Updated on 11.25.07

How Checklists Help Me With My Personal Finance – And How I Trick Myself Into Making Them Work

Trent Hamm

Regular readers of this website have seen that the idea of lists in various forms comes up over and over again. I make “lists” of the stuff I need to do, lists for the grocery store, lists of home and auto maintenance tasks, and so on. I haven’t even mentioned many of the things that I use lists for, either.

So why do I use lists so much? They provide a lot of benefits in my life.

First, they save me time. Rather than standing around and wondering what I need to do next, I just grab the list and do the next item on it. I don’t worry about whether or not I need to clean the windows or change the furnace filter, I just check the list. That way, I can save my actual thinking for other things.

Second, they save me money. Making shopping lists keeps me on focus in the store and minimizes the unnecessary purchases that I might make. If I trust in that list and know that it tells me everything I need, it becomes much easier to buy only the stuff on the list and keep everything else out of the shopping cart.

Third, they help me organize my thoughts and ideas and plans. I constantly make lists to organize all of the thoughts floating around in my head, transforming them from idle thoughts into organized structures that I can move forward on. Rather than just thinking idly about something I’d like to do, I lay out the details in the form of a list, put them in a reasonable order, and then look at what I can do to get the first item done, much like my 101 goals in 1001 days list. I do the same thing when making a decision – I list the pros and cons and use them to help me make up my mind, as I did a while back when thinking about becoming a stay at home dad.

Needless to say, I’m addicted to lists, but it wasn’t always that way. It took a lot of effort to effectively integrate lists into my life. Here’s how I did it.

First, I made the tools for making a list incredibly handy in my life. Not only did I start carrying a notebook and pen in my pocket everywhere, I started keeping a notepad and pen on the fridge to write down a grocery list, a giant whiteboard to jot down household tasks, and so on.

Next, I started putting effort into piecing out complex plans on paper. Rather than just sitting around mulling things over, I just started jotting down each thought as it floated into my head. I usually don’t use any sort of order at first – I just let the ideas flow, then spend time organizing them later. This works incredibly well for me. Lately, I’ve been using Microsoft OneNote (when at my own computer) and Google Notebook (when on the road) for this task, as it’s easy to write down little pieces of information and then easily move them around, edit them, and organize them how I want.

Then, I started creating lists of things to do routinely. For example, I have a list of tasks I want to accomplish each day, from brushing my teeth and shaving to reading three books to my son. I found that Sciral Consistency works very well for this. Sciral Consistency lets you make very easy checklists of tasks you want to complete every day or every few days, like watering the plants every three to five days, etc.

At this point, I naturally began to deeply trust my lists, and I began to practice what amounted to Getting Things Done.

Just try it! Try keeping a list in your pocket and use it to write down anything that you’ll need to remember later, and then look it over daily. Also, try getting a notepad with a magnetic backing and put it on your fridge – and tie a pen to it so you can write things down without hesitation. Those two things will start you down the path of using lists in your life – and you’ll come to find that they’re incredibly efficient time and money savers.

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  1. Michelle says:

    This is probably the most useful thing that I have read all week. I really like the 101 Goals in 1001 days. I am sitting down right now to start my list.

  2. I too started carrying a notebook a few months ago and it has helped me tremendously.

  3. vh says:

    LOL! When you reach a certain age, you have to remember to read the notes & lists you wrote to help you to remember things. Now that’s a challenge! :-)

    At crafts stores and (I think) at the Depot you can get little sheets of magnetized stuff, which you can cut with scissors. Take a smallish cardboard-backed notepad (I favor mini-yellow pads, about 5 x 8, available at drug and grocery stores or in a lifetime supply at Costco) and, with ordinary carpenter’s glue, stick a 1 x 3-inch strip of the stuff on the back. Then cut out a small, thin strip and glue that to one of the flat edges of an ordinary yellow pencil. When the glue dries, voila! A WHOLE PAD of paper and a writing instrument to go with it that will stick to the refrigerator.

    I use these to jot down items I need to buy as the week progresses, so when shopping day comes around, everything I need is written down: one page for the grocery store, one page for HD, and one page for the monthly Costco run. You also can use it for your to-do lists.

    When there’s something I need to remember to do when I’m out, I tape a reminder to the driver’s side window on my car.

  4. Cyde Weys says:

    A great way to make lists for the more technically inclined is to set up a wiki, either on your local server if you have one, or on a webhost with the wiki set to private if you don’t. Then, you can log on from anywhere and work on your lists. It’s especially useful because it allows all the members of a household to work on it, so you don’t need to find out where the paper list is to add something to it.

    And then, right before you need to use the list, just print it out and go. It works very well for grocery lists, whose items usually come from everyone in the household.

  5. Jeff Pershing says:

    Trent, I love this article and implement many of the things you talk about. However, I had never heard of sciral consistency. It is intriguing. Do you have a sample of your set-up in this program or advice in setting this up. I would be very intrigued to see that. I am having a hard time being creative with this program.

  6. Do you really include things like brushing your teeth on the list? Have you ever forgotten to do this in the absence of a list? Or am I missing the point here?

