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.
A Truly Personalized Personal Information Manager

I went through the whole spectrum of personal information managers before I found something that works for me. I'm absolutely crazy about Planner.el, a personal information manager that's extremely customizable. I'd like to share some of the things I love about it with you so that you can see how personal work style affects how you plan.

I spend most of my time working with text files in the Emacs text editing environment. Because Emacs is so extensible, it has accumulated a lot of useful modules along the way, including several e-mail clients, Web browsers, Internet relay chat (IRC) clients and even instant messengers. I can program, surf, chat and check mail within Emacs. Emacs itself runs on GNU/Linux, Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X and is surprisingly easy to learn.

Planner.el is built into my main working environment, making it only a keystroke away. Because most of my tasks are based on what I'm looking at, I really appreciate how Planner.el stays out of my way. When I create a task, a small text prompt shows up at the bottom of my screen (Figure 1). I don't get distracted by pop-ups or switching to another application. I simply type the task description in, tag it with a project or two and get back to work.

Figure 1. You can create a task using a small text prompt in your regular editing window.

Not only that, it also intelligently picks up information from whatever I'm looking at, automatically creating a hyperlink back to the file, e-mail, Web page or even IRC session (Figure 2). Even newbies can add support for new tools, thanks to extensive examples. Planner's ability to hyperlink to my mail messages is the only way I can impose order on the thousands of messages in my mail archive!

Figure 2. Hyperlinked tasks give you an easy way to refer back to information related to a task, whether in the form of a file, mail message, Web page or IRC session.

I like reviewing my week to see what I have accomplished. Because it's easy to view completed tasks, I can write accomplishment reports without struggling to remember what I did the other day. Seeing a lot of crossed-out tasks for today also is a great morale booster. As a nifty bonus, I can keep detailed logs of how much time I spend on each task or project—great for billing time, improving my time estimates or simply finding out how (un)productive I am each day.

Manageable, not Overwhelming

I like keeping my task list short. I typically have fewer than ten tasks on my task list for any given day. I like scheduling tasks for particular days and organizing them according to projects, keeping my daily task list small and manageable. When I feel particularly productive, it's easy to reschedule more tasks onto today's page.

I break tasks down into bite-size bits to simplify keeping track of my progress and to motivate me to work. When tasks are of a manageable size, they're much easier to work on. Instead of goofing off, I find myself picking the next small task from my list and working on it.


I need a system that can keep track of small tasks as well as large projects. Because Planner.el is only a keystroke away and I use it for all of my tasks, I trust that it holds all the things I need to remember. I made Planner.el the first thing that shows up when I turn on my computer, and I check it at least once a day. Knowing that all of my reminders are safe and can be checked easily from one place definitely takes a load off my mind.

It's also easy for me to back up my files. Because Planner.el uses plain text files, I don't have to worry about corrupted data. If some experimental code makes Planner.el unusable for me, I still can use any text editor to manage my plans. In addition, it's easy to publish my task list and notes as HTML (Figure 3), so if something happens to my laptop, I can check my TODOs using any computer with Net access.

Figure 3. Publishing to the Net lets you check your tasks from any platform, anywhere.