How to Organize Ideas Using Online Checklists

Last Sunday, I posted a detailed review of Mark Forster’s excellent time management book Do It Tomorrow. During the review, I mentioned that I had actually started using several of the ideas from that book, mixed them together with ideas from Getting Things Done, and started using my own task and idea management system based on TaDaList. I’ve been using this system for a few months now and it works really well for helping me keep track of my ideas, moving forward on larger projects, and also keeping focus on what I need to be doing each day.

Quite a few people wrote in and asked me to walk through what I’m doing. It’s actually pretty simple, but hopefully it’ll make sense to you and you can find something useful from what I’m doing.

What’s TaDaList?

TaDaList is a free checklist manager without many bells and whistles at all. Instead, it just strives to be as clean and as simple as possible. Over the last year, I’ve migrated to using it for my checklists from my old favorite, Remember the Milk, which was suffering from a bit of feature creep and unnecessary clutter (though, lately, it seems that they’ve gone in a more simplified direction, so I may move back to using Remember the Milk because there are some bells and whistles there I like).

Basically, both TaDaList and Remember the Milk (you can do everything I describe here using either one, and they’re both good) allow you to easily create checklists, add items to checklists, reorder those items, and check them off as you go along. Given that they’re both web-based and both have good mobile support, you can easily use either one from pretty much any device that has net access.

Daily To-Do List

One thing I do each evening, as my last work task of the day, is prepare my to-do list for the next day. Here’s a peek at my to-do list for October 2 (a screenshot from TaDaList).

to do list

As you can see, my big focus for October 2 is getting four posts written, which I consider to be a good (but not necessarily great) day for article writing.

Rocks and Sand

Another thing worth noticing is the ordering of the tasks. Let’s look at that list again.

rocks and sand

You’ll noticed I’ve highlighted two different groups of tasks. The first grouping, noted in red, are what I like to call “rocks.” They’re items that require me to close my email program, get rid of distractions, and focus intensely for an hour or two. These tasks are the big things I want to get done today.

What about the other tasks, the ones marked in green? Those tasks are “sand.” They can be done without intense focused concentration. They can be done in five minutes, or done with regular interruption. They are the things I do in between the “rock” tasks. Many days, I have other tasks like “Call Mom” or “Send niece an email” and so on.

I learned about the whole “rocks” and “sand” distinction from Stephen Covey’s First Things First, which I consider to be by far his best work.

So, during a normal day, I alternate between the tasks at the top of the list (where I buckle down and focus) and the tasks at the bottom (which I can do with great flexibility and interruption).

The advantage of doing things this way is that I can deal with any urgent task within a couple of hours no matter what’s going on, plus I get the focus and concentration I need to write good, detailed posts that actually contain useful and worthwhile thoughts and information.

Focus on an Ongoing Project

You’ll also notice the first item on that list, “One hour on book marketing project,” is also a bit different. My “book marketing project,” something I’m working on to support the release of my book in December, is something that is a good-sized project, not really one I can complete in a single day.

I have a lot of these projects that I want to work on – things from a proposal for a second book to a video experiment. But each of these projects are much bigger than I can get done in a single day, and I have tasks that I need to get done each day – writing articles and so forth.

So I devote an hour each day – usually the first hour of the day – to one of my ongoing projects. In Do It Tomorrow, Forster refers to this idea as the “current initiative” – and it’s helped me get through several very big projects recently.

I also usually start a separate checklist for whatever my “current initiative” is, especially if it has lots of short sub-steps along the way. Then, I just spend an hour each day working through this checklist.

Random Thoughts, Ideas, and Appointments

When I’m out and about, I tend to record my random thoughts and ideas in my pocket notebook, but when I’m at the computer, I tend to simply use a separate checklist for recording random thoughts and tasks. I usually open up a new browser window with an empty checklist that I call “GTD Inbox” and whenever I have a thought of some sort, I just type it quickly there, adding a new item to the list, and then get back to the task I’m focused on. Then, later, I process everything in that “inbox” list, dealing with it right then or adding it to a later to-do list.

I also “schedule” appointments with to-do lists. I start lists up to a month or two in advance and add items to it that need to be handled on that day, like making certain phone calls or sending invoices. If it’s at a certain time, I put the time right at the start of the item – like “9 AM – Take daughter to doctor’s appointment.” Since I look at the list quite often during the day, I’m continually reminded of that appointment. It doesn’t entirely replace my calender, but it’s certainly a powerful complement.

Good Luck!
This is exactly how I deal with my blocks of work time during my days. I’ve been using this pattern for about two months and even though several personal matters have distracted me during this period, sapping away my work time, I’ve felt very productive since adopting it. It keeps me on appropriate tasks throughout the day and also lets me deal effectively with my random thoughts, too.

I hope it points you towards something useful, too.

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