  7. Heidi says:

    I’m a list-maker too! I only do grocery lists or household item lists when I’m expecting guests or am preparing a special meal (but I also live a block from the grocery store – so an extra trip isn’t a big deal for me).

    I use lists most often when planning for a trip – I like to check things off as I pack (for work or pleasure).

    I also make pro/con lists before any major life change (moving, accepting a job offer, etc). And I regularly journal “thankful” lists, as I mentioned on my blog last week.

  8. vh says:

    In moments of extreme desperation, I myself actually have been known to write down things like “brush teeth,” “make bed,” and “eat breakfast.” Hm. Says something about Trent’s state of mind, eh?

    Lists are great, though, for organizing goals and microgoals (fancy term for daily to-do schedules).

    It’d be nice to know if anyone has found a scheduling program (mobile or not) that works better than a pen-&-paper to-do list that you can magnet to the fridge or stick to the exit door. I’ve tried several programs, and none of them seem to be as useful as the ole-fashioned technology. “Reminders” that pop up and chime at me are so annoying I shut them off and forget them. Lists seem to work better. Am I alone in the Dark Ages?

  9. I’m also a list maker and I agree: Lists really save time & money.

    My favorite list program is the Microsoft Works Task Launcher that comes with my Dell Laptop. The program has several templates for to-do lists.

    It also links my to-do list to my calendar with reminders and deadlines.,

    I also like old school methods: mini notebook and a pen or pencil.

  10. I keep a stack of 3 X 5 note cards by my desk and write my lists or goals right on those – they are hard to lose and give me something tangible to hold.

    The Dividend Guy

  11. Shevy says:

    Interesting. You mentioned sciral consistency in this article, Jeff Pershing commented on it and then I started looking at recent posts on some other blogs.

    I found myself reading Thursday’s post by Loonies And Sense about the very same topic! Makes me think maybe I should look into it and see if it might be useful for me.

  12. Nicki says:

    I used to write lists but after my daughter was born, I started forgetting to look at the lists later on or would lose them (or now my daughter finds them and uses them to color on). So I started to use my mobile for everything – the alarm in the morning when my clock broke, reminders in the calendar of things that need to be done during a given day or at some point in the future, all my phone numbers – I have this all backed up on the computer but don’t always remember to check it while my mobile is always in my purse and gives me an alarm that I can snooze or edit to a later time or date. I only spend about 5 euros a month for various text messages to my husband, work, etc so the thing ends up being more of an electronic calendar than a phone.

  13. Andrew G says:

    I just started carrying around a small notebook and pen and WOW! it makes a huge difference in how much I can get done.

  14. Chef says:

    So I downloaded Spiral Consistency – seems like a waste to me…I surely can’t imagine paying $25 for something that can be done in Excel.

    Would be very interested to hear how you use it? I agree with vh – is a computer app really needed to remind you to brush your teeth?

  15. Rob in Madrid says:

    Igoogle has a to do list feature on it. When I fire up firefox it opens up with several other windows, it takes a bit to get used to looking at it but it has helped.

    Biggest problem I face is I work a flex schedule, wonderful for avoid evening crowds but hard for organizing myself becuase I have large gaps of time free during the day. I tend to get distracted by less important things and forget about the important stuff.

    Regarding lists, it’s pure habit. drive back home enough times to pick up something you forget and you will learn to check you list before leaving, trust me on that one.

  16. Rob in Madrid says:

    IGoogle also has a Day and Date function, very important to me as I tend to forget what day of the week it is and thusly where I have to be. It also has a calender function but I don’t use it. Instead I use the calender function from mail.com rather than outlook because I because I check email several times a day (can email myself reminders) but I rarely open outlook.

    I have a bro in law who, and I don’t know how he does it, never uses a list, writes important things down on scraps of paper which then get thrown out, doesn’t use a palm pilot or computer program for organizing himself, is always late or forgetting things yets manage to run a business with employees, how he does it no one really knows but he does.

    Case in point, spent the last hour or so reading and posting blogs, but I’ve learned, lesson prep done, shopping list done, dog walked, only need to eat and print off address of where I have to go. Have about 30 mins before I have to head out the door again. Will be back in 3 hours with an hour break before heading out to last class, but important stuff is finished, mostly

  17. steve says:

    1) magnetic clip with scrap paper on the fridge, and a pouch I have attached to the fridge that holds 2 or 3 pencils, a small scissors, and a marker (for marking fridge stuff). Scotch tape is on top of the fridge for attaching paper labels (cut from the paper) to fridge containers.

    I take the list with me any day I think I may have occasion to be near the stores in question.

    2) notebook in my backpack to jot down any ideas or plans that come to me throughout the day.

    3) another notebook for the upstairs in my house, so I’m near a place where I can make a note when it occurs to me.

    Simple stuff, and it works.

    That’s it! It works.

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  19. Todd says:

    I like the idea of having a list posted on the wall of what you need to do each day during the week so you don’t have to think about it, but why Sciral Consistency?

    It’s nice that Sciral Consistency organizes your tasks, but excel seems to work just as well. After I looked at it, all Sciral Consistency seems to do is to add an additional task of going to your computer and checking off that you just did the task. It seems unnecessary to me, but different things work for different people.

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