typically the prompt is what you need to complete the task Other people can interfere with the prompt Probably not scalable Creates clutter Only for suitable tasks (eg does not work for “Take the car to the car wash”)
Paper Can represent any task Well supported by to-do systems Configurable in any way you want to change it Relatively inexpensive Portable Requires manual checking Can involve significant management Requires an organised personality Must be carried around to be portable If you lose it, it is gone forever For complex systems, you must understand the system
Software Can represent any task Well supported by to-do systems Reminders can be automated Much of to-do system theory can be built into the software Can create backups to guard against information loss Can be inexpensive Portable (on a Mobile device) Mobile device must be carried around to be portable May not support features that you want (difficult to add those features if you want them) Can be expensive Requires access to a compliant device for the reminders to work
An assistant Task management can be sub-contracted to other people Very Expensive

Note that we use a combination of most to-do list types – even when we attempt to use only one. Recognising this and working with it, rather than against it, can help you make peace with your personal to-do ‘system’. You can allow yourself to use the best to-do list for the situation rather than fit all situations into a prescribed to-do list.

One common problem with to-do lists is that few of them cope effectively with lots of tasks. As soon as a to-do list is filled wtih many tasks, it becomes more complex to manage. Strategies to cope with many tasks include:

  • grouping tasks into projects
  • giving tasks tags or context – typically location, priority and scheduled date/time.

What other things can you do with a to-do list?

As time is a limited resource, and we tend to have more to-do than available hours, you can use a list to prioritise what you will target for achievement.

What can you do with a to-do when you’re done?

You can report on what you have been doing (perhaps to your boss).

Basically, a done list provides you with a feedback loop. Just like recording money expenditure helps with budgeting, a completed to-do list can assist you in examining where your time is going. You can better balance your life activities.

The temptation though, is to track more with a to-do list than necessary, just to improve the quality of the feedback.

Actually, this function could better be called a task diary. Completed to-do items happen to be the main (probably only) input to the task diary for most of us. However, the value of the task diary is limited by how many done tasks are added to it. A better approach may be to consider more than just completed to-do items as input to your task diary (eg a direct automatic daily entry for making and eating breakfast).

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