How I Know What I Need to Do
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Lifehacker has a great discussion today on Paper versus Electronic To-Do Lists — the pros and cons of each. Ultimately, they make a stronger argument for paper, and I can’t disagree. I still haven’t found the perfect set of solutions, though — my to-do system remains a personalized hybrid of several recommendations and fixes. The benefit is that it’s molded to fit me; the downside is that there are always holes, and it requires discipline to maintain. Here’s what’s working for me right now:

The Whiteboard (aka My Baby) – I have a massive 3′ x 4′ whiteboard on the wall in my home office (aka my living room). It is the central bucket for quick thoughts. Because it is limited in size and super-easy to use, it’s the most likely bucket in my life to get processed thoroughly. I want it clear for me to add to, so I’m always pushing its content forward to where it really belongs.

The Other Whiteboard – Next to My Baby, I have a second, smaller white board (1.5′ x 2′), which sits right above my desk. It’s too small for brainstorming, but it’s perfect for defined to-do lists. When I sit down at my computer to crank out tasks, the first thing I do is list them out on the board in the order I want to get them done. I also leave a margin on the right for adding other tasks as they come up while I’m working. (Note: if I’m not working at home, I replace this either with a piece of paper or a plain text file. They do the job, but they’re not as slick.)

The Treo (aka My PDA Phone) – I’ve found that I rarely look at my Treo when I’m working, so it’s not a good place for me to record work tasks. It is, however, a great place to keep shopping lists, since the machine is always with me when I’m out. I use the other to-do categories to record non-critical tasks that I can forget about for a few weeks if necessary — usually creative problem-solving ideas. If I really need to remember to do something and all I have on me is the Treo, I’ll either email the task to myself or attach an alarm to it. I also use the alarm system to remember non-work-related events.

The Date Book – I carry a thick Moleskin notebook calendar with me whenever I’m working. It has a separate page for each day, and I use it to keep track of the Big Picture. I log my goals, major tasks, and hours worked. The first thing I do on Monday morning is review what I did last week and make a master list of big things I want to accomplish this week. Then I break that list down and spread it out over the days. The first thing I do every morning is look at what’s queued up for the day and revise it to fit my latest plan. The last thing I do before I quit work each day is record what I actually did. I could do this in any notebook, really; the benefit of using a calendar is just that it’s archived for reviewing later. I prefer paper to electronic here because I can leave it open on my desk, and I can work on it while I’m on the train.

The Inbox – I use Thunderbird to manage most of my email (my big client-specific email accounts are kept separate in Entourage). I automatically filter the inbox down into four categories:

  • Biz (email addresses I’ve identified to be primarily work-related)
  • Groups (email address I’ve identified to be from a social networking site or a mailing list)
  • Personal (anyone in my address book that doesn’t fall into one of the above groups)
  • Misc (not in my address book, but not in my spam folder either)

There’s a minor breakdown in the system here: I’ve found that if I don’t respond to an email the second I read it, I may forget to respond at all. I’ve tried several different techniques for managing unanswered emails, and all of them have required more discipline than I’ve been able to maintain. So for now, I just add “respond to ___” to an external to-do list when I know it’s important, and that seems to work.

The Misc Lists – Everything I’ve talked about so far manages the big stuff. Sometimes, though, there’s little stuff — lists miles long of little things i need to remember to do at some point. These end up all over the place — on Post-Its (stuck on my desk), on pieces of paper (stuck on my wall or refridgerator), in Stikkit or Backpack (depending on my mood — I haven’t picked my favorite yet), or in notebooks (to be transferred later to other places). I’ve learned to be careful about where the urgent and important pieces get captured, and I’ve also learned to relax about the rest.

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5 Responses to “How I Know What I Need to Do”

  1. Marian Says:

    Hey, that’s a good list of lists!

    My current system is similar, but lacking in white boards. I have a spiralbound for paper lists. It comes with me even when I’m not online, and it’s smaller and lighter than my laptop (and uses less electricity!)

    For online, I use I am crazy about Google Docs. In addition to backing up everything that I write, and sharing selected stuff, I also use it to keep lists (weekly lists, montly lists, lists of websites… I know this is not what it is designed for, but whatever.)

  2. sarah Says:

    Hi Marian!

    Google Docs, huh? I’m gonna have to check that out. I keep reminding myself, “Google knows too much. Stay away from them. They’re going to destroy the world and do bad things when the wrong person becomes CEO or when the government confiscates their files. Use a competitor. Please.”

    And then… Google keeps being awesome and saving my butt. I’m so tortured by them. Why can’t they just suck? It would make my life so much easier…

    (this is a current gripe because I just made my homepage)

  3. Marian Says:

    “Google knows too much. Stay away from them…”

    Yeah, that is a good point. I realized what a good point that is a few days ago when the ad above my google inbox cheerfully asked me, “are you over your ex yet?”

    “Uh, right Google, NOYFB, thanks for asking.” It was kind of funny… but not.

    It’s sad, because google docs used to be an independent service called writerly. I used it before it integrated with google. I don’t think there’s anything else out there like it. *sniff*

  4. sarah Says:

    You know what’s extra funny?

    While I was responding to your comment, I was wearing a google t-shirt, and didn’t even notice.

    How’s THAT for ubiquitous?!

    (oh, and if you want a writerly alternative, try Basecamp or wikis)

  5. sarah Says:

    (And by Basecamp I mean Backpack. Same system, different purpose.)