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.