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Manageable To Do Lists

I was a compulsive list maker from my teen years until my mid-30s. Then I bought my first Palm Pilot and my lists became incredibly more manageable and effective.

Although my paper lists made most of my colleagues think I was well-organized, I sure didn’t feel that way. I didn’t know how to prioritize the items on the list and when I checked something off, I felt like I needed to rewrite the whole list. Also, I couldn’t figure out why some of the items on the list stayed on every time I rewrote my to-do’s, month after month. Items like “learn Spanish,” “lose 5 pounds,” “take karate,” or “save $10,000” somehow never got crossed off.

The great thing about my PDA (personal digital assistant) was that finally, my calendar, address book and to do lists were all in one place. No more scratching out or checking off — I can just delete the completed item or changed address and ta-da! A fresh clean list with no rewrites or wasting paper.

When the Palm Pilot became Palm Treo and included a cell phone … organizing bliss! The all-in-one perfection of it all. It even includes a decent digital camera for my “before” and “after” pictures of clients’ organizing projects.

If you can afford a Palm or Blackberry, I can’t recommend it enough. Since the device syncs to software on your computer, even if you lose it, you have a back up of all your information. The same can’t be said for a regular cell phone or a paper-based calendar or address book. If you have ever lost your address book or a cell phone full of all your phone numbers, you know what kind of pain it can cause. I find great peace of mind comes from knowing my information is all backed up on my computer (which of course is also backed up — we’ll address this in the future.)

Here are some principles for effective to do lists whether they be digital or paper-based:

According to David Allen, productivity guru and author of “Getting Things Done,” to-do lists are only effective if each item on the list is the very next possible action that needs to be taken to accomplish a goal. For example, “learn Spanish” is a horrible to-do because it involves many, many steps. The actual to-do might be “call community college about Spanish classes.” Even then, the actual to-do might be “look up phone number for community college,” or “Google Napa Spanish classes.”

Allen says — and I’m living proof — that until you break down your list into the very next action needed to accomplish the goal, your to-do list will repel you. You will find yourself avoiding it. So if you find yourself writing “lose five pounds,” you may want to write instead, “research diet and exercise on the web,” or “check out Ubuntu’s web site for yoga class times.” Break your projects down into manageable little actions and you will find yourself achieving big goals, and you’ll feel more peaceful and more organized as you do.

Also, you must have your list with you when you are in a position to actually do one of your to-do’s. Meaning, if you need AA batteries, you’ll need that list with you when you are someplace that sells batteries. Or if you need to call your doctor, you’ll need that reminder when you are in a position to make the call. Keep your lists focused on next actions, up to date and in your purse or pocket. You’ll soon feel the satisfaction of checking off (or deleting) item after item.