Maura Thomas on the To-Do Lists That Don’t Work

[ 0 ] October 15, 2010 |

The concept of time management probably dates back to the origination of the calendar, which is estimated to be as much as 30,000 years ago. The concepts have increased in importance as our lives have gotten busier and more hectic, perhaps beginning with the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. Today’s technologically advanced world certainly demands processes and tools that match the complexity of our lives. However many early principles have persisted, despite the fact that they have become obsolete over the years. As a productivity trainer I have spent a lot of time explaining to people why the advice they have been following may, in fact, be detrimental to their efficiency.

I’d like to start with the one that is very common but probably the worst advice I have ever heard, which is to spend time at the beginning of each day, or the night before, writing down all of the things that you would like to accomplish that day. This tip is usually followed by the advice to “prioritize the list using A, B, C” or some other hierarchy, and then simply spend the day working from your list. The theory behind this advice is that the list will keep you focused on the important tasks.

There are several reasons why this piece of advice has far outlived it’s usefulness. First, a handwritten list on paper is simply no match for all the ways that modern technology has created to distract us. In your work environment, you are probably facing at least one computer screen (maybe two), a screen on your handheld device, and maybe even a screen on your desk phone and a television or two, depending on your industry. Matt Richtel, technology writer for the New York Times, calls this “screen invasion.” Each of these screens has motion and lights and colors and sounds and all methods of stealing your attention. Unfortunately, your handwritten list is simply no match for current technology.

But here is an even more important reason why starting your day like this is a waste of time: most professionals’ lives are so busy and full with career, family, and personal commitments, communication, and information, that they are constantly doing mental gymnastics trying to remember it all. Making a “big” list once per day virtually guarantees that you will forget some things, so often people find themselves making notes on whatever happens to be at hand: a sticky pad, random business card, cocktail napkin, back of an envelope … plus electronic tools like voice recorders or voicemails to themselves. There is simply too much to remember and the human brain is not good at details.

“Making a list” is simply not sufficient anymore. Instead, the solution I suggest is two-fold.

1.  You need an electronic to-do list – ideally one that is accessible to you from anywhere (such as on your computer and syncing with a handheld device). This tool should allow you to categorize your tasks in a way that is meaningful to you, because one long list of items is too overwhelming. I suggest categorizing tasks by the type of action they require. For example, a “Project” list for long-term, big-picture items, so you can always “keep your eye on the ball.” A “Next Actions” list is for those items that you are ready to accomplish if you only had the time, like a phone call, proposal, or set of calculations. The key to a successful Next Action list is that it should only contain tasks for which there is nothing preventing you from completing them: nothing you don’t know how to do or that requires information you don’t have yet, for example. Another useful category is things that you are Waiting For. These are items for which you are responsible, but waiting on information, input, or permission from someone else. Capturing these items together in a Waiting For category on your list frees up a lot of mental energy that you were using to try to remember to hold everyone accountable to their commitments.

In addition to the ability to categorize, an electronic tool will allow you to tie related dates, like a due date, to your (also electronic) calendar, shuffle priorities, due dates, and other details more easily than on paper, and, the most useful benefit, create reminders that can flash/ring/vibrate or otherwise compete with all of the other unwelcome distractions you are subjected to daily. There are many, many tools to choose from including the Task Lists in Microsoft Outlook (PC), iCal or BusyCal (Mac), plus many stand-alone, web-based options such as Remember the Milk, ToDo, Todoist, and many others.

2.  Along with the comprehensive tool for storing all of this information, you also need a good tool to capture it all, at any time. Ideas, responsibilities, and other important thoughts are probably weighing on your mind all the time (they may even be preventing you from restful sleep!) and you can’t predict when they will pop into your head, so it’s vital to your peace of mind to be able to capture these thoughts, whenever they come up, and then ensure that they don’t fall into some void where you never see them again, which is what often happens with thoughts spoken into voice recorders or written on sticky notes, business cards, and cocktail napkins.

My favorite capture tool is Jott, which allows me to record thoughts via an app on my iPhone or with a quick phone call from anywhere. But the best part about this recording is that the service will then type up my recording an email it to me, ensuring that I will see it again and be able to take appropriate action on it. Jott will also send me a reminder by text message if I choose. Jott also has a competitor which looks great, called ReQall, Google Voice does voice-to-text plus email conversion, and in fact, if you have an iPhone, the Voice Recorder app that comes pre-loaded now offers a button to email the recording to yourself or someone else. The missing piece in the iPhone Voice Recorder is the voice-to-text option, but usually just being able to have my recording appear in my email, and listen to it, is enough for me.

You might be wondering why I think this is better than leaving yourself a voicemail, so let me share that with you. Often, we pick up voicemail messages on the go, and we get a lot of them. When I was using my own voicemail as a capture tool, I found that I often called in to receive my messages but had to skip over all of the ones from myself, which was an annoying time-waster. Messages in voicemail just didn’t seem to present my captured thoughts to me in a way that made them actionable. Having them in my email allows me to either take the action while sitting at my desk, or simply drag them to my to-do list for action at an appropriate time. Emails seem to be more tangible, and therefore more actionable, than voicemails. But if you have a voicemail service that emails messages to you, this might be a good solution.

The concept of “time management” as we now think of it has been around for decades, if not centuries, and many old ideas persist. But the advances of just the last 50 years or so has made many of these ideas obsolete. The next time you read an article about “time management tips,” try to discern if these ideas are left over from the past or truly have relevance today. If you would like a document that contains more useful categories for your to-do list, and further explanation about the ones mentioned above, feel free to email me at maura(at)regainyourtime(dot)com for a PDF document. Thanks for reading!

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Category: Career, Career Development

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About Maura Thomas: Maura’s almost 20 years of experience in the productivity industry led her to found in 2003, and develop the Empowered Productivity™ System, a workflow management process for defending your attention and achieving significant results. [...]
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