Amsterdam house on the foreground, sky on the background, photographed looking up

Getting things done with to-do lists

Is this another piece on to-do lists? Yes and no: we will cover the topic of using a to-do list for work, however, from a highly practical standpoint. 

Thinking about it, the human brain did not evolve to keep track of the jillion things we think about daily, but we still expect it to remember tasks from the three projects at work, home chores, social follow-ups, free time activities, and much more. And let’s not forget we want it all structured and prioritized.

The point is that brain is a lousy office, and outsourcing the work of keeping track of tasks is probably worth a shot. In this post, I want to walk you through a (so far) successful experiment I made. 

The ever-needed disclaimer: there’s no guarantee that it will work with your workflow, but don’t close this page just yet and give me a chance to make your day more structured. Ready? Let’s jump right in.

Why did it work for me?

The biggest reason behind using a to-do list to manage my day-to-day at work and home appears to be its simplicity. I don’t have to burn too many brain calories to service the list. Therefore, it is working for me and not the other way around.

Here are a few key points making the whole idea worthwhile in daily work:

– Adding items is easy and quick, be it on the work computer, phone, or home laptop. It literally takes seconds to add an action point to the list, and it won’t get lost.

– Getting an overview of the day is straightforward, and at any moment of the day, it’s clear what is still not done. Also, if I add things randomly throughout the day, I’ll see them there to either mark as done, move to another day, or keep in the backlog of things to do.

– Hassle-free rescheduling. Didn’t manage to tick off all the items today? No problem, move them all to “tomorrow” or any other day with one click/tap. No feeling of guilt for not doing it all, and let the following quote from an unknown author illustrate it in a little philosophized way:

Sometimes we let life guide us, and other times we take life by the horns. But one thing is for sure: no matter how organized we are or how well we plan, we can always expect the unexpected.

– Bonus point: a dash of the feel-good hormones after making the list empty. Isn’t it nice to feel good about yourself after crossing all the items for today? Worth keeping in mind the fact that it’s possible to be extremely busy without being too effective.

A man in front of a laptop, looking happy for achieving something.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/man-in-black-suit-achieved-an-accomplishment-3779409/

To summarize the four points above in one phrase: power in simplicity. 

How did I get there? 

The idea of using a to-do list for work tasks came to me after reading a great book on engineering management (thanks, Alex!) where the author advised to, well, use a to-do list.

After having tried that before, my first reaction was, “yeah, right, next chapter!”. But as someone who doesn’t like to skip pages just like that, I examined the arguments and decided to give it a try, this time along with making a special “trial” agreement.

The agreement was to commit to one week of keeping all tasks in a to-do list app of choice. No other task management systems were allowed, such as Trello, Google Calendar, or the ever-open text file in VS Code.

The switch was easier than I expected. First, I tried Asana, found it too feature-rich for my relatively simple use case, and uninstalled it on Monday, the first day of the experiment. A quick search revealed Todoist, and I liked the UI and the fact that it can effortlessly synchronize between several devices – the choice was made. 

Todoist can also sync between different Apple IDs, allowing Mac users to work with the same list on, for example, work and home laptops.

Categories 

After a few days, I noticed that it was possible to categorize most tasks. Spoiler alert: most of them got marked as chores, which turned out to be the right choice. Below are a few categories that emerged after one week of using the app:

  • Work 
  • Growth (professional development)
  • Health (like remembering to go for a run)
  • Recruitment (also for work, a hot topic for me for a while)
  • Pet projects
  • Chores (most popular category so far!)

Assigning a category (or project in Todoist’s terms) to a task does not add direct value. However, as time passes, the app counts the number of tasks closed for each project, paving the path to some interesting discoveries. For me, it was that things perceived as hard to do or lengthy did not require that much actual effort to accomplish. Perhaps the procrastinating around it was bloating the perception of difficultness (but who knows).

Positive changes in life

What a loud title! Bear with me for a moment, and it may improve your day a little, too. 

Not only work

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-draw-a-light-bulb-in-white-board-3758105/

Suddenly you don’t forget to do that house chore your partner asked you for days ago. Remember to congratulate a friend on passing the aikido exam he was so excited about six weeks ago. Deliver the analysis your manager briefly mentioned as essential but may have forgotten about in the whole stream of other work, events, and daily changes. 

A to-do list is a suitable medium for capturing random tasks throughout the day, no matter where you are.

Lighter head

It feels much better not to keep all the to-do items in mind. Get less stressed over things you may have forgotten but can’t be sure what those were anymore. 

As a bonus, there’s an easy way to estimate the work in front of you today. Spoiler alert: this also works for tomorrow and the day after, merely a few taps away (speaking of Todoist again).

The pitfall

The improvement described above comes at the cost of changing your habits or getting used to a brand new one. It’s never easy, and no app in the world will do this work for you (not even the premium version). 

Get started small; there’s always a chance this won’t fit your lifestyle. As such, you are limiting the potential waste of effort – an excellent way to begin. Allocate a “commitment budget” and make a deal to track the to-do’s with the app for one week. That also means that the to-do tasks don’t go to the notebook anymore and don’t get added to the endless text document you may have kept open for months (the calendar is not the best place for to-dos either). Trello and other apps take a break while you’re in this experiment. Just for one week.

Ok, what should I install?

Todoist is what worked for me out of the hundreds of similar apps available on the market (of which I only tried two), and the free version does the job.

I’m always curious about other people’s experiences, so if you decide to try it after reading this blog post, I’ll be thrilled to hear your feedback.

Thank you for reading.

This post is not sponsored or endorsed by Todoist.

In the previous post, I discussed conflict in the workplace, its importance for a healthy team, and a few approaches to handling it successfully. It contains some very practical advice, too 👍

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