One of the most important events in my life as a productive adult was reading an earlier version of this article on Lifehacker about how to create effective to-do lists. I had always kept to-do lists, either scribbling out a list of things I had to finish on a notepad, or keeping them in a text file on my desktop. The ugly truth of those lists is that I seldom had the pleasure of crossing out any of the tasks I listed, or when I did, it had taken far too long for me to do so.
A good to-do list, the author said, consisted of actionable micro-tasks described in clear, unambiguous language. A great to-do task can be completed in under 30 minutes and should be linked to a specific verb. So today, a to-do list of mine might look like this:
- CALL dentist to confirm appointment
- GO TO dentist for 3.30 appointment
- DRAFT product spec for invisibility app
- EMAIL spec to Daniel
- CONFIRM that Sharon is working on quiz designs
Simple verbs are great, because they’re like switches. You either carry them out or you don’t. On the other hand, something like “FINISH super secret project” is unlikely to be crossed off my list any time soon because “finishing” represents an undefined number of complex tasks, many of which may be out of my hands.
The Lifehacked To-Do List has been a part of my life for many years now, and until recently I haven’t had much need to change it.
Then I became a product manager. Now, my life is a series of unfinished (or worse: buggy) interactive features that need constant attention. Since my natural hardware (and even my beloved to do-paradigm) isn’t so good at making sense of different groups of tasks, never mind the sheer number of tasks that come with this line of work, it was time for me to enlist the help of some project management software.
I ended up with Asana, a lightweight web app from the brain of Dustin Moskovitz, former Facebook CTO and recent IPO billionaire (even after Facebook’s share price began tanking). Asana lets you break out your to-do list into separate projects or folders, which not only makes sense for the workplace but also for personal use (“Book Club” gets its own folder, as does “Taxes”). Inside the project folder, you can add new tasks by typing directly into it, like a bespoke text editor. Once you’ve added something to the list, you can prioritize, labeling it as “Today”, “Upcoming” or “Later”.
Of course it would be cumbersome to have to switch between your different projects just to see what needs to be done first. Luckily, there’s a handy aggregate view which shows you all of your outstanding tasks, separated into “Today”, “Upcoming” and “Later” categories, which you can re-order by dragging and dropping as necessary. Once you’re done with something, you just check the box next to a task and it will grey out, vacating that annoying “to-do” nook in the back of your mind.
I’m not here to cheer for a specific piece of software as much as I am to say that organizing your workflow can make the office a much saner, more zen place to be. Crises and mistakes still happen and that’s okay, but they’re so much less likely if that “thing” that you were supposed to do was written down at some point and a lovely bit of software prods you in the ribs daily to say: “hey, how about we get this done today?”