To Do List

Keeping a ToDoList is one of SelfImprovementPatterns.

What to put in it

How it should be How it could be

I would argue that a ToDoList can be scattered, if you have good tool support for automatically gathering the ToDos and for editing them at the source. For example, writing Java with the EclipseIde, any comment containing the word TODO (i.e. a FixmeComment) will be gathered into a Tasks view, and you can navigate to the comment by clicking on a task in the Tasks view. The advantage is that the physical location of the FixmeComment can convey extra context about what needs to be done ("fix potential problem X here"). The danger is that the FixmeComment might not be clear if you read it out of context (in the gathered list), making it hard to evaluate the contents of the ToDoList without physically visiting each comment.

I recently split my to do list into "for them" (someone else is expecting action) and "for me" (I am the one wanting something) sections. All the "for me" items are optional.

I found the "for them" section surprisingly small, and my to do list became less imposing and intimidating.

Does this mean that things you do for yourself are less important than things you do for others? The priorities on someone's ToDoList say much about his or her value system.

Be careful, though. It's easy to go overboard with your ToDoList. I once had more than 100 to-do items in my HandspringVisor, prioritized and organized by category. I ended up spending more time maintaining the list than actually getting things done, but it took me a while to notice because it felt like I was being productive. "After all," I'd think, "I'm spending all this time on being organized!"

Eventually I just erased almost all my items, except for the tiny things that I'm liable to forget. (Backing up my hard drive once a week, for example.) But for most of the items, I figure that if it's important enough to actually spend time on, then if I try to always stay conscious and in the moment then I'll remember to do it when the time is right.

-- FrancisHwang

I had a similar experience. I no longer keep items in my to-do list on my Visor, except for automatically scheduled ones (like "Pay Bills" every two weeks). One nice thing about being a consultant rather than an employee is that my work is a lot more focused, so there is less to remember to do. I now use a paper LogBook to record what I'm doing and thinking as I'm doing and thinking it, and I put a star next to things that I need to remember to do before leaving for the day. -- KrisJohnson

I keep ToDoLists for a short term (less than 1 day). Generally, I write down what I want to accomplish at the beginning of the day and I check it off when done. I handle longer term goals differently, in a manner consistent with (but not equivalent to) StephenCovey's FirstThingsFirst. -- SeanOleary

I recently took some training on managing ToDoLists, incoming requests, documents, voice mail, notes, email, etc. The most important lesson I learned was:

  1. Separate your ToDoList, ReferenceMaterial?s, and InBox?
    • A ReferenceMaterial? is something that you don't need to act on, but do need to save.
    • A ToDo item is something that actually requires action on your part
    • The InBox? is where these things arrive

I would add that things you MIGHT want to do some day are reference material that you check regulary, not ToDo items. Creating a ToDo item is a definite commitment to do it. -- IanH

I still haven't found the right technology for tracking my ToDoList. The training was centered around Outlook Tasks. I need something I can carry with me wherever I go, that I can update at home / at work / on the bus / etc.

Voice recordings are too clumsy. PDAs are too big to carry *everywhere*. Networked computers aren't available on the bus. You get the idea... -- JayBazuzi

"Networked computers aren't available on the bus.": This is why I like CVS for managing my files. There is only one "developer", but he tends to appear in different places at different times. Following from this, I need the PowerOfPlainText for my ToDoList.

I use little post-its in my spiral and at the beginning of each day start a new page for them. I jot down on them the day the to-do item was created, and the day it was done or dropped. It's easy to advance unfinished items to the next day by just moving them to the next to-do page. Right now I'm averaging about 8 new items a day and am advancing forward a small (and steady) number. I like this better than writing lists since I'm a hands-on type. -- DaveVanBuren

In my experience, you cannot beat the regular text file. It does not constrain what you wish to record (apart from images) and allows one to easily reorder. As a bonus it can be opened virtually anywhere and easily moved around via disk, PDA or email. -- PaulRuane

Text files on PDAs are great and fast one method is to put:

   MM/DD/YY Dayofweek

item n1, item n2...

