Qualities of a good to-do method

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.

18 Comments for “Qualities of a good to-do method”

  1. posted by Carson Chittom on

    I agree with all of these. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any off-the-shelf solution (that I’ve seen) that does all of this.

  2. posted by Julie K on

    Things-have to buy 3 apps: Mac, iPhone and iPad, but it’s easy to capture as my phone is with me 99% of the time. And they sync although manually on thesame network. Need sync via Dropbox like 1Password.

  3. posted by Ramblings of a Woman on

    Still working on finding the best system for me. I think each person has to find what works for their style. I love google calendar, but hate their to-do/task list! Always a work in progress!

  4. posted by Jen on

    Thanks for posting the link to the lined to-do system, I just may try that! My problem is not time management. Believe it or not, I actually have always had really good time management skills. My problem (especially since having my son 4 years ago) is that I am a little forgetful and sometimes things fall through the cracks. So a reminder system is a necessity for me. Google Calendar works really well, and I use it as my home page on my home computer and it’s compatible with my phone so it’s portable as well. But possibly using the lined system (on a dry-erase board in the kitchen maybe?) could be a really good adjunct for household tasks for me.

  5. posted by Jen on

    http://www.rememberthemilk.com has been working pretty well for me so far. It has greatly helped me maintain a regular rotating cleaning schedule. It also has a postpone feature. I have several tasks in my list that have no due date, which is both useful but also creates a bit of list clutter. I haven’t gotten the premium version to sync it with my Blackberry, but I’m considering it.

  6. posted by OogieM on

    I’ve found for me Omnifocus on my Mac and on my iPod Touch meets all of your criteria very well. I do add the Calendar app but I use it only for absolute must do apt.s at specific times and then as a diary of what I actually worked on during the day. It is not my to do list at all.

  7. posted by Mignon Hamlin on

    Erin: Your analysis is spot-on. What combination of sites and devices is working for you lately? Please be specific.

  8. posted by Loyd on

    For electronic methods; it has to be platform neutral for me. It has to run on Linux as well as windows (ideally also on Mac if I can ever afford one some day).

    It also must store its data in a text format so that I can electronically search it and manipulate it using standard open tools such as grep, sed, awk and perl. This makes it possible to produce custom xml or html for display in a web browser.

    Lately, treeline seems to be the best fit I have found. Treline is almost limitless in its customization abilities once you get over the initial learning curve.

    Another I had looked at and used for a while was ThinkingRock

  9. posted by Loyd on


    It also has to be stored locally; not on the cloud. I do not trust others with my data and to-do lists. Especially if it is unencrypted text. Ability to sync to and carry on a usb stick is a plus.

  10. posted by Alan on

    I recommend Mark Forster’s AutoFocus (AF) system. If you follow it, the medium, whether paper or digital doesn’t matter.

    The link above is to an early prototype, but the essence is the same. Remarkably it seems to work very well despite lacking many of Erin’s criteria.

    Basically record all your todo’s on the AF list, follow its rules, and add a calendar for scheduled things, and the system is complete. Its continuous review process helps ensure you always have a good overview of what needs doing, and basic task tagging handles any extra you want.

  11. posted by DJ on

    For work, I rather like the Tasks feature in Outlook. Especially because a lot of tasks I do are repetitive (once a month, twice a year), etc. and I would forget them otherwise. Outlook generates reminders and when I check off a task, if it’s a repeating task, it will generate the next one due right in the list. Easy.

    For home, I just like having a pad of paper with a written list. Much easier than running to the computer and turning it on.

  12. posted by Eternal*Voyageur @ Venusian*Glow on

    I love Todoist. I use it as much more than a to-do list. It holds lists of all kinds, from “maybe someday” stuff, to books I wanna read someday, my wishlist and a list of hoopdancing moves I´m working on.

  13. posted by javamonster on

    Wow, I just use a simple $3.00 Office Depot 3×5 lined mininotebook for my lists of Things To Do. If I don’t need to carry around the entire notebook, I can tear the page out and carry that with me. The wire binding is large enough to hook a pen into it.

    To coordinate with it, I also use a small monthly calender (current one is 5×8 Office Depot brand) to note down appointments, vacations, school days off, etc.

    I used to carry a PDA around with me until it’s touch sensor went wonky. I appreciated the Tasks feature on it, just like DJ does in the post above mine, but again-fussy technology. I hate Outlook-could never get it to work for me-so that’s out.

    I like the KISS method.

  14. posted by Will on

    Mark Forster has discovered that there is a surprisingly large number of ways to work a todo list.

    You need to decide on the balance between tackling urgent issues speedily and making progress on the important priority commitments.

    His systems are simple, elegant and just slightly weird. And completely platform agnostic (he uses an A4/ letter sized pad and a biro, but his fans use a wide range of list substrates. I use the Outlook task list, personally). And very forgiving. (Another criterion – if you fall of the horse, how easy is it to get back on?)

    He gives guidance on four systems here: http://www.markforster.net/autofocus-index/

    His latest is here (it is now generally known as DWM, to rhyme with the Welsh cwm)http://www.markforster.net/blog/2010/2/1/dit2-af5-who-cares-what-its-called-this-is-what-im-working-o.html

    One feature all his systems have in common is that it is quite clear, upon reading them, that they cannot possibly work. You really do need to run them for a week or two before you get the feel of them. No tweaking!

    There is a very good transcript of an actual day using one of the systems here: https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=http://autofocus.cc/public/data/af4-demo.pdf&pli=1

    Finally, there is a very friendly forum if you have any questions: http://www.markforster.net/forum/

    If you are looking for a system, you could do a lot worse…

  15. posted by Stephanie on

    I LOVE rememberthemilk.com! With the pro upgrade, my husband and I simply log in to the same account on our Droids, so we instantly share lists! Best feature: we have one list for the groceries. No more asking me to text message him a list of what we need from the store when he’s coming home from work – he just checks the “grocery” list I’ve been adding stuff to as I think of it. Recurring chores and bills are the same way.

    Our schedules are synced on the gmail calendars – one account for his stuff (one color), one account for my stuff (another color), and the last account for stuff we’re attending together (a third color). We can each add to and change items on each other’s calendars, like reminders to run an errand or an event that’s out of the ordinary.

    With full time work and part time school for both of us, it’s nice to have a time management system that pretty much takes care of itself. That way we spend time what little time we have together working on the “deeper issues” of our relationships, rather than just keeping our heads above water trying to make sure we’re on the same page for the week’s happenings. Three cheers for technology ACTUALLY helping relationships for once!

  16. posted by Gerry on

    Nice tips, Mark’s stuff is great, GTD is a bit too complicated for me. I have a few free resources on my website for those looking for simple solutions to productivity.

  17. posted by Rebecca on

    I found a great way to remind myself to do paperwork at home. http://www.rememberthemilk.com is a free website that will send a message to your electronic device at a set time. Mine arrives via text message at 0900 on Saturdays and says “Pay Bills”. I’ve also started including fun to do items like “hug my kids”. My bills are being payed on time and the fun items make me smile and remember to appreciate my family and my circumstances. 🙂

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