Many people use little scraps of paper for their to-do lists. Whether these scraps are stickie notes or scratch paper, they don’t really work well and cause a lot of frustration. I’m not writing to belittle anyone’s habit, but to explain why this does not work and to offer some ideas for more effective approaches below.

Little notes don’t work for managing to-do’s for many reasons:

People sometimes accumulate whole boxes of notes without getting the tasks on them done, which is loud testament to how ineffective these scraps are as task reminders. However, unfinished tasks prey on our minds at some level even when we seem to have forgotten them, undermining our peace of mind. Unfortunately, instead of realizing that using little scraps of paper cannot work well as task reminders, most people blame themselves when this approach does not work.

Here are some better ways to manage your to-do list:

* Protect it – Keep your task lists in a special notebook (even a tiny spiral notebook is better than loose scraps), folder, or planner binder where they are less likely to be lost or damaged. Which one will be best depends upon how many tasks you must keep track of, how consistently you will use whatever system you choose, and how much is at stake from your various activities. 
The more tasks you need to get done and the more urgent they are (such as, for staying employed or completing some project that is dear to your heart), the more fool-proof your system needs to be.
If you keep your to-do list on your phone, protect it by backing up your phone OFTEN.

* Keep your tasks on one list. Just as it doesn’t work to have multiple calendars (because appointments and plans get lost in the shuffle between them), having more than one to-do list guarantees that tasks will be overlooked. Having one list enables seeing at a glance what needs to be done. Keeping it all in one place prevents wasting time digging through scraps or overlooking anything. There are a few exceptions:

* Keep your list with you most of the time so that you can check it often, add other tasks in any time, or check things off as soon as they are done (the more quickly that this reward for accomplishing tasks on your list is provided, the more powerful it will be for encouraging further task completions).

* Complex situations may require their own pages or even chapters in your to-do list. Activities such as buying a house, changing jobs, dealing with a legal problem, and many more are complex tasks with many sub-tasks that likely require each element to be completed for the task to move forward.
         Having multiple pages for each component of such projects allows breaking them into small steps so that all essential sub-tasks get done. (See the article from February 2016, Planning Backwards, for a full description of how this works and examples of the process)

* The more that is at stake as a result of your actions, the more often you need to check your to-do list. If no one will be upset if your plans do not work out except you, then your list only needs to be checked as often as it takes to keep yourself happy. If others rely on you, you may need to check your list more frequently than for just yourself; situations involving others are usually more complicated which also means more frequent checking of the to-do list. A big project at work may require hourly updates on the status of each element; your to-do list at home may only need updating every day, every other day, or even every week. If there is any element of a situation that could be called a crisis in your life, chances are you need to check your list at least daily. (Note: consistent use of a good to-do list system can prevent many situations from becoming crises.)

* Check your list after each task is completed. While you may remember some tasks from your list, you are less likely to remember the most important task.

* Since even the best memory is fallible, having a regular day and/or time for updating your to-do list is your best bet for making sure that this critical element of being efficient and productive is remembered. Usually updating either in the evening before going to bed or in the morning shortly after waking are best but the time that will work best for you is the one that you will consistently do. Planning your to-do list for the day while sipping your morning coffee or tea is a nice ritual, but so is updating your list before going to bed so that you can sleep peacefully in the confidence that you will not forget anything.

* Put two dates on every task put on your to-do list: when you put it on and when you want it done. Keep accomplishment goals realistic, but plan when each item on your list would best be finished, and then maybe when you can live with it being done. Do not create deadlines for tasks that do not need them or beat yourself up if you do not get them done by the date.

* Consider color-coding tasks to more easily keep track of priorities. Write the task you must do in a color that shows how important or urgent it is. Write tasks that have hard deadlines in red and in bold for important ones.

* Find your most effective reward for checking your to-do list that you only allow when you have checked to see what needs to be done next. Training yourself to like checking to-do’s and checking things off your list will make you more productive and in charge of your life. Intermediate steps to reach this useful state might be to give yourself stickers (gold stars, anyone?) or other small rewards each time you look at your list.

* Have a system for making sure that unfinished or incomplete tasks are carried forward so that they are not overlooked. The easiest way to do this is to check your to-do list at the end of each day and re-list any unfinished tasks on the next day

Previous | Next

© Gloria Valoris, 2015

Articles Index

Home | Newsletters and Articles | Services | Workshops | Resources | Contact

Office Organization | Time Management | File Systems | Hoarding