To remember it later and to remember it now: from to-do lists to a task management system

If you are a knowledge worker, then deciding what to do (and what not to do) is a key part of your job. It is not the easy part either: in fact, deciding what to do is often  more difficult than doing itself. To-do lists are the main tool for making such decisions and thus for doing your job properly. Why then do so many people find maintaining to-do lists stressful and frustrating, so much so that they abandon such lists in favor of ‘going with the flow’ (i.e. resposnding to the latest and the loudest demands coming through their email, telephones, or bosses’ mouths)?

My first to-do list was written on a punched card. Then I used notebooks, FiloFax organizers and eventually Word, Lotus Organizer and Outlook on a PC. After switching to Mac I tried Entourage, Things, and The Hit List before settling on my current task management system which consists of OmniFocus flanked by OmniOutliner and TaskPaper. I describe how this system works in other posts, but I first need to share some reflections on task management in general.

My guess is that almost everyone’s first to-do list is scribbled on a small piece of paper and includes 5-10 things needed to be done on a particularly demanding day. You probably remember huge relief when you made it, because you did not need to think about all of these tasks at once. You could concentrate on the task at hand and let your list hold the other 6 or 7. You probably also felt a great sense of accomplishment when striking a task from the list and proceeding to the next one. May be at the end of the day you finished 4 things out of 8 and kept the remaining 4 for tomorrow.

Subsequently you probably got into a habit of making such lists every day, striking out completed tasks and transferring the rest onto the next day’s sheet. The more organized you were, the more tasks ended up written down and uncompleted ones gradually accumulated. You probably ended up with dozens items on the list. At this point it was no fun any longer. Whatever you did, the list kept growing. Looking at it was more and more scary, stressful, and demoralizing. It was more and more difficult to chose where to start, to decide which of the dozens items is most important. You resisted writing things down on the list because this entailed the risk of them being buried under other items and forgotten. This made things much worse because now you lost trust in your list actually holding all the tasks you need to do. Making such lists electronically, painting various tasks in different colors, marking them with stars, and re-arranging their order probably took a lot of time but did not really help. It’s likely that eventually you decided to abandon to-do lists altogether and go back to “going with the flow”: responding to the “latest and the loudest” demands on your time and attention.

An ideal to-do list

Let’s try to understand why your very first simple to-do list was so effective. There are two reasons. First, by preparing this list you honestly faced your responsibility as a knowledge worker to decide what to do (and more importantly, what not to do for the time being). You selected 5-10 tasks from dozens or even hundreds of possibilities. You allowed yourself to forget about the rest, to free up your mind, to focus on the most important. Secondly, you limited but did not eliminate your options. You left yourself freedom to keep deciding which task to do next throughout the day and eventually which tasks could wait until tomorrow. You kept doing your knowledge worker’s job supported by a magic sheet of paper.

Thus an ideal to-do list does not eliminate your responsibility to decide – constantly, systematically, intensely – what to do. But it can support such decisions in three ways:
(a) It records the output of and provides input to such decisions: when you write down your 7 tasks for the day you record the output of your decision to chose these 7 from 183 possibilities; when you look at the 7 today’s tasks (while receiving new emails and phone calls) and decide which one to do next your list provides input to your decision.

(b) It secures time and space for your decision-making process. It is impossible to do something and to decide what to do at the same time. By setting aside time and dedicating a sheet of paper you focus on an important part of your job and thus do it better. Going with the flow on the other hand provides all the incentives of always avoiding your responsibility to decide.

(c) It makes your decisions cognitively possible by limiting the options you consider. Our brains are not particularly good for thinking about more than 5-7 things at once and that is a number of things which should not be greatly exceeded on an ideal to-do list.

So why do to-do lists fail? Primarily because people do not understand their functions (a)-(c). Instead, they believe that to-do lists can, by some magic, eliminate their responsibility for making hard choices. They don’t. If you keep adding all of your unfiltered and unprocessed ideas and reminders on you initially useful list it will soon become useless. The difference between the results of your decisions on the priorities and the inputs to such decisions will be mixed together. Your brain won’t be able to cope with a large number of things at once. You will first resist looking at and putting things on your to-do list and then you will abandon it altogether.

From to-do lists to a task management system

Yet it does not mean that ideas, reminders, tasks should not be written down. Why keep them in your head? They should indeed be recorded, but not in to-do lists. The place for such items is your task management system.

A slogan of the Fields Notes is “I’m not writing to remember it later. I’m writing to remember it now”. To-do lists are for remembering things now. Task management systems are for remembering things later. Both are important. Both should be linked. The tasks remembered now are the results of your hard choices of what is important today. Things remembered for later are inputs to the hard choices you will be making some other time. Just don’t forget to make these choices.

About Aleh Cherp

Aleh Cherp is a professor at Central European University and Lund University. He researchers energy and environment and coordinates MESPOM, a Masters course operated by six Universities.
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4 Responses to To remember it later and to remember it now: from to-do lists to a task management system

  1. Pingback: Outlines: channeling your writing flow | Academic workflows on Mac

  2. amelchi says:

    Hello Aleh,
    soory for the dummy question… where do you put Ical Todo in your management? Don’t you find that the missing OG Icloud sync is a pity? Alternatives?

    many Thanks



    • Aleh Cherp says:

      Alessandro, no question is dumb, but I don’t use iCal todos. OmniFocus is good enough and for some very rapidly changing things I use TaskPaper.


      • ALESSANDRO Melchiorre says:

        Alex, I too use OF and TP… Problems arise when I want to see my tasks along with my calendars! I am still fighting for a KISS solution but nothing yet. It is a pity that OF doesn’t sync with ICloud, too.



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