If I don’t write it down, can it even happen?

I love to-do lists. As the owner of a small business, I have a million and one things to remember to do, from meeting major deadlines to all of the minuscule pieces of admin that keep things running smoothly and legally. Then of course there are the parallel demands of a fairly busy household. I used to keep a notebook on my desk to write all these things down in, which worked all right when I had only one desk. But for the past few years I’ve worked sometimes in my office, just around the corner from where I live, and sometimes at my dining table at home. This semi-nomadic working lifestyle meant I risked being in a different building from my trusty analogue list, and so I started using Todoist, synced across devices.

Now if I have my phone on me, then wherever I am, I still know what I’m meant to be doing, and in what order. The first thing I do when I wake up, after making coffee, is sift through that day’s to-do list and get my head around what’s going to happen. Or at least, what I would like to happen in an ideal world.

Outsourcing my memory

I’ve always been a bit of a slave to the written word, which is probably why I do what I do for a living. But it’s reached the point now where I seem incapable of doing anything at all, or remembering anything at all, unless I have previously written it down. Take the image at the top of the post. I’m having work done on my bathroom, and I asked the builders if they wanted a cuppa. By the time I got downstairs, I was terrified that I’d have forgotten what they wanted before the kettle had boiled, so I scrawled down their requirements in a complete panic. (Yes, my handwriting is appalling.)

Sometimes I feel a little concerned that my fervent reliance on to-do lists – effectively outsourcing my own memory – has made me incapable of retaining things without a written prop. A few years ago, when I literally forgot the name of the place I was driving to with my children in the back of the car, I feared that this goldfish-like quality would cause problems in my editing life. In my work, like all editors, I rely heavily on my powers of recall, and fortunately they still seem to function OK in that context. I have excellent retention of spelling and hyphenation variations within a document, and I tend to remember if I’ve seen a particular phrase already, just a few paragraphs earlier. In written form I’m good at retaining names, and places, and details of all sorts of things. Just not the reason I went upstairs two minutes ago.

Recurring reminders

My earliest electronic to-do lists were built in the free version of Todoist, which worked quite well, but soon I began hankering after greater functionality – specifically, the ability to create recurring reminders. Never again need I forget that my son has Forest School on a Monday, or that both children have PE on a Tuesday, or that everyone’s bedding needs washing more often than once in a blue moon! I have daily reminders set up, some weekly ones, a couple of two-weekly ones, a three-weekly one, and several annual ones. There’s even one designed to pop up once a decade to remind me to renew my passport. If a thing recurs, I’ll add it to the list.

The catch

Perhaps the only problem I have identified with the electronic to-do list – but it’s a big one – is that if I forget to put something on it, it can fall through the net. Because I rely so heavily on the list to tell me what to do next, if something was never there in the first place (or was prematurely ticked off by accident), it simply won’t get done. This results in me sometimes wandering phoneless, muttering to myself as if praying, but really I’m just trying to make sure the thing I need to do stays in my brain long enough for me to get it down in writing.

Elevating the to-do list to an art

There’s an art to constructing a good to-do list. It must be challenging enough to be satisfying, but with a few low-hanging-fruit items to stave off despair first thing in the morning, when the list looms largest. Here are my tips for a great list:

  1. You can order things by chronological urgency, but every item on the list should be equal. This means even tiny items (water window boxes, put bins out) provide a similar thrill of accomplishment to the ones that take five hours to complete (proofread second half of book, paint ceiling). In turn, this increases beneficial feelings of smugness.
  2. Make sure list items are retrospectively understandable and specific. ‘Do thing’ might seem funny when you first write it, but time will show that it is not acceptable.
  3. Work and life items should sit alongside each other, on the same list. Just as food all goes down the same way, so these things all need doing regardless of category.
  4. Don’t put items on the list that you know you will never do. Just don’t do it. First they’ll gently haunt you as you continually roll them over to the next day, and the next, then they’ll make you feel creepingly terrible, then you’ll forget why they ever needed doing in the first place, and then eventually they’ll erode the meaning of life itself.
  5. Don’t schedule in things you shouldn’t need reminding of. ‘Kiss husband goodbye’ might give you a giggle, but if you need to put that on a to-do list, it’s probably time to find a new husband, or wife.
  6. Recurring reminders are brilliant. But bear in mind that if you reschedule a recurring item once, it will be rescheduled for all the future times, too. Putting out the recycling a day late every week helps no one.
  7. Tick things off the list as soon as they’re done. It feels so damn good.

2 Comments on “If I don’t write it down, can it even happen?”

  1. Great post, thank you! I use Todoist for my editing checklist; I love that you can duplicate lists so I have one as a master and with new jobs, I duplicate it and enjoy ticking things off (especially in the pre-flight stage).

    I also use a Bullet Journal, and just this week I got myself a whiteboard and am using it to try out the Eisenhower matrix with my work tasks. In the Eisenhower Matrix, you divide the list into four blocks. The top left is “Important and Urgent” things to do right now. Top right is “Urgent but not important” to add to your schedule for the day. Bottom left is “Urgent but not important” which you might be able to delegate, or schedule for next week. Finally, the fourth block is “Not important, not urgent”. Eisenhower said “Don’t do those things,” but in my case, I list the things that I enjoy doing, like recording a read-aloud for my baby niece who lives in Australia, or doing this week’s block of a stitch-along. My little rule for myself is that if I clear one of the top two blocks, I can do something from the fun box.

    Other extreme to-do lists are things like that Kanban method, where you’re moving things from waiting to in progress and then done, which I find Trello quite good for. They suggest having no more than 8 things in the “In progress” category, or you run out of the bandwidth to do it all, or aren’t focused on them.

    Here endeth my essay on how my brain works.

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