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Lists: Do They Serve You?

Why do we love lists? Let us count the ways. And then check them off.

Getting information out of our heads and into lists might be the number one ticket to not just feeling but being in control. However, there are some pitfalls to avoid when you create lists.

Ideally, the busier a person is, the more willing he or she must be to getting out of a paper “To Do” or “Next Action” list habit and onto a digital device.

When we are busy, we tend to grab whatever pad or scrap of paper is around and scrawl a list on it. Pretty soon, we have variations of the same list. If you’re in and out of handbags and briefcases, in and out of vehicles and in and out of meetings, having stale, incomplete information handwritten on miscellaneous pieces of paper can get chaotic quickly.

A list made in a smartphone note-taking feature or on an app like Toodledo is easy to update and saves on paper clutter tremendously. Since our phones are with us all the time, so are the lists. That means no more smacking the forehead and saying, “Shoot, I forgot the grocery list!” when we get into the store. It’s also pretty nice to be in a high-powered meeting and having a key project’s list of next actions and who’s responsible for them right at your fingertips.

For those without smartphones or who are allergic to digital devices, designate one tablet for lists and keep it with you constantly. It should fit into whatever bag or satchel you carry regularly. Date your lists in the top right-hand corner religiously; if you do get caught up and have two versions of the same list, you will know which one is more current and can toss the older version.

Unfortunately, there is not a very efficient way to update a paper “To Do” list. I recommend rewriting the list completely, omitting the “done” items, at least once a week. Keep it fresh and keep it complete. Don’t keep old lists around with one or two odd tasks still on them that you don’t feel are worth putting on a fresh list because they aren’t crucial. If a task is on your radar at all, it deserves space on the fresh list. Toss old lists!

Remember, that if something stays on a list for several weeks, months or even years and is still not “done,” take a good look at how important the task really is or if you’ve gotten to the root of properly defining it.

Procrastination is often a signal that something could be delegated or let go. On the other hand, rewriting something on the list again and again might finally push you to get it done. Fish or cut bait.

For organizational purposes, I like to take people beyond the obvious to-do list and get them accustomed to jotting down other things to remember, such as packing lists, a list of movies to see, a list of books that have been recommended, a list of great names for dogs, etc. These can be kept on paper in a “Lists” file or as individual documents in a computer.

Again, however, a smartphone is the best place for such lists because they are likely to be at hand when these kinds of items come across our consciousness.