Maybe you’re on top of things and have your calendar and to-do list in great working order. Nice job! For everyone else: a few easy steps are going to make a huge difference in your working life.
Last week I talked about what a calendar can do for you. This week, it’s time to tackle your to-do list.
I can no longer imagine working without a digital list. But I understand why it can be hard to get started (and to keep going). There’s just so much software out there. And installing an app isn’t the same as integrating a to-do list into your work. We’ll get to that in a moment, but first: back to basics.
Do I really need a to-do list?
Absolutely. It’s the ideal way to stop storing things in your head, which can be more taxing than you’d think.
Using your head to remember things long-term isn’t an effective strategy. Not only does it cause you constant low-level stress, but it makes it considerably harder to focus on the task at hand. And invariably, something will get forgotten, neglected, omitted – at which point low-level stress spikes high.
Someone at a seminar I attended put it this way: Use your brain as working memory, not as a hard drive. That’s a great analogy. If you try to keep all those to-dos in mind without any help, you’ll be preoccupied by mental reminders for errands to run and other odd jobs you have to take care of. That leaves little room for creative solutions or revolutionary ideas.
And using your head for storage is completely unnecessary. A to-do list in the form of a fine piece of software can be a big help.
How? Simple: when you’re sure that all the things you need to do are noted down somewhere, and there’s no longer any doubt that you’ll get around to them, it’s incredibly freeing. Your brain stops pestering you with reminders, leaving you free to focus on more important matters.
Getting started with a digital list
To-do software saves you time and trouble. You avoid the hassle of rewriting lists or keeping track of paper versions. Software also gives you the flexibility to organize your growing list as time goes on.
But first things first. I recommend starting with Things if you’re a Mac and/or iPhone user, or Todoist if you use Windows and/or an Android device. There are countless others, and I make more suggestions here. When in doubt, go for Things or Todoist to start. Both those apps are opinionated, meaning you can only make limited changes to them. And that works well when you’re getting started with this kind of software.
Ok, I’ve installed an app. Now what?
Now that you have the software, you’ve got one job: Jotting down here – and only here – everything that needs to happen.
Keep things simple. Don’t worry about all the extra features, like naming different projects, assigning deadlines, using labels, color codes, or anything else. Just put everything in one basic list. You’ll soon see that a single list can be super useful from the get-go. And it’s easier to stick with long-term.
David Allen, who’s a big inspiration for my way of working, introduced the Mind Sweep in his book Getting Things Done. This exercise can help you get all those loose ends out of your head.
Mind sweep works by using a list to trigger your thoughts. Here’s a good one. Take a few minutes and have a look. You’ll start to notice all kinds of things floating around in your head that need doing, from writing that novel to buying light bulbs. Add it all to your to-do list.
Continue to add things as they occur to you over the next couple of hours, the next few days. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ve been storing in your head.
Next, you’ll have to look at your list regularly. If you neglect it, then your brain will start distracting you with reminders again. I solve this by making a pact with myself: Whenever I have a free block on my calendar, I first take out my to-do list and tackle something, big or small. Only afterwards do I check my email.
So in short: (1) Add anything on your mind to Things or Todoist, and (2) go to your to-do list if you don’t have anything scheduled on your calendar. Stick to those two simple steps, and you have a reliable basis for peace of mind.
Time for a reset?
Perhaps you enthusiastically started a to-do list some time back, and then let it slide. No worries, just start again. But keep it simple this time. Eliminate any complexity by ignoring all those extra features. Just make one single list. Take a few minutes to go through the mind sweep to catch all your loose ends.
Then make a point of turning to your new list this week whenever you have a gap in your schedule.
That’s it. You and your to-do list will soon be back on track!
Have a great week,