Conquering the To-Do List

The first item on a highly successful to-do list: Make a better to-do list.

With the new year comes the urge to accomplish all the things that were meant to be done the year before, and it often starts with long to-do lists. The lists themselves can fuel anxiety, says Sasha Cagen, an Oakland, Calif., life coach and author of a book on to-do lists. She sees many new clients at this time of year and often advises them to put more tasks on their list that they genuinely enjoy. Some 23% of list-makers spend more time making the lists than doing the tasks on them, according to a 2006 online survey of 600 people conducted by Ms. Cagen.

There are, of course, all kinds of ways to stay on top of tasks. Some people like the tactile experience of hand written to-do lists on paper, embellished with doodles or designs. Others think more clearly when they type, sort and store tasks in computers, tablets or smartphones, and they like the mobility of programs that update lists on all their devices.

Even with so many methods, it is still easy to muck up list making. Kat Nagel, a technical-communications consultant in Rochester, N.Y., used to let her to-do list balloon to 14 pages and ‘it was never up-to-date,’ once causing her to miss a project deadline. Ran Barton, an operations analyst in Wilmington, Del., wrote his to-dos on pieces of paper — which he sometimes lost.

Kris Paige, a veterinary technician, used to keep her to-dos on sticky notes, ‘but the glue failed,’ she says. She started writing up to 20 tasks on her bathroom mirror in dry-erase marker so she would be sure to see them, but the method sometimes caused embarrassment when she forgot to erase the list before visitors arrived. Using a digital app to enter tasks in her phone and computer reduced the mirror list to two items, says Ms. Paige, who owns a Livermore, Colo., llama ranch.

Kim Bauer’s long paper lists of all the tasks and goals she hopes to accomplish sometimes ‘get completely out of hand,’ says the Vancouver, Wash., writer. Rewriting and prioritizing them becomes an excuse to procrastinate. Now, she forces herself to condense them into a single, more realistic list, and it ‘makes me feel more organized.’

A well-maintained list is ‘an essential tool for staying grounded, for saving your energy and for doing things rather than trying to remember what to do,’ says Julie Morgenstern, a New York author and expert on time management.

Effective to-do lists are limited to specific tasks that can be tackled right away and finished fairly soon, Ms. Morgenstern says. Instead of listing ‘solve client issue,’ write, ‘spend one hour defining the scope of client problem.’

A list should reflect a time estimate needed for each task. And it should be integrated into a calendar or schedule, to avoid ‘planning 17 things for tomorrow which, if you added them up, are going to take 20 hours,’ Ms. Morgenstern says.

There are strategies for tackling dreaded tasks as well. Ms. Morgenstern tells of a computer consultant who was energized by appointments with clients, but stalled with administrative tasks like paying bills, writing proposals or planning strategy. She suggested he assign start and end times to mundane tasks as if they were appointments, and break them up with activities requiring contact with people. The new approach stopped his procrastinating.

To prevent getting mired in mindless make-work, some software helps people measure tasks against broad life goals. Ms. Nagel, the Rochester consultant, uses Life Balance by Llamagraphics. The software has her start with a master list of goals, such as doing fulfilling and financially rewarding work and volunteering for community causes. These are prioritized and broken into tasks, with details about the time and effort required and where and when they must be done.

Using this data, the app assigns eight to 12 items to Ms. Nagel’s to-do list. She hasn’t missed a deadline since she starting using the software, which has helped her shift plans to balance work demands, singing in a choir and volunteering at a food bank.

Mr. Barton, the operations analyst, now uses an app called Remember the Milk on his iPad, smartphone and computer. It enables him to sort and prioritize tasks and set reminders of due dates and repeating work, financial and home duties for the father of three. The app can post and share tasks on email and online calendars. It also stores notes and data on items and calls up ‘smart lists’ of all tasks involving a ‘bill’ or a ‘call.’

For years, Nathan Harling avoided making to-do lists. He took pride in remembering everything instead. The turning point came a few years ago when he realized ‘I had 3 1/2-weeks of work and two weeks to do it,’ says the Mountain View, Calif., videogame designer. ‘I felt so overwhelmed by the stress of what needed to be done, that I couldn’t remember what needed to be done.’

