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The Power and Pitfalls of a To-Do List

I’m addicted to organization.  I may not be certifiably obsessive-compulsive, but my brain often compels my hands to seek order in my external world.  I’ve been able to give up a lot of frivolous habits, like arranging my CD collection alphabetically, but I can still find whatever I’m looking for in my filing cabinet in five seconds flat, and my hard drive is structural zen.

To-do list

You may be overextending yourself...

Early in my life I saw value in applying this casual affinity for organization to my work life.  As a result, I’ve experimented at length with a tool that can have immense value: the ‘to-do list’.  Most people don’t give this much thought beyond “write down what you need to do on a piece of paper.” Simple, right? If you think so, you may be doing it wrong.

My early experiments involved placing everything I needed to accomplish on a master list.  Short and long-term goals alike filled pages and pages of paper.  The paper, if I didn’t lose it, inevitably became so messy with crossed off tasks, additional notes, and symbols denoting various priorities that it became worse than useless; looking at it stressed me out.  It made me feel like my life was out of control.

In trying to do everything, I ended up doing nothing.

Before long I went back to the drawing board.  I needed to organize my organizational list better.  I turned to Google -- after all, they seemed to be getting things done.  They offer a service called iGoogle, where you can customize a homepage.  In addition to installing widgets that allowed me to see at a glance my inbox, top news, the weather, and so on, there are hundreds of ‘to-do’ list apps available.  I chose one that seemed powerful and that allowed me to set up tabs for personal and work tasks, and break them down into daily, mid- and long-term goals.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  My life was back under control.

But not for long.  Every time I loaded my browser, staring me in the face was a list telling me what I should be doing.  It became obnoxious real quick.  I felt guilty that I was looking at funny pictures of cats instead of learning how to play guitar.  Out of habit, I started to avoid looking at my list until it became completely invisible to me.  It was time to reevaluate.

At work I had no choice but to be highly organized.

For ten hours a day I would be expected to produce results on major projects while running (sometimes literally) from one meeting to the next, trying to keep ahead of deadlines while managing the size of my inbox and answer a phone that was always ringing.

Focus on your goalsThen I read an article on the value in writing your to-do list on cue cards.  They’re small enough to hold 10 to 15 tasks max, which forced me to focus on the most important and urgent priorities, and I could create a new one each day.  The method worked.  My list was manageable (eliminating the stress that goes with staring at a sheet of 50+ tasks,) and I regained one of the perks I lost with iGoogle, the psychological boost of physically crossing items off a list with pen.  The only drawback was that I’d tend to use the same card for 2 weeks, where some uncompleted task would stare me in the face for days.

More recently I discovered a new system that’s been paying dividends in my life.  A few months ago I picked up Brian Tracy’s Ultimate Goals Program, an audio series on achieving your goals.  He proposed an ingenious system (and I’m loosely paraphrasing):

  • Buy a notebook, and each morning on a fresh page, write down what you want to accomplish that day.
  • Prioritize them into ‘A’ tasks (activities that will help you reach your most important goals,) ‘B’ tasks (ones that are pressing and should be done today,) ‘C’ tasks (those that you would like to do if you have time, but are not critical,) and ‘D’ tasks (those that you should delegate.)
  • Never complete a C task without having finished your B tasks, and never complete a B before an A.
  • Don’t stress out if you don’t complete everything.  Adding tasks you know you probably won’t finish allows you to ‘procrastinate’ on those B and C tasks in favour of completing the more valuable A priorities.

With this system I don’t carry over tasks for weeks or months, with unfinished items (often unimportant ones) staring me in the face, which cuts down on that overwhelmed feeling.

There’s never enough time in the day, so each morning I’m forced to think seriously about what’s important to me right now.

And using paper means I also get the bonus of being able to cross tasks off with pen.

It’s taken me years to find an effective method, and I don’t presume that what works for me will work for you, but if you’re serious about organizing your life, I invite you to try out a few methods, and find one that sticks.

Your future self will thank you!

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