Is it on the list?

I love my To Do lists.

I love them for a couple of reasons: first, I like the structure they provide to the tasks that I have to do. I like that, after writing a task down, I no longer need to remember to do it—it’s right there on my list.

I don’t have a particular methodology for writing my lists. Sometimes I order the items by how urgent they are, and sometimes they’re in order of how I want to organize my day, but most times the items are listed randomly. I write actions down as they pop into my brain:

  • Buy groceries
  • Pick up dry cleaning
  • Write blogs
  • Call my mother

Fascinating stuff, I know.

I write lists at work and at home. I always hand-write my lists. I hate lists I create on my computer, unless I’m moving house. (Moving house generates a lot of To Do items and it’s really inefficient to write this by hand.)

I start each workday with a list of what absolutely has to be done that day. It’s usually only three or four things. This is not to say I only have to do a couple of things, it’s always much more than that. But, on any given day, there are only a few things that must be done that day.

During the day, whether at home or in the office, I check off each item as I complete it. At the end of the day, I see if there’s any item I did not finish; usually there is. I reflect on why it’s still on the list: was there something more urgent that took longer than I expected? Did I do something that wasn’t on my list? Said another way, did I get distracted by something I’d rather do?

And, at the end of each day, at home or at work, I throw my list away, even if there are unfinished items. Seems pretty inefficient, or? Not to me. I’m terrible at remembering what I need to do on any given day, but I’m great at remembering all the things I want to do this year. Go figure, it’s just how I’m wired.

I tried something new at the beginning of January. I wrote what I thought was my To Do list for January on 50 Post-It notes, one To Do per note. I stuck the notes on my office wall, in the order that I thought I should do them. There was a huge variation between items, as shown by the examples below:

  • Send a thank you e-mail to a colleague
  • Define the communication strategy for the year
  • Clean up my papers and files
  • Plan my work travel for the year

I came into the office each morning, and could see these 50 Post-Its on the wall. I stopped my daily list for a few days; I didn’t need it as the items were all—theoretically—on the wall. Pretty soon, it felt like I had 50 little supervisors, monitoring my productivity. How in the world could Post-It notes have beady little eyes staring at me?

After a few days, I couldn’t stand it any more. I had to write a daily list. I didn’t care if the item was already on the wall. I would check the wall each morning to see if I wanted to add any of the items to my “must do today” list. Otherwise, I created the list as I normally had.

By the end of January, I had taken about 20 Post-Its off the wall. The good news was that I didn’t add any more items—the 50 I started with were the right 50. But the bad news was that I was overly optimistic at how many big-ticket items I could get done in January. (Yes, the remaining 30 are still on my wall.)

My To Do lists, and how I organize my work are a reflection of how I accomplish things at work. And for me, what I accomplish, or finishing things, has a direct correlation to how happy I am at work. So, each day I have a little moment of happiness, ticking off the daily items. And now, I have the “big picture” on my office wall, where I see the diminishing number of Post-Its as progress to my bigger goals, and this also makes me happy.

Organize my To Do lists, check!

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