Taming the TODO

Buried under a mass of sticky notes? If you worry about forgetting important tasks or you want to schedule things efficiently, here are some ways to get organized.
You Practically Live in Your Web Browser

Web-based TODO lists are a fun and easy way to create task lists you can share with other people. If you always have a Web browser open or you need to keep non-techies updated, a Web-based TODO list might be a handy way to keep track of your tasks. New services such as Ta-da and Backpackit use Javascript and XHTML tricks to provide a great user interface.

Look for a bookmarklet or extension that lets you easily create TODOs. Make your task overview the default page in your browser so that you're sure to review them daily.

You're Always on the Move

If you spend a lot of time on the move, you've probably thought about getting yourself a PDA. Both Evolution and KDE PIM can synchronize your tasks with Palm-based PDAs, making them ideal for the mobile warrior. Libraries such as coldsync can help you support synchronization for your custom hacks.

My productivity tool of choice is a pack of 3"x5" index cards held together with a fold-back clip or rubber band. Affectionately called the “Hipster PDA” by productivity geeks, this surprisingly effective low-tech tool is a great way to keep track of tasks.

Write down your tasks, one per index card. You can write down subtasks and notes as well. Shuffle through your tasks while waiting or sort it by the context you can perform the tasks in. Rip the card up after completing your TODO for an extremely satisfying end.

Print useful data onto cards. Around 50 names and contact numbers can fit on an index card if you use a really small font. Month and year calendars also are handy. No hardware worries, no productivity-sapping games and no hassles makes the Hipster PDA great for people on the go.

Tips for Taming your TODOs

Got an idea about what to use to manage your tasks? Well, now here are some tips for keeping on top of everything.

Make It as Easy as Possible

“Hmm, that looks interesting”, you think. “Let's try it out.” You switch to your task manager to write down that TODO. Oops, you still need to open the application. Now you have to arrange your windows so you can see the article. Wait, you need to copy the URL. By the time you have it all set up, you might've forgotten what you wanted to write down in the first place!

If a task manager is too cumbersome to use, you won't bother with it. Make it as easy as possible to get a task out of your head and into the system. Make your task manager a keystroke or click away, and you'll find yourself using it more often.

Don't Get Overwhelmed

Keep your TODO list short so that you don't get overwhelmed by all the things you need to do. Ruthlessly prune TODO items you no longer have to do or are no longer interested in doing. Delete or archive completed tasks so that they don't clutter your main task list.

TODO items can be intimidating. “Write a novel” is an example of a task that can be difficult to start. Make sure your TODO items are small enough to work on. I usually break my tasks down into subtasks I can do in one sitting. Breaking these tasks down also makes it easier to stop procrastinating, because there's always something small to work on.

Fill in the Cracks

Make a system you can trust. Ensure none of the tasks fall through the cracks. Make your reminder system the first thing that shows up after you log on or start your browser. Set aside time to review all of your tasks regularly.

If your task manager is easy to use, you'll trust it with more tasks. Writing down all of your tasks in a reliable system means you don't have to worry about forgetting anything—as long as you don't forget to check!

Hack Your System

The way you keep track of tasks probably will change as you come up with new ideas or read about other people's experiences. Don't be afraid to improve your system. Instead of making a giant step to a brand new methodology, however, break changes down into incremental improvements. That way, you give yourself time to make it a habit.

Don't spend too much time tweaking your system, though! One way to manage this impulse is to find a community of like-minded people. That way, you can use their hacks and customizations without having to spend a lot of time coming up with your own. The trick is to find a personal information manager that fits the way you work and can be extended as you experiment with new ways of working.