From There to Here: My To-Do List Evolution

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I was always a list-maker.  Because memory has never been my strong-suit, but I am incorrigibly accountable, lists have always been the way I operated in the world.

But as my world became more complex, so did my systems, by necessity.

In high school and college, I would literally write the things I didn't want to forget on the back of my hand.  At the time, I thought this system was amazing.  It was always with me, impossible to lose.  Just a quick glance and I knew what I needed to do.  I'm ashamed to say, I would try to avoid washing the back of my hand, even when I showered, so that my list wouldn't wash away leaving me feeling adrift.

As I entered the work-world and eventually moved across the country to a new city, my list had expanded.  It no longer fit on my hand; I no longer had a just a (literal) handful of things to do.  I started using a paper notebook to write down my lists; but they weren't super consistent.  I wasn't super consistent.  It wasn't a "system".  It was a series of lists, written as needed and sometimes abandoned.

At work, I was slightly more systematic.  I had a legal pad.  On that legal pad I wrote my entire to-do list.  As I worked, I would cross things off the list, and add things to the list, and every day before I went home, I would flip over the page and rewrite the list on a clean sheet with the next day's date at the top (leaving off the items I'd finished that day).   Writing and rewriting helped me remember, and it also made me feel clean, clear, on top of it.

As I moved in with my partner and began to be responsible for a household in addition to my job, I switched to a trusty Moleskine weekly planner, the kind with 1 week on the left and a lined sheet on the right.  I began to schedule my tasks instead of just having a single list.  I began to limit the number of home related tasks to 3 each day, as a way of preserving my sanity.  But my "big list" was still written and rewritten each week in the same manner as above. 

As my positions grew larger in scope and responsibility, as I became responsible for those other than myself (as a manager), as I had many projects with many, many steps I started using a spreadsheet to handle manage my workload.   I read Getting Things Done by David Allen, and certain aspects of the GTD method became impressed upon me, namely the importance of clarifying the next action for any task.  My spreadsheet began to incorporate this.  The basic framework I used then is still, at its core,  the architecture I use today, although I often end up translating it into other forms (apps, task management software, etc).

And here is it is:

  • Task Name (short description, item, etc.)
  • Category (project, type, etc.)
  • Next Step(s) (the next actionable step you will take, and perhaps the actionable steps you will take after that; sometimes you know them all at once, sometimes you only know one or two steps ahead)
  • Next Step Date (the date you'll perform the next step)
  • Due Date (only if you really have one; I don't believe in inputting arbitrary deadlines, as they only increase stress)
  • History (date and action for all steps taken; this is how you document your progress)
  • Status (Not Started, In Progress, Done)

Once I've got everything in the list, I sort by "Next Step Date".  What I love about this framework is that it enables you to know what you need to do TODAY, across all projects/categories by looking at a single list.  You'll notice that "priority" is a field that is conspicuously left off, and that's because when you schedule your tasks based on the "Next Step Date", there is no need to add priority.  You have already prioritized by taking stock of what you need to do and the time you have to do it, and your "Next Step Dates" reflect this. As soon as you complete a step, you can update the "Next Step" (define what you need to do next), the "History" (document what you've done) and "Next Step Date" (to define when you'll do the next Next Step).  You update your list as you work your way through it, so you don't fall into the trap of having a task to update your tasks.

I have adapted this framework to Wrike, to Wunderlist, to Asana, to Clear and others; It can be adapted to most tools because it is simple.  It structures what you have to do today to make sure you meet your deadlines, rather than telling you that a bunch of stuff you should have already done is due today.  It doesn't require the bells and whistles of many task management systems; you don't need push notifications and reminders interrupting your flow if you're working off a prioritized list that is comprised of everything you need to do. 

And I know what you are thinking: "But I never complete my to do list every day".

And that's true, you won't get everything done every day.  So when that happens, you just adjust your "Next Step Dates" to make sure you have a balanced workload for the coming days and weeks.  And those items that are not important enough (i.e. properly prioritized as low value) drift to the bottom, where they should be.

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