The science of to-do lists


Most important: keep your to-do list flexible.


“…or this will happen to you.” That part still kills me.

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My main take away is the author has control issues.

I wonder… would the author excel or fail in an environment like prison or the military?

It should be noted that this is why a good to-do-list MANAGER is such a huge win – and is a large part of what originally sold some folks on paper organizers and then sold many of us on PDAs such as the Palm. written properly, the program gives you ways of prioritizing the list such that you only see the top few (top seven?) items as judged by some combination of importance (a priority number) and urgency (a due date). If it isn’t in that set, you don’t worry about it yet, and the problem is solved.

Every now and then, when you AREN’T trying to Get Things Done, you take a bit of time to recheck your priorities and due dates. Or you may want to filter things by additional facts – “I’m in the basement, what else needs to be done down here?” – but still see only the top items from that filtered set.

Palm, and Research In Motion, got to-do lists and calendars right – which is [a large part of] why those two platforms were the ones adopted by business types. [RIM also took security much more seriously than most of their competitors, which was a big sales advantage when you have to worry about industrial espionage.]

Friends who have used the Palm apps report that they have been completely unable to find anything on the iPhone/iTouch/iPad that comes close to the Palm’s fit of tools to tasks, despite years of looking at alternatives. (Which is the single strongest reason I’ve never been very tempted by Apple’s offerings in portable devices.) I don’t know whether better alternatives exist for Android.

I’m not trying to claim that the Palm is better across the board than the newer devices. I just wish that they had put the kind of design time into functionality that Palm did, rather than letting making it pretty consume the entire budget. Or even that they’d just learned from Palm’s experience. I’m sorry, but while that’s a very pretty buggy wheel, nicely carved and painted and beautifully built out of the finest materials, it would be better if you’d noticed that someone else has already invented pneumatic tires.

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Isn’t all that sort of just saying “If you are not that organised a person, writing stuff down probably isn’t going to help that much”? I tried lists and they do not work for me. On the other hand I have a dear friend who keeps multiple lists and a list of lists which summarises the lists!

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Plain ol’ not-terribly-organized lists seem to work for me. I mean, if I have a lot of things, I might rewrite it with some sort of prioritizing, but that’s pretty rare. Mostly they just serve as reminders. I’ll glance up at the list every now and again and go, “oh, right, don’t forget the thing,” or “oh yeah, that’s coming up, I better get started on that,” and without such lists the stuff I need to do that I’m not focused on or that doesn’t have an obvious trigger (like an empty fridge) tend to drop right out of my head.

It’s a common misconception that list management is the same as task management. I wrote a piece about some of the differences:

Work-wise I just use a jumble list, because many tasks are unrelated to larger projects and take 15 minutes or less, I just need to make sure I don’t miss any of them (or the small but important billing part that goes at the end of each one). I’m sure I could construct a better list, a better method, but mostly I just want to feel confident that I didn’t miss one of the little tasks as I go about the rest of my non-work day. Jumble, scratch off, jumble, scratch off, move anything un-scratched to the next day’s list. Lather, rinse, repeat. Sure, it might be an inferior method, but I manage to make a living, so I’m going to stick with it.

I tried GTD for about a month, and I felt like I got less done and spent more time doing it. This probably has more to do with me than with GTD.

I think there is a mis-understanding of the primary reason for to-do lists: stress release. It’s the keeping the list circulating in your mind so you don’t forget things that tears you down over time. Once you write it down you can free up all that brain space to actually do stuff. At least for me. I am also a passionate maker of packing lists, menus and spreadsheets of all kinds. Write it down, let it go.

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It probably had to do with their limited processing power, but Palm applications where sleek, simple and devastatingly effective at accomplishing a single task.

I’ve yet to find a modern “to do” app that works as well as the one I used on my palm pilot (whose name I’ve forgotten) the closest thing I’ve found and liked is MS Onenote which isn’t a to do app at all, but free form enough that I can make it work for me.

There are SO many different psychologies here. For some people he’s absolutely right, for others his approach would cause more trouble than it’s worth.

I remember going through the ‘Franklin Planner’ stage when working at Tivoli only to realize that it just didn’t work with my brain and was hurting me more than helping. I did okay with sticking a small number of post-it notes in annoying places, but anything more and it just started to become background noise.

I’ve got two big takeaways.

  • We have REALLY different brains, and the hard part is figuring out
    what tricks work well for you, so it’s best to try a bunch of
    different things and see what happens.


  • Most of us aren’t designed to micromanage life this way, we’re
    neurologically not far removed from hunter-gatherers and aren’t
    designed to be wasting our time having to deal with so many
    ‘important’ things that in a more practical culture should be

My career ended up kicking into gear when I said ‘Screw it, I’m not good at this stuff and you’re wasting all my processing power. If you want me to be amazing then link me up with some OCD person who digs this stuff and we’ll make each other look good’

I also got a LOT better at solving actual problems and implementing actual solutions and went from ‘frustrated but smart guy who’s underachieving’ to ‘everybody’s favorite mad genius that business units fight for time with’

Of course, doesn’t do as much good in the current economy, but the fact is sometimes we should be spending a lot more time playing to our strengths and less time trying to program a bunch of robots.


It killed a lot of other people too.

This is something I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about. I am a creative person and I find traditional list type programs really restrictive. My favorite way to organize a list is visually and my favorite way to create that is in a blank drawing book, with a shape drawn around each To Do item. The size of the shape represents its importance, and I can put sub items within the shape.

I’m a fan of Franklin Covey’s work but I think the system is not right for someone who likes to approach things visually. I will say his planners did have some really pretty options. As far as Palm Pilots and such, I can’t stand the restriction of these list programs; I occasionally use the app on my iPhone but not regularly.

Also, any one else HATE the paper in these kinds of things as much as I do. It should be beautiful, not utilitarian and fugly.

I also have had a very good idea for a To Do list program that ties into a budget, as the two are intertwined in my head.

Also - best organizing book ever.

…launches Palm Desktop… It was called “Tasks”.

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