Money To Live

August 2, 2010

What makes a good to-do list?

Filed under: productivity — by moneytolive @ 6:00 am
Over the last few weeks, my to-do lists became manageable again – I was completing over 90% of what I wanted to each day, and I felt like I was not perpetually behind. It happened for a few reasons – I kicked my organizing into high gear and I reduced my obligations and time commitments (my AmeriCorps term of service ended in June).
With breathing room in my to-do list, I have time (space) to resume writing on Money To Live. For the past several months, I have been writing little posts, but I did not get around to actually posting them. My life has changed a lot over the last year, and the changes are intertwined with my finances. So, there will be a different focus here — more on finances in a relationship, home ownership, and working independently (i.e., freelance).
Back to to-lists! Lots of people will tell you what makes a good to-do list:
  • be specific (someone other than you could read it and know what to do)
  • use action verbs
  • protect it (only put the really important stuff on it).
I like the guidelines of being specific and using action verbs (what do I need to do for each item on the list). I add that my to-do lists are thorough. Feeding the dog is on there (because we forgot to give him dinner once — sorry, Winston). If it is not a part of my usual routine, each step of crucial tasks is laid out (pick up form X, gather info for form X, return form X).
David Allen of GTD fame says to break tasks up by context (i.e., computer, phone, errands, …). I definitely see why he says this, but in the era of cell phones and internet everywhere, I do not find it necessary to break up my tasks at that level of specificity.
To keep track of everything, I now have three sets of to-do lists. I have a weekly to-do list that I write on Sunday evenings and carry with me nearly everywhere I go. Detailed timelines for my biggest projects are posted over my desk. I use Remember The Milk to keep track of other ongoing tasks that need attention (i.e., household, wedding, personal, long-term career). On Sunday evenings, I pull up my now-hopefully-finished weekly to-do list, remove what is done, and add new tasks after reviewing my calendar and other sets of lists.
The weekly to-do list is fluid — items are added and removed as necessary. The list is really a chart with 7 columns for each day of the week and (currently) 12 rows:
  1. R (my partner)
  2. Personal
  3. Home
  4. Wedding
  5. Health
  6. Financial
  7. Client #1
  8. Client #2
  9. Project #1
  10. Project #2
  11. MTL
  12. Winston (my dog).
This level of detail might drive other people crazy, but I find it helps me stay focused all day. I work outside the home just one full day a week (and two half-days), so the rest of the time, my personal life and work are deeply intertwined. That’s why the to-do list (really, I should call it a to-do chart) works for me — my personal and professional commitments are all listed together, and I can work on them as is appropriate. If my work for Client #1 takes less time than expected, I whip out the vacuum and get ahead on my household tasks.
Financial tasks get their very own area in the chart. As R and I have combined our finances, there are a million details to take care of — I am carefully tracking our bills and income now so that nothing falls through the cracks as we fiddle with our accounts. We’ve opened new bank accounts together, combined our insurance coverage, and have paid large bills on house renovations (new roof, deck, and outside paint).
This is what works for me, right now, today. Maybe it won’t work in six months. A good to-do list is what works for you today. It will undoubtedly change over time as new commitments are made and old ones fall away.
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