His first to-do list, scrawled on the back of an envelope, ended with, ‘try not to go crazy.’ The list helped him power through work, and he has been making lists as needed ever since.

By Sue Shellenbarger|


新年伊始,人们迫切希望能完成所有那些去年本应完成的事,并且通常会从长长的任务清单开始。写过一本有关任务清单书籍的加州奥克兰市(Oakland)的生活导师卡根(Sasha Cagen)说,任务清单本身会引发焦虑感。每年的这个时候,她都会接待很多新客户,她通常建议他们把自己真正喜欢的任务多放在清单上。卡根2006年对600人所做的网上调查显示,约23%列清单的人在列清单上花的时间比实际完成任务的时间多。

Leigh Wells


即使有这么多方式,还是很容易把清单列得一团糟。纽约州罗彻斯特市(Rochester)的技术通信顾问内格尔(Kat Nagel)曾把清单列到过14页之多,并且“从不更新”,有一次导致自己错过一个项目的截止日期。特拉华州威尔明顿市(Wilmington)的运营分析师巴尔顿(Ran Barton)把自己的任务清单写在一张张纸上,但有时他会把纸弄丢。

Julien’s Auctions
约翰尼•卡什(Johnny Cash)生前手写的一张任务清单。他于2003年去世。在2010年的一次拍卖中,这张清单以6400美元的价格售出。

在科罗拉多州利弗莫尔市(Livermore)拥有一座美洲驼养殖农场的兽医技师佩奇(Kris Paige)说,她以前把任务清单写在便条纸上,“但常常会粘不牢”。她开始用白板笔把任务清单写在浴室镜子上,以保证自己能看到,有时候会多达20项之多。但这种方法有时也会导致尴尬,有时客人来之前她会忘了把它们擦掉。佩奇说,借助应用程序在手机和电脑里输入任务能把镜子上的清单缩至两项任务。

华盛顿州温哥华市(Vancouver)的作家鲍尔(Kim Bauer)说,她把所有希望完成的任务和目标写在纸上,有时这些长长的纸质清单会“完全失控”。修改和区分优先次序成了拖延的一个借口。现在,她强迫自己把所有任务浓缩成一份更实际的清单,这样“让我觉得更有条理”。

纽约作家及时间管理专家摩根斯顿(Julie Morgenstern)说,井井有条的清单是保持掌控的一个重要工具,能够节省精力,让自己集中精力做事而不是努力去记住要做什么。


David Redfern



有些软件会帮助人们对任务进行衡量,与总体的生活目标之间达成平衡,从而避免你陷入到一些无谓的琐碎工作中去。内格尔用的是Llamagraphics的“生活平衡”软件(Life Balance)。该软件让她首先列出一个大的目标清单,比如做一些有满足感且有报酬的工作以及社区志愿工作。软件将这些目标的优先次序进行排列并分解成小项,注明需要多少时间和精力,还有何时何地必须完成。


身为三个孩子父亲的巴尔顿现在在iPad、智能手机和电脑上使用一个名叫Remember the Milk的时间管理程序。用这个程序可以对任务进行整理并排列优先次序,并对到期时间以及重复的工作、财务和家庭事务设置提醒。该程序可以把任务上传和分享到邮件和在线日历,还可以储存笔记和数据,调出所有涉及“账单”(bill)或“电话”(call)的“智能清单”。

多年来,加州山景城(Mountain View)的电子游戏设计师哈尔林(Nathan Harling)一直都不做任务清单。他以自己能记住所有事情引以为豪。他说,转折点在几年前出现,他意识到“我只有两周时间来完成三周半的工作;要完成这么多工作的压力让我喘不过气来,导致自己连需要做什么都记不住了。”


By Sue Shellenbarger

This entry was posted in Life and Food and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Conquering the To-Do List

  1. MyMove says:

    Hahaha, I definitely have to create a better checklist for myself as well.

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