Keeping to do lists from becoming a big to-do

photo by Rob Warde

A few weeks ago Lifehacker wrote up a list of their five favorite to do list managers. I was initially very excited about these apps and websites because of their new bells and whistles, but after trying a few I remembered why I love my low-tech, plain text solution so much. Here's what my to do list looks like:

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Memo for Mark on moving more of our content from website to Facebook
% Edit CMS
% Edit for The World
% Update Social Flow settings for Twitter
Update Social Flow settings for Facebook
% Clear email

Friday, July 20, 2012

% Edit CMS
% Prepare social media posts for weekend
% Edit Movie Date
% Call Kristen
% Check in on audio uploading changes

Saturday, July 21, 2012

% Submit grocery shopping order

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Edit CMS

This is just copied and pasted from a plain-text editor I use called Notational Velocity. It automatically syncs all my plain text files, including this one, to my home and work computers and my phone. The to do list works just like it would on pen and paper. Each day gets a new line, and the tasks that need to be done that day are listed below. When I complete a task it gets a percentage sign next to it, and once the day is over I delete everything I've finished and copy and paste anything I haven't to tomorrow or another day in the future. Nothing gets forgotten.

The point of a system so simple is that I think there should be no barrier at all between creating and looking at to do items. I don't want to have to log into a web app, or look at my phone all the time (unless that's all I have with me). I just want to be able to open a text document, type in what needs to get done, look at what I need to do, and be done with it. It serves the same purpose of a paper to do list, except with the added benefit of being backed up and always with me.

One of my first exposures to productivity systems was David Allen's Getting Things Done. A big part of that system is keeping a to do list so that you're not wasting energy trying to remember what needs to be done. I like this idea, but it has two major problems: One, the to do list becomes one more thing to do, and two, you end up remembering to do stuff that probably could've been forgotten (because it's not worth your time, not really your responsibility, etc.). In other words, this system denies our innate ability to remember and prioritize the things that actually need to get done. (I avoid recurring tasks for the same reason — very few things actually need to happen on a perfectly regular basis. Better to look around and see what's necessary. Take out the trash when it's full, cut your hair when it starts to drive you nuts, etc.)

I generally don't use my to do list to remember to do things. Instead, it's more of a task list, a plan for the day that shows what to do next. Whenever I'm working and finish one task, I check the to do list to see what's next. I'm going to go check it now.