We all have our methods for remembering to-do items — Mark Forster’s lined to-do list system, David Allen’s Getting Things Done, notifications on Google calendar, etc. — and these methods work as long as you use them consistently. Every six to eight months, I try out a new method to see if it works better for me than the last. And, after a couple days of using the new method, I usually make a few additions and subtractions and switch out components from other methods that I like better.
After years of auditioning the most popular to-do management methods (and a few obscure methods, as well), I’ve found that it’s incredibly obvious which methods are likely to be helpful and which ones are duds. For a method to be good at actually getting me to do my work, it has to have the following components:
- Simple way to capture data. New items have to be able to be quickly and smoothly added to the system. The easier it is to add items, the better. If you have to rewrite a list or find a specific type of paper or use a code of some kind, the method creates too many barriers for entries and I’ll stop using it in a matter of days.
- Helpful reminders. The reminders to do something can be a simple visual or audible cue, but they need to be there. Actions written at a specific time on a calendar are even fine, there just needs to be something to help remember deadlines.
- Way to delay or postpone items. If there is no way to reschedule an item, the missed to-do task will be forgotten, guaranteed.
- Separation between do-this-or-suffer-negative-consequences tasks and all other items. A system doesn’t need a detailed prioritization scheme, but there has to be a way to differentiation between “I will get fired if I don’t do this” and “maybe someday” stuff.
- Ability to overview entire system. If you can’t see all of the to-do items at once (or at least a month’s worth or a project’s worth), you can lose sight of the big picture.
- Ability to ignore parts of the system. In addition to seeing the big picture, you also need to be able to keep from being overwhelmed and focus on a limited number of items.
- Portability. Paper or digital doesn’t matter as long as the method easily transports with you wherever you go.
When you are creating or adopting your perfect method for completing to-do items, keep these best practices in mind. Also, know what features are important to you and your work. If you must have a to-do list that can be shared with others, then add “sharing” to your list of best practices. Whatever method you use, be sure it’s the right method for you and that you keep using it.