Feature Article: Using To-Do Lists: No One Can Use Just One
One important planning consideration is what you’re going to accomplish each day. In his role as the dean of creativity for the Walt Disney Companies, Mike Vance had a strategy he called DO-DOING-DONE. The idea is to start a task in the DO column, move it to DOING quickly, and then move it to DONE as quickly as possible. That’s a fine idea, but it doesn’t really matter how you format your list. What does matter is that you have a list. In fact, you need several lists. Without them, your brain forgets many of the things you have to do as well as the cool ideas you come up with. Having lists will enable you to plan your day most effectively and will relieve that nagging sense of “what did I need to get done…” Chapter 6 on Paper also contains information on tools for planning.

I use several types of lists, outlined here:
1. Tasks. Goal: Keep track of actions involving a single step. You need at least two lists, a master and a daily list, but I keep three main task lists:

• Master to-do list(s). This is a running list of everything I need to do. Think of it as your memory list. I have one for work and one for personal. Every time I think of something I need to do, I write it on the master list. The only exception is if I plan to do something that very day, then I’ll write it on the daily to-do list. Having a master list keeps your daily to-do list from having 87 things to do on it. For example, my master list currently contains “Hang new border in bedroom” and “Investigate lighter LCD projector options.”

• Daily to-do list. Essentially my daily plan, this captures everything I truly intend to get done that day. It’s NOT an on-going list of everything I need to do, as in the master list. I integrate my personal and professional lives into a single list because the lines are blurred in my life. If I don’t get something done, I go through the exercise of writing it again on the next day’s to-do list, which actually motivates me to work productively so I don’t have to carry it over. Besides, I hate not accomplishing what I’d planned! Each week, I’ll review my master to-do lists and select tasks that are ready to be “time activated,” or scheduled. I put a dot () next to each selected item on the master list so I know it’s in progress. From there, I select a day to do each task and write the task on the corresponding daily to-do list.

2. Projects. Goal: Keep track of actions with multiple tasks or steps. Each project plan lists the individual tasks required to complete the broader project. Each task has a corresponding entry on a monthly or daily to-do list so I can ensure the project will be completed in an efficient fashion and nothing gets forgotten. For example, “Redecorate living room” is one of my current projects for the house, as is “Develop media campaign for new book” for the business.

3. Communication. Goal: Keep track of items to discuss with someone else. I keep a communication list (or log) on each person I communicate with frequently: operations manager, sales manager, mentor, assistant, spouse, children, and mother. Each time I think of something I need to chat about, I write the item on that person’s list. I check in once a day with these individuals and cover all the items on my list, rather than interrupting them ten times through the day for one item each. Doing this helps me focus better, and they appreciate being able to work without my constantly reprioritizing their days (emergencies aside, of course). 

4. Category. Goal: List items pertaining to each category. 
a) Books to read
b) Groceries to buy (even though “go to grocery store” may be a task, this list contains the individual items I need to remember to buy)
c) Shopping to do (a list of things I need to remember to get when I’m running errands)
d) Honey-do’s for John
e) Gift ideas (one for each person)
f) Meagan’s friends (I can never remember their names)
g) Johnny’s friends
h) James’ friends
i) Neighbors (who lives where, kids, pets, etc.)
j) Passwords (I know I’m not supposed to do this!)
k) Combination locks (so I can take the sticker off)
l) Babysitters (so many to keep track of)
m) Phone lists (company directory, trade association staff list, etc.)
n) Girl Scouts (who’s in the troop, photocopy electronic list)
o) Soccer (who’s on the team, photocopy electronic lists)

Any list your brain can imagine, you can and should track!

Where should you keep your Category lists? If you use a paper planner, you can file them behind the A-Z tabs. A-Z tabs are normally used for addresses and phone numbers (as mine are), but they also work as a paper filing system. I use lined pages the size of my planner and write the name of the list across the top—gifts, shopping, errands, projects—and file it behind the letter of the list. For example, I keep my master task list under “M,” my question list for my mentor Dianna Booher behind “B,” and the staff phone directory of the National Speakers Association behind “N.” 

If you’re an electronic person, you have several options. Some people prefer to use Outlook Tasks on their computers, using a category to sort the different lists. Others use the “Notes” feature and create a new note for each of the categories, adding items as they think of them. Some people prefer Excel spreadsheets or Word documents…it doesn’t matter, as long as you pick one method and stick with it. You will confuse your brain if you handle information unpredictably.

I still love paper and use a traditional paper planner (Franklin Covey) for my calendar and lists. I also carry a Treo SmartPhone, a multi-feature cell phone/PDA, so I can access my email and contact database. I know how to use the PDA features, but I still prefer to handwrite lists. Bottom line: There is no right/wrong to this approach as long as you pick one method and use it consistently. 

Make it a productive day! ™

(C) Copyright 2006 Laura Stack. All rights reserved. 

This article may be reprinted provided the following credit line is present:

“© 2006 Laura Stack. Laura is "The Productivity Pro"® and the author of Leave the Office Earlier. She presents keynotes and seminars on time management, information overload, and personal productivity. Contact her at 303-471-7401 or www.TheProductivityPro.com.”