However it quickly becomes laborious and you end up having multiple duplicates in various days of items that could not be done. Also it is difficult to keep track of ones done - one method is to "tick" them off using \ (started) \/ (complete) X (cancelled) but difficult to find time to manage this consistently.

Having both on laptop/desktop and pda is a problem as if you change both trying to "sync" by cut and paste is error-prone and more than likely something will get overwritten when copying.

I've always thought the ideal Task program would be a pocket version of MS Project or similar but down to the minute for daily tasks would be great as many tasks have inter-dependencies and recur and the gannt diagram makes it easy to see the overall picture (assuming it could scroll and zoom easily on a small screen).

StandardTime? is a great program for tracking billable time but think this should be part of whatever Task program you use. It should also use something like SyncMl? to keep desktop, favourite server, mobile phone as well as PDA automatically sync'ed (wirelessly) for Tasks together with Contacts.

Current task managers only prioritize high, medium and low which is useless for me as all that happens is you end up with 3 large unsorted partitions in the task program. When you promote to appointment the link is also broken. Checking status "complete" in appointments does not tick it as complete in tasks. Hate paper lists and binders but unfortunately have to agree with the author above text files are the best way to use a PDA right now.

Part of a more general problem with HandHelds is that each application does its function very well, but there is little communication between them. For instance shopping list programs don't link to nutrition programs. Map programs with info on restaurants can't usually export easily to contacts without CutAndPaste. This is the same problem enterprises face with "silos" of data from multiple application requiring multiple-reentry or XML buses. What is almost needed is a miniature EAI system on the device (EnterpriseApplicationIntegration - in this case PAI for PersonalApplicationIntegration?) to make sharing of data not just between devices but between programs on one device more seamless.

This could be prepared automatically using WikiTechniques and a WikiBased? ProgrammersNotebook. -- DonaldNoyes

Here's a free tool I've written for anyone looking for at least a partial solution to managing personal/professional projects and tasks. It is not a Project Management app. And, you will need Excel 2000 (or later) running in Windows to use it. but the price is right (free) and about 20k people have already downloaded this version. Please visit and look for the CNET link to download MasterList-XL. (FYI, MasterList Professional is in beta, will be out next month.) --Bob Walsh, Safari Software, Inc.

To Do List is also the name of a wonderful and unfortunately defunct magazine I purchased one copy in the bookstore shortly before it ceased to publish, and it's one of the best things I ever bought. If you see any issues lying around in a thrift store or used book store snap 'em up.

I finally have managed to engineer a ToDoList scheme that's been working for me for months now. Like most organizational schemes that actually work for me, it involves unlined note cards.

My ToDoList is like my binkie - it stays with me everywhere I go - upstairs, downstairs, bedroom, bathroom, car, office, etc. It consists of a small stack of note cards for upcoming days clipped to a memo-sized clipboard. Each card has a day/date at the top, and several ToDO items (usually 5 to 9 items) written the long way across the card with a dash to the left of each one as a bullet. I make a card for each day when I have one thing I want to schedule for that day. When I need to rearrange my schedule, I take some cards out of the stack, and copy items onto new, replacement cards.

I cross out each item when it no longer needs to be on the card, and when all items are crossed off, it gets thrown away. Items no longer need to be on a card if they've been completed or if they've been copied onto another card (helpful when re-scheduling things that didn't get done or when rearranging tasks onto replacement cards).

I found that there were also some everyday tasks that I needed to make sure happen, so I started using the backs of cards for these items. I print them onto 4x6 printer stock in batches of 4 or 6. Items on the backs of cards are grouped by when they need to happen: Morning, Out the Door, Arrive at Work, After Work, Evening, and Bed Time. Each group has between 1 and 5 items (most groups have 1 or 2).

A few significant ToDo items need to be on a calendar, so I can see at a glance what I'll need to concern myself with for the next week, month, etc. For this, I have a memo-sized calendar book with one month on 2 facing pages. I clip the back cover of the calendar to the clipboard behind the stack of cards, so the calendar opens up on the flip side of the clipboard.

-- SteveJorgensen

See LogBook, NextList, ListYourWayOutOfStuckness, WikiToDoList


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