Choosing a Tool to Manage Your To-Do List

Take control of your task list.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #20

Today's topic is having one system to capture your to-do items:

Hey, Stever, Doug from Atlanta. I really enjoy the podcast and my question is [the following]: I have a lot of projects and tasks that I have to go through each and every day. And I was trying to find out do you have a better way to organize and track your tasks. I use Outlook, I have an iPhone, paper, and it just seems to ... there's not one item that really translates well and lets me use it all around. Thanks for all your help.

The quick and dirty tip--use a paper pad to capture tasks during the day and transfer to-dos to a master list daily.

Doug, you aren't alone. In fact, everywhere you go, you're surrounded by clouds of billions of microbes, all ready to be your friend--but that's not important right now. What is important is that we all collect to-do items. Someone wants a favor. It goes into the iPhone. A meeting (I just love meetings... no, I don't. I hate meetings) gives us action items, scribbled on a random paper. Our husband/wife/spousal equivalent/polyamorous family unit calls and asks us to bring home some milk. That goes on a sticky note, next to the other dozen sticky notes. Soon, tasks are coming out of our ears. We're so stressed at the chaos, we add another item: organize task list.

To do that, you need two things: a place to put your to-dos the instant they arise and somewhere central to collect them all. Your traveling to-do collector must be portable and "instant on" when it's used. You'll want high resolution with rapid data entry, preferably handwriting recognition, capable of storing sketches and little drawings, and I like color compatability for highlighting.

Portable To-Do List

Get a 3x5" spiral notepad and a permanent ink pen. Yes, paper.

When a to-do item comes in, write it down on your pad. You're talking on your iPhone and your friend says, "bring over a quart of milk and some tasty fruit drink for the ballgame tonight," don't write it on your iPhone; write it on your pad. You see some sexy underwear that will make a great birthday present for someone special? Buy it, and write down "need to meet someone special who likes leopard-print pleather" on your pad.

You paid $400 for your iPhone, $600 for Microsoft Office with Outlook, $300 for your high-end Palm Pilot, and $250 for your Blackberry. And I'm suggesting a pad and paper? Yeah, I am. In case you didn't notice, the fancy toys don't cut it; they take too much concentration. Your attention belongs on who you're with, not on your PDA as you struggle to type "pleather." Spend the 89 cents for a 3x5 pad. Trust me. The best form for your traveling to-do list is pen and paper. I'm a pen geek, so I always have a pen anyway, but if you don't, stationery stores sell tiny pens you can hook through the spiral binding.

Master To-Do List

Every time you get back to your master list, copy the items from your traveling list to the master. "Isn't this extra work?" you cry. Yup. In the short run. But it forces you to reconsider every item, one by one, as you copy it to your master list. You'll discover you can instantly punt low priority items and can often consolidate similar items, like things to buy at the grocery store.

Your master list is the central repository for your to-do items. It can be paper or electronic. I first used a notebook with bound pages, and added each item to the end of the list. I would check off items when they were done. Occasionally, I'd scan back a few pages and copy unfinished items forward to the end of the list. Again, the copying by hand forced me to reconsider items. Sometimes it became obvious I'd never do an item so I dropped it. "Return pleather tuxedo I rented for senior prom." Not likely! I look great in that tux. Even if I don't quite fit ... all the way ... any more...see...looks great.

When PCs appeared, I tried automating my to-do list. I tried specialized programs, Outlook, Apple's iCal, Palm Pilot, Blackberry, web-based to-do lists. Nothing worked. Once my master list was more than a screen, the bottom items slipped out of sight and out of mind. Even worse, I started thinking, "It's in the computer, so it's as good as done."  Uh, huh. Tell that to my boss. On the handhelds, thanks to the small screen, the problem was even worse.

Now, I put my to-dos in a spreadsheet and print it, telling the program "shrink to fit to one page." For me, it's gotta be on one sheet. Just like I take notes on one sheet (listen to the note-taking episode if you haven't already), one sheet lets me take in everything at a glance. It's easy to mentally reprioritize, find things that should be crossed off, and see the big picture quickly.

To recap: grab a 3x5 pad for your traveling to-do list and transcribe to your master list daily. And by the way, you'll find other uses for that 3x5 pad, like writing down material for your standup routine, and getting the phone numbers of cute people you meet who like pleather.

For a Quick Tip on how to organize your to-do list priorities and get through your tasks quickly, head on over here. This is Stever Robbins. If you have a question about how to Work Less and Do More, e-mail getitdone@quickanddirtytips.com.

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!


Image courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.