There are several ways of keeping track of things to be done. To name the most common ones: memory power, to-do-lists and agendas (paper or electronic), there are online collaboration tools that send automatic reminders, and sometimes co-workers are charged with sending out reminders (yes: that still is a real thing).
Maybe it pays to spend a moment to separate your tasks into categories and then find which approach serves them best? Which categories could there be, realistically?
As you can imagine, those categories are not only distinctly separate in their timeframes, but also in the way they affect your to do list. Do you really want to have repetitive things on a to do list? They’ll never disappear! You get the gist, I’m sure, that sometimes you need different tools to do different things. Let’s look at the ways that best serve each of these categories, then.
First of all, many people believe that having everything on one single list would ensure things get done in a timely fashion. Frankly: that DOES work if your to-do list only has 5 items on it. However, if you end up with an ever growing to-do list that you spend more time on figuring out what to do next you’re saddled with a system that doesn’t serve its purpose. Using the best tools for the right entries is ultimately better for you.
Things to do right now
Well, honestly! Why not just do it? Procrastinating has never been a good idea to start with. Just get it done, will you? And in the process you eliminate the need to write this thing on any list.
Things to do together
To-do lists are wonderful for shopping. Why? Because they contain things that need to be done together (it’s all things to buy) in a short period of time (while you are at the store), but do not necessarily indicate an order of importance (the items will likely not be sitting on shelves in the same order they appear on your list, right?). The to-do list works for exactly those reasons: it is meant to be worked off in one fell swoop and then be done with. Now imagine this: if you had items like “bring car to repair shop”, “see doctor about rash” or “weed the cabbage patch”, they would be out of place because they are more generic than the shopping. Maybe another type of list?
Things to do a specific time
A more structured approach is needed here. This kind of item involves a specific time that you need to be reminded of this and it usually is a one-off thing that’s unrelated to anything else. And there is your clue already: you want a proper reminder for this, not just have it written down on a list. Who knows if you’ll see that item when you have to?
Either use an paper agenda (and make sure you use it consistently and regularly, of course), or an electronic one that allows for automatic reminders that pop up on your phone a couple of days ahead of time, so you can plan accordingly. Both have advantages and it’s really up to you to pick the right one for you: paper agendas allow for to-do lists at the specific date (e.g. when you plan to go shopping), while electronic agendas can be synchronised between different devices or even easily shared with other family or team members, just to name a few of the differences. If you carry your phone agenda with you, you won’t have to carry a paper agenda all the time. As mentioned before: take your pick, but use one of them.
PS: adding a time and date to your reminder does not mean you cannot postpone them, if you have to!
Things to do later when certain conditions apply
This is a special case of the specific time scenario. The problem here is that you need to be aware of a certain thing to happen before you can take action of THIS item. If the trigger for this item is having finished another task on your to-do list or in your agenda, make sure to mention the follow up with the original item, and then create a new agenda entry at that point. Using the agenda is good as it allows for annotations, while a to-do list might get pretty mangled if there are lots of follow-up items. Having lots written down next to to-do list items also makes it less likely to get anything done.
If the item you need to act on is in paper format, you may consider a ‘pending’ tray on your desk that contains the paperwork for that item, or a ‘pending’ folder if the information comes in email format. You will know exactly where to look when you are reminded of that thing and can get to it right away. If it does not involve any physical items (like making a phone call to follow up having finished something else) you could imagine relying on the reminder in the original item.
Things to do regularly
If you have to be reminded of things regularly, like weekly football practice, biweekly pickup of the kids from school, playgroup every second Wednesday of the month, an agenda will do as well, but just imagine the time you spend putting all those dates into a paper agenda! An electronic agenda will usually allow you to schedule regular events and set up reminders at varying times ahead of the event. An electronic agenda feels like the right thing to use for these things.
Since we are talking about regular events, these tend to be forgotten in the heat of the moment and it becomes all the more important to be ‘reminded’ by your phone or e-agenda without reliance on your looking at the paper agenda at the right time, by coincidence.
I come across a lot of people saying “I have a good memory and never forget to do things when they need doing”. Well, good on you! But for some reason I don’t quite believe you.
I would agree that memory is a perfectly suitable means and in many cases we have no need to write anything down, but when it comes to long-term commitments, irregular events, and simply a large number of items to remember I am pretty certain that things will slip at some point. Our memory is not always very reliable, especially when we find ourselves overwhelmed by work, emotional trouble, physical discomfort or anything else out of the ordinary.
Having a place to write the important events down and being reminded of them is never a bad idea. Not having the obligation to remember things but being reminded of them when it’s time will obviously free your mind. Besides that, writing things down on lists, in an agenda or even just sticky notes on your fridge door will focus your mind on the realities and clarify not only what exactly needs doing, but structure it to some degree and, thereby, take away any level of anxiety you might have with regards to some of those items. Or even just the anxiety that you could forget something!
Ask the ClutterMeister
Some pertinent ideas from the 'old office dog' who has seen it all, to help clear away the mess in your office.
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My name is Tilo Flache and it is my mission to help my clients organise and declutter their work spaces.