On To-Do Lists

Recently, Slate’s John Dickerson solicited readers’ advice in how to most effectively and efficiently follow a to-do list. I did not send in my own counsel regarding to-do lists, reproduced below.

1. Every night, write down everything that you can conceivably accomplish the next day in a large, ringed notebook kept on your nightstand. Included on this list should be basic human activities, such as “Wake Up” and “Shower,” and simple tasks, like “Tomorrow’s To-Do List.” In-between, be ambitious. The last thing you want is to finish your to-do list early, so don’t be afraid to include both “Finish Dostoevsky novel” AND “War and Peace, Volumes I-II.”

2. Feel really good about yourself after completing the to-do list. Say things to yourself like, “There’s no way I’m gonna watch as much TV tomorrow as I did today,” and “Man, I’m really gonna go all-out on this Saturday.” Get yourself really excited—so excited, in fact, that instead of falling asleep in a timely manner, you stay awake considering what else you can do that you haven’t already written on your to-do list. If a good idea pops into your head while you’re in bed, write it down on the list. Don’t turn on the light (it may wake you up a little), unless you think you wrote said new item on the list in especially neat handwriting considering the circumstances, and it’s just too suspenseful to wait until morning to check for sure.

3. When you wake up later and groggier than expected due to the previous night’s excitement, cross off “Wake Up” on the list. From here on out, do not actively consult your to-do list, as it will only remind you of all the things you won’t be accomplishing today.

4. If you feel like it’s an especially unproductive day, make sure not to accomplish anything on the to-do list. This way, it can carry over to the next day with only minor revisions.

5. Revise/make new to-do list, and repeat steps 1-4.

6. When you discover that this bedside to-do list really isn’t working considering your lack of consultation, try Google Tasks. Once you start Google Tasks, type in everything you can imagine accomplishing in the next 3-6 weeks. Feel really excited about it, etc.

7. Once someone engages you in a Google Chat (or Google Talk), close Google Tasks so it doesn’t take up as much space on your monitor. Don’t worry about opening it for the next 3-6 weeks. By then, it’s a fun experiment on your own memory. What did you actually remember to accomplish? And what “bill” was this referring to?

8. When you discover that Google Tasks fails, try an iPhone app like Omni Note. Your first to-do bullet point should be to research, download, and explore all cool iPhone apps. You will spend the next fortnight on this bullet point.

9. When you discover that the iPhone app only tempts you into using other, more fun iPhone apps (“Hey, I’m over 3,000 yards from the hole from here!”), go back to an old-school method with post-it notes. Put them everywhere and in no discernible order around your desk. Eventually, you’ll be so overwhelmed by all these post-its that you’ll come up with the ingenious idea (and to-do list post-it note) to “Organize cluttered post-it notes into single list, perhaps in unused notebook on nightstand.”

10. Return to bedside to-do notebook.

So there you go: Now I can cross “Write To-Do List post” off my list, where it’s resided since, well…did you see when Dickerson’s first article was?


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by John S on November 11, 2009 at 4:58 PM

    Another good way to deal with to-do lists that I’ve recently discovered is to cross things off merely if you’ve decided not to do them. That way, just the decision NOT to do something is the same as actually accomplishing that thing.


  2. This is a really, frighteningly accurate description of every attempt I’ve ever made at keeping a to-do list. I’d rather not think about the money I’ve spent on iPhone apps I’ll never use again.


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