Having a to-do list (even if you hate it)

photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/txkimmers

I hate to-do lists.  Let’s be clear.  A to-do list is the best way for me to remember that I haven’t finished doing something.  If I start making lists I’ll remember all of the things I once thought were important and then didn’t have time to do.  But wait – I think that’s actually the point.

Most definitions of short-term memory suggest that we can hold 7 items (+/- 2) in our active memory at any one time.  Given that some of these slots are held by much more important things than “should I do that thing that’s on my list”, it stands to reason that one of the most important things to remember is a reliable collection device where you can store that list.  There are lots of different tools to help with this process: I use Evernote.

Store the list and share it

I have a list marked “status” — it’s a list of my current commitments, what I said I would do, what I’m working on, and where I need help.  It’s a modified form of GTD, and it helps me to collect all of the things that I’m working on so that I don’t miss a step.  I also have one other list, called “weekly report”, which is a rolled-up version of the status list.  I share each of these lists (status, 3x weekly, and the weekly report, 1x weekly) which keeps me honest — I don’t want to put something on that list unless I want to commit to thinking about how it will get done, doing it, or asking for help so that I can get it done.

Decide (from a few choices)

This is the easy part — when new work comes in, I make a decision.  File it (many filters take care of this for me), leave it for action, or respond immediately to the work?  If the work is only a few minute task or less, I try to respond to it.  I use TextExpander to automate some of this process, so that the types of work that are most easily done can be done with a minimum of keystrokes.

Act (if it’s a longer term item)

Several times a week, I try to make time to work on longer term items.  When I file them or store them for later action, I try to be as specific as possible in noting what it will take to move that item forward.  “Make the widget better” is not usually useful, but “spend 30 minutes thinking about 3 ways to improve the widget” often is — especially if you make a commitment to document your thoughts and get feedback from other team members.

Bonus Item: Don’t be afraid to take something off of your to-do list

This may sound counter-intuitive, but when To-do lists become so long as to not easily be scannable, they become much less useful as lists.  Once a week (or maybe twice a month), make sure you look at the items that persistently don’t get done.  They might have turned out to be not as important as you thought; you might have found another way around that problem; or you just might not want to do that thing.  Don’t be afraid to cross it off the list.  If it’s still important, your team member (or your customer) will tell you.  (And then, of course, it needs to go higher up on your list.)


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