Post-It note hell

How and why to use a To Do List

The humble To Do List.

Normally scribbles on a scrap of paper or a handful of post-it notes on your wall or desk. However, real To Do lists are one of the most powerful tools for modern life. A bold claim but read on to find out why and how.

We have all created lists of things to do or things to buy (shopping lists) but why?

The main reason is our brain’s ability to store information.

Yes, we might be able to remember football stats for the last 20 years or what all of our friends like to drink and even for some lucky people, the birthdays of their family and friends. But at some point, our brains start to forget.

Short and medium term memory is not an unlimited resource and each one of us has their own strengths and weaknesses.

Your brain might be better at remembering images rather than dates or faces rather than names, whatever your strength or weakness, at some point your brain will either let you down or, more commonly, let you know that you are reaching its limit by repeatedly working through the things you need to remember (lying awake at night as you can’t seem to switch off).

And this is where lists, and specifically to do lists, will have a major impact on your life and business.

How do lists help?

For most people, writing something down reinforces the memory of that piece of information (remember School and copying from the board).

This helps in two ways, one you brain puts that information into medium or long term memory, freeing up your short term memory capacity OR two, the act of adding it to a to-do list (which you use as a reference) allows your brain to “forget” the information, again freeing your short and medium term memory for other tasks (other bits of information or idea creation).

But, the act of adding the job to a list would be useless if that list is a scrap of paper of short-term notation. This is because you run the risk of not completing the task (you lose the bit of paper) and so your brain would quickly realise it was being “tricked” and would stop letting go of the information, and so make the whole process pointless.

That is why to do list should be organised and used properly.

But what is the best method for creating a To Do List?

There are many different ways of creating and using the “simple” to do list.

  • Paper
  • Note Apps
  • Systematised Processes
  • Task Management Apps
  • Multi-user Aps

Lets work through that list from the beginning –

Paper To Do Lists.

Paper and a pen are the simplest forms of list. Write out a list on a piece of paper and job done right? Not quite.

Using a a piece of paper is simple and for short lists (think shopping lists) or as a quick or short term list (jobs to do today) they work very well. They are disposable once completed, portable and get the job done.

But, for long term planning or lists of jobs that span a few days, they are not ideal as they are delicate, can be easily lost and limited by the size of the bit of paper.

So yes, start with paper lists but be ready to move on if and when you start using To Do lists full time.

Note Apps

These are better than paper because they have all the benefits of quick creation and can be easily edited but they are alos portable.

All smartphones (iOS and Android) come with a note app and since everyone keeps their phone with them most of the time, the list is also always available.

You can buy better note apps which add features such as backups, ability to access the notes from a web page on your laptop and even cross platform (phone and tablet) but to start with the built-in app works fine.

You can always move up to a better app such as Evernote which is the most popular app of its kind (and free) which allows you to store more than just lists and To Do’s but also almost any text or notes you can think of and all in an organised system.

There are alternatives such as Google Keep and Microsoft Onenote and many more just a quick Google search away.

Systematised Processes.

These are basically pen and paper on steroids but still analogue (no power needed).

Using a notebook, pen and a planned process to store and manage your notes is what sets these apart.

The most well known process is the pre-printed daily planner, which is designed to enable you to plan your day, week and even month in the book so you know exactly what you need to do and when.

There are many types available such as the daily planner – five minute journal, passion planner, and spark planner all of which have their own spin on planning and to do lists.

Then there are the systems that use a blank notebook such as the bullet journal and self journal both designed around a rigid structure for list taking and daily processes to make sure nothing is missed.

If you are already an organised person these might help take you to the next level.

Task Management Apps

Moving on from just lists of things, task management apps attempt to formalise the list in digital format.

The advantage of this over systematised processes is the ability to rearrange, organise and add dates to items in your list so you can prioritise what is urgent against what has no timeframe.

You can also set reminders for tasks and filter the list so you are not overwhelmed.

Popular apps such as Asana, ClickUp and Monday are some of the best known and most popular (and all have a free option).

Whilst they have a bit of a learning curve (although asana is the easiest) they really help in organising almost anything in your business or personal life.

Multi-user Apps

Last on the list (ahem) are multi-user apps.

All of the Task management apps listed in the previous section can be used by more than one person and allow you to assign tasks to others and then track their progress.

This really helps if you have a team, obviously. Whilst I wouldn’t advise treating your family as such, in a business setting managing tasks between users for projects or just regular jobs, the idea of recording the tasks, assigning them and tracking them can be a massive productivity boost and take a load off your mind.

You can set tasks to be repeated on any frequency (daily, weekly, monthly etc.), set due dates and have reminders to be sent when tasks are not completed on time.

Some apps charge for this so the benefit would need to be considered against the cost but it is worth considering.

Final Thoughts.

So, with so many options to record your list of jobs to do in any format, paper or digital which should you choose?

As with everything in life, personal preference is the deciding factor.

If you are inclined to reach for your mobile most of the day, an electronic system makes sense.

If you are a pen and paper person, then use those.

But, if you like to keep everything in your head, you may struggle with keeping lists and that is fine but the benefits of making the transition far outweigh the uncomfortable first few days of remembering to note everything down.

One last point I should make is that To Do’s are a process in themselves so they will not help unless you really give it a good chance.

Yes, writing down a list every now and then is a start but if you make an effort to empty your head every evening of what you are trying to remember, you will find everything becomes easier and start to enjoy marking the items as done.

If you are interested in going a step further I can recommend the following resources:

Website – Productivity tips from – Articles and tips of being productive.

Book – Getting Things Done – a process for organising your office (mainly paper based organisation)

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