to do.

October 7, 2010

In a nutshell, I’m awful at keeping to-do lists. And in general, this has never really posed a problem in my life. I’ve never been behind with deadlines at work or at school. Usually, I could do enough planning ahead of time that my deadlines stayed straight in my head. Unfortunately, it seems that this isn’t a very sustainable process when you have many projects to stay on top of. Or rather, I could be way more effective if I had a list.

My issue with to-do lists is that every time I make them, I always feel like I’m spending more time documenting than I spend doing. It’s similar to when I have to clean out my email inbox. It can take over an hour if I let it go too long and I could have spent that time following up to emails rather than organizing. Same thing with to-do lists.

To-do lists have the added complication of determining how specific your to-do list is going to be. For example, I can easily put all my major deadlines onto a list – these are deadlines that could be months away. Then, I can also put on the major intermediate milestones – the deadlines that help lead up to the major deadlines, to make sure you’re on track. Then, there’s a general follow-up I have to do – could involve researching, or testing, or sending it on to someone else. And here’s where it gets tricky. Sometimes that follow-up takes weeks, sometimes days, sometimes it takes ten minutes, sometimes I just can’t tell until I start doing it. Does all this go on my to-do list? What about tiny follow-ups, like answering emails or following up with people who are doing follow-up for me?

People always suggest creating a to-do list at the beginning of the day or the week and outlining the items that you need to get done. But I feel ok about my short term planning. It’s the managing short term deadlines with the long term deadlines with the immediate deadlines that starts getting tough. And actually making it a habit to keep the list up-to-date. I can use a list for a couple weeks, but inevitably, I get busy with too many immediate deadlines and the list just falls apart. So, anyone have any tips?



  1. My problem with to-do lists is that if I keep everything on one list, then it just overflows and I stop looking at it. It’s just too much work to keep having to scan through like 100+ items, never mind maintaining it every day.

    Instead I like to spit things up. I keep all my hard deadlines on a calendar. Important emails I need to follow up on get starred(or marked as unread). Then I keep a short day to day todo-list on a whiteboard for stuff I want to get done by the end of day/week.

    • Google Tasks is pretty good for to-do lists. You can clear out completed tasks.

    • But isn’t it hard for you to keep three lists up to date constantly?

    • It’s not too bad. I usually only update my calendar once every month or two, since I know most of my major deadlines way ahead. My email kind of keeps itself updated, as long as I mark stuff after I read it.

      So the only thing I really need to maintain is the small list for my immediate tasks.

      I don’t know though. I think it all depends on what you have problems remembering. My long term memory really sucks, so I spend most of my effort making sure I have something to remind me of stuff that are far off in the future.

  2. What did you say your MBTI type was? Some people live their lives by to-do-lists. Other people function just fine without them. If it hasn’t been a problem, why bother… unless of course, if your MBTI type’s “Self-growth” recommendations says “Make to-do lists”, then you’d think more about it. 🙂

    • Ha. Very funny. I have to bother now because I cannot keep track of everything I need to do. I’ve been trying to continue my usual process for months now and all that seems to happen is I lose track of deadlines and end up doing things at the last minute or forgetting them completely. Both are super terrible.

  3. What about the thrill of crossing things off of the list?? It’s so satisfying, I add unnecessary things to the list just to cross them off. List making is also a great way to procrastinate while telling yourself that you’re being productive. I like to take extra time to make the list look nice – add a border, make fancy numbers, that way the list of impending deadlines doesn’t look so terrifying.

  4. You might want to look into the “Getting Things Done” system.

    • Interesting you say that. I have that book on my shelf. Reading it has been on my to-do list 🙂
      Is it really worthwhile?

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