I’ve been writing a lot recently about taming your to-do lists. My focus has been on learning how to do less, but there’s another important way to go about taming your to-do lists that’s as simple as learning how to write them in the first place.
This became clear to me as I was reading Dustin’s post Back to Basics: Your Task List over at Lifehack.org. It’s a quick but very good read.
One of the best insights from the post is about including all of the relevant information needed to complete the item in question. Think of the difference between writing “Get Details on Project X” and “Call Susan at 555-1111 about Project X by Wednesday.” The latter links the action with the project it belongs to quite nicely and allows you to complete the action as a stand-alone item, whether you write it down, put it into your phone or a computerized task-management system, or email it to yourself.
I learned to do this from reading Merlin Mann’s post GTD: Project Verbs vs. Next-Action Verbs. In that post, he talks about how to determine whether you’ve got a project or an action, but I took it as a primer on how to write to-do lists.
The table below, reproduced from the aforementioned post from 43Folders, sums up most of what you need to know to start writing good to-do lists.
|Next-action verbs (Task Verbs)|
|Purge||Look into (Web)||Gather|
The easiest way to implement this technique is to memorize, print, or write this list down and keep it close to you. When you start listing, try to start a task or project with one of the verbs listed above. For tasks, include phone numbers, individual people, email addresses, and deadlines so that you don’t have to refer to other information to complete the tasks.
It takes a bit of mental reprogramming, but it pays for itself very quickly when you notice that your lists order themselves nicely and you can look at a task once and complete it without having to backtrack.
Checkout this GTD based web task app – http://www.statuswiz.com
Thank you, very good summary for writing ToDo lists.
I’ve posted recently a short post on my blog on simple paperless todolisting.
ProductivitySciences last blog post..Simple paperless todolisting with smartphone and MS Outlook
Andre Kibbe says
With phone calls, emails and URLs, I’d recommend entering the information directly into the tool that’s going to be used to take the action, so that the action listing only functions as a pointer.
Assuming that I didn’t already have Susan’s number in my cell phone, I would program it into the phone at the time of writing the next action. So “Call Susan at 422-111 about Project X by Wednesday.” Becomes “Call Susan about Project X.” (I reserve deadlines for calendar entries, but that’s a personal preference). The same principle applies to email: write down the action action, but enter the email address in your mail client right then. The less verbiage an action item contains, the more responsive you’ll become to it.
If I need to research something online, I’ll bookmark it in del.icio.us the moment it occurs to me — unless it’s a two-minute action, in which case I’ll get the information right then. Sometimes with two-minute actions, I’ll bookmark the relevant site, look up the needed info immediately, then put the info in the bookmark’s Notes field.
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@ Andre: Great point on “the less verbiage” – but I think there’s a trade-off. It essentially makes the planning for the action more involved, since you’ve moved from the one-stage acting on the item to the two stage preparing to act on the item and then acting on the item. So this may be another matter of preference – if I’m wanting to purge, I don’t want to open another action chain to distract me from the purge. Your purging techniques may be a bit different, though.
Andre Kibbe says
My first inclination would be to ask if the call is a short (e.g. two-minute) action, like a yes-no question or a simple instruction; in which case I would simply make the call without writing anything down.
Otherwise, I consider things like entering contact information too mechanical to consider them “planning.” Of course, I’m using a smartphone with a qwerty keypad, so there’s less overhead. On a feature phone a an E.61 (12-key) keypad, it might not be worth the effort.
I wouldn’t refer to this as an action “chain,” because it’s a single action with a clear boundary — once you’ve written down “Call Susan re Project X,” you just enter the number into your phone, and you’re done. But I do agree that we need to be careful with actions that might lead to serial digressions.