The Value of an Active, Simple To-Do List

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Over the years of working in pressure-cooker situations like as a newspaper editor with daily deadlines, I quickly learned the value of a simple to-do list.

I’m writing this post because I want to share this with our team at iThemes, but also to those outside of our circle. This is not rocket science. It’s things you’ve heard over and over about simple task management …

BUT … if you don’t have a to-do list going … today is the day to GET ONE.

Some more background to the post: I exhaust our team sometimes because I’ll throw something onto their plate, thinking in my mind that they’ll put it on their own super, simple, silly stupid to-do list and get to it when they can. But I think many times they feel their load getting heavier and heavier when in fact, I am trusting them to prioritize it themselves (unless I’ve given them my preference).

Anyway, during the course of a day, I’ll put a ton of tasks on my own list, prioritizing them according to relevance and temperature of the heat coming off the fire they might represent (aka by priority).

So when it comes to getting tasks done, I’m a juggler and a firefighter. I know it’s not realistic to think everyone operates the way I do, but I do have the same expectations my boss in college did after she riped me left, right, up and down for asking too many questions about projects.

She told me to … Be Self Directed. Manage Your Own Time. And Take Initiative.

I took it and ran with it … and honestly, it’s been freeing to me.

If she had allowed me to ask her every stupid question about the projects she entrusted me with, they and I would have toiled in mediocrity. Instead, I took her words to heart and took the initiative, owned those projects, and got invaluable experience, exposure and opportunities out of my time there.

Wow, what a tangent to get to my thoughts about simple to-do lists!

OK, here are my thoughts on how I juggle all the various tasks I have going on in any given day…

  • Keep it simple – I use a text editor (TextEdit on the Mac; Notepad on the PC) and put all my important tasks there, plus important information (like copy and paste stuff I do all the time, links to important sites, and yes, even our office’s mailing address). I don’t use fancy but cool online software for this. It’s not pretty. It’s just simple text in a simple window.
  • Shuffle tasks according to priority – I record each task I need to do (or am assigned) and reorder them on my list according to priority as I go throughout the day. Shuffling them helps me knock off tasks easier. Often, I’ll do the ones I can erase fast.
  • Put quick descriptions next to them – I keep it brief, but if I might forget the context of the to-do item later, I remind myself what it’s about in short fashion; sometimes I’ll even put quick indents underneath one main item to separate out sub-tasks.
  • Record Wish List tasks below priority ones – There are always long-term projects that will take WAY too much time to do and frankly, aren’t a priority. I have my long-term wish list segregated from my “on fire” tasks. Most of them won’t ever get done. In fact today I was looking at them and loathing them … procrastination is good sometimes. They are at the bottom for a reason.

There you go. Many of you will violently disagree with my method. Good for you, I want to hear from you!

But everyone’s different, and I do know that many people don’t even have a list … so start somewhere simple and refine it later.

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7 thoughts on “The Value of an Active, Simple To-Do List”

  1. I’ve been using Things for Mac/iPhone for a while now and it has been great. Syncs up perfectly and allows me to organize and categorize to my heart’s content!

    Great post! I know a lot of people who are meaning to pull the trigger on a to-do list, but simply haven’t gotten around to it

  2. I’m surprised to learn you’re not using some online to-do list app. They seem so handy for those that live online.

    Dig that tangent out and put it in its own post. It’s the real story here.

  3. Is there a reason why you use a text editor instead of one of the many GTD apps? Just wondering. I personally use Things on OS X for my task list. I love quickly group tasks to a project, tag support, etc. Before that I used RememberTheMilk as it was easily available on any computer, phone, etc with a browser.

  4. Great post Cory.

    I had to stop what I was doing to comment. I’m a productivity fanboy.

    I’m not the best delegator and I’m working hard to manage weakness in that area (especially with my wife when she wants to help). I always expect people to ask clarifying questions and to own results- to make executive decisions when it’s called for but in line with the overall goal or mission.

    I think the keys to David Allen’s entire GTD system lies in:

    Getting it out of your head and into a system. Ubiquitous capture I believe he calls it.

    Differentiating between Someday/Maybe Plans versus Next Actions and Projects.

    Quick Daily Reviews and more lengthy Weekly Reviews

    His system seems simple but if you don’t keep it that way you could spend 32 hours out of 40 working the system and not the projects or next actions.

    Now back to my own list- thanks for the quick diversion.

  5. I’m amazed at the number of peers who don’t keep a task list of some sort! Good post Cory. Personally, I use for my to-do tracking. I like it because it’s simple but also has lots of ways for making it fit one’s own GTD system. I also like the fact that it syncs with my BlackBerry and I can have it send off reminders for those very important tasks I want to make sure I don’t miss.

  6. Guys, I apologize … had no idea these comments were waiting on me (just switch to our own hosting and probably have a setting turned off).

    Anyway … love all these great comments.

    Here’s the thing with online software … I love the simplicity of my little text editor. And actually, I just click on my “ideas_notes” file each day …

    I love online software (we help build some) … but sometimes we can overuse technology just because it exists.

    Having said that, I’ve heard great things about RememberTheMilk and other apps … I just prefer my simplicity.

  7. My problem with keeping it within the .txt is that I often use my PC at home and then the computer at work. So I need a good way to have always the latest version of my to-do list in my hands. I found that using an online GTD system was better for me and right now I’m using Remember The Milk. But I can see that if you use always the same machine, the best thing to do is to keep it simple!

    thanks for your thoughts,
    leandro, from Brazil


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