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How I use a to-do list

The main tool for the progress of personal and work projects

Earlier I told you how I manage my social media with Amplifr and how I manage a record label duties with Trello, and today I’m going to talk about another work tool – a to-do list.

What is that

A to-do list is an application where I write down everything I need to do. To-dos can be anything from small everyday tasks like “to buy a bread” to big and ambitious projects like making a course.

Approach

To make the list and the whole system work, I use a few simple rules.

Rule number one is to write down //everything/and preferably as soon as you can. Need to call someone, need to go somewhere? Write it down. Need to read something, buy something? Write it down. Need to think about something quietly when you have time? Write it down. At three o’clock in the morning a genius idea comes to you? Write it down. Well, you get the idea. If it’s not on the to-do list, you don’t need it.

Rule number one is to write down everything. If something isn’t on the to-do list, then it’s not needed.

The great thing about this approach is that it frees up your head. Once you’ve written it down, you can stop thinking about it and focus on something else. In general, it seems to me that the human head is not well suited to remembering a lot of things, at least mine is for sure. And with this approach, it’s simply impossible to have a scenario where you forget something because the app remembers everything.

I also try to formulate the notes so that is always clear what it’s about, even if I look at it a year later. It happens that you quickly add a to-do, and while you are in the context, everything is clear. And then you look at it a day later and think, “What did I mean by that?”.

For example, a to-do titled “Lord Of The Rings”. What is it? Read a book? Buy a book? To finish the book? Remind a friend to return the book? Watch a movie? What is there to do? It’s not clear.

To make it clear, I usually put a perfect verb at the beginning: read, buy, outline etc. But there’s a nuance here, too.

See, above I gave the example of the “remind a friend to return a book. But you can remind a friend, and he is like, ‘Oh, yes, yes, of course,’ and will be gone for another year. With this formulation, a to-do will be formally completed because you’ve reminded your friend, but at the same time, the book still remains with him. So in addition to making sure that the note begins with a verb, I also try to specify the ultimate goal. Finding out the goal is very easy – to answer the question ‘why?’.

In our case with the book, it wouldn’t be ‘remind to a friend’ (to remind – why?), but ‘return the book.’ Or not ‘call a hairdresser,’ but ‘make an appointment for a haircut. Or not ‘remind Tim about the prepayment,’ but ‘get prepaid for the project from Tim.’ Feel the difference? Such simple wording changes allow you to focus on the real purpose of a particular task.

The app

Next, I’ll show you concrete examples of how it all looks and works, so I’ll tell you about the application I use as well.

Over the years, I’ve used various programs: Apple Reminders, Things, Trello, Todoist, Monday, Wunderlist, and some others I can’t remember the names of. Right now I like Things the best.

Things website

May not be right for you.
All of the programs listed above are both very similar in nature and very different in detail. For example, Todoist is paid – with a subscription; Things is paid – with a one-time fee; Apple Reminders is free. Wunderlist integrates with Microsoft’s office suite, while Things works only on Apple operating systems. Trello, by the way, is a service I also use – though not for a to-do list, but for team projects.

If you choose a program for yourself, be sure to consider different options, because it’s not a fact that what I use will work for you. Here I am sharing a general approach and my experience with it, not advising a particular app.

So, Things. Here’s what the app usually looks like to me:

Things app on the computer. The names of some projects are hidden for privacy reasons. Most of the projects do not fit on the screen

At first glance, it may seem like there’s a lot to sort through, but in fact, everything is very logical and in its place.

Priorities and deadlines

For example, look in the upper left corner, where the coloured icons are. There, Things automatically sorts out to-dos into tabs, from which the priorities and deadlines are built:

You can quickly switch between tabs by pressing ⌘+1—5

Inbox. A place where I quickly write down everything before I forget. Some tasks also go here automatically, I’ll tell you about it later.

Today. Things I plan to do today. I usually make this list the day before, so I know exactly what I have to do in the morning. Tasks that come up during the day first go to the inbox, and from there I plan them for the next day or after, and thus the to-do list for today doesn’t grow during the day (with very few exceptions).

Upcoming. Things that are planned for the next days, sometimes months and a year in advance. I check in here at the end of the day to see what I have planned next, and make adjustments if necessary.

Anytime. Things that I haven’t set a specific start date, which means I can start them at any time. This is where I have the bulk of my deadlines: there is usually a hundred or two to-dos, sometimes more. The great thing about this category is that I always have something to do at any time. You know how it is: you go through some big project for hours, and then you realize that you’re tired, your efficiency has dropped, and you need to switch to something else. Or vice versa: you have done all the work for today, and the whole evening is still free, and you think about what to do. In both cases, I just open this tab Anytime, from which I choose small, pleasant things to do, and so I gradually progress on things.

Someday. Things that I would in principle like to do someday, but for some reason, I can’t start doing at any time, unlike the tasks in the category above. These are usually big projects that are interesting enough to come back to someday but are not yet important enough to start doing them.

Projects and areas

The system I described above helps to determine priorities and deadlines: what to do and when to do it. But when there are so many tasks (which is always the case with me), it can be difficult to figure out what belongs to what. This is where grouping tasks into projects and areas helps.

Projects. Big tasks that cannot be done in one sitting. For example, you can’t just make a new podcast episode in one take, it’s a lot of hours of work, which requires mixing the set, recording the voice, exporting, converting, making cover artworks for different formats, making videos, rendering videos, sending them to radio stations, uploading to Soundcloud, posting on social networks, and so on. So I combine such tasks into projects. The projects have a round icon on the left that gets filled in as you complete the tasks in it.

Areas. Projects don’t live by themselves, they somehow relate to some topic that unites them, and in Things, this grouping of projects is called an area. This makes for a simple and logical nested structure. For example:

Area → Project → To-do
Releases Binary Star Upload a preview on SoundCloud
Podcast 122 episode Record a voice
Booking Winter rave Negotiate the timetable

In the screenshot above, you can see that I use this structure for personal business, music, podcast, bookings, labels, events, tips, and a dozen other areas that have been left out. And it’s very handy.

Automation

I wrote above that some tasks get to my inbox automatically. One such example is the advice series.

Advice series

It used to be that a person would fill out a Google Form with a blog question. I would get an email notification from Google saying, “Hey, you’ve got a new result on that form”. I got into the Google Dock and copied the question into my program. Of course, that kind of manual work sucks, not to mention the fact that I occasionally forgot to do it at all.

So I decided to automate this process through the Zapier. If you don’t know, it’s an automator for almost any app: you can tell it, for example, “take data from this service, do something with it, and send it over there”. It has another famous competitor, IFTTT, but I like Zapier more – I’ve been using it for a long time and for other apps too, so I highly recommend it.

zapier.com

Now with the advice series, it goes like this: a person fills out a Google form → Zapier sees a new line in the Google table and sends its contents to me in Things → I get a new, neatly designed to-do in the inbox. How good is that!

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If you’re using to-dos too, tell me in the comments about your approach and the app of your choice, I’d love to read about your experience too.

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