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In search of the Holy Grail of To-Do List Management

In search of the Holy Grail of "To-Dos"

Going back a few years, I was really into the “Getting Things Done” methodology of task management as devised by David Allen. At the time I was running several big (and not so big) projects that required al lot of task and time tracking and I decided on using the GTD method of keeping track of all of this information as I had seen it mentioned in a few tech blogs as the “Holy Grail” of task management systems.

Looking back (isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing?) I can now see that was quite a naive view as no single system will work for everyone 100% of the time. I wrote about my falling out of “love” with GTD back in April of this year in a post called “Why GTD isn’t for me“. Ironically, around the same time that I declared by break-up with GTD, David Allen released a revised version of his “Getting Things Done” book which apparently addressed some of my concerns with how GTD fit in with technology.

In another ironic twist, it was also around this time that I changed jobs so that I am no longer working on a computer all the time (only about a third of my working day is now computer-based), or even have access to a phone to note down my tasks. I know what you’re thinking “Whoa, Katy! Is this 1999?”. With no access to the items that I usually use to note tasks down I needed to come up with a system that works with or without technology.

Back when I was an ardent follower of GTD, a lot was made of the “Ubiquitous Capture Tool“. This is a device whether it’s paper based like a FlipPlan, Hipster PDA, PocketMod, Moleskine Notebook or tech-based like a PDA or phone that you can carry with you everywhere so that you always have a place to write your to-dos down. I found that perhaps too much importance was placed on the “Ubiquitous Capture Tool” (read more about it at Zen Habits here) – I don’t necessarily think that you need a specific tool for the job of taking notes when any scrap of paper will do – as long as you can store that paper safely until you can put the notes into your main capture system. So, with all this in mind, how do I track tasks and notes?

My Current Setup

Below I’ll walk you through my setup for capturing to-do items, calendar items and filing. It’s a pretty simple system – and certainly not groundbreaking – but it’s one that’s taken me a few years to become comfortable with so that now I’m happy jotting my to-do’s down.

I will admit there is always some duplication with my lists, I tend to run at least one electronic list at all times as I’m always testing out new apps to review for the site but I guess as I’m doing that for blogging rather than organisational purposes we can ignore that one!

Here’s a simplified diagram of my current workflow (click to enlarge):

My to do list workflow

Even though I’m a techie I prefer a paper solution

I have tried to go completely digital in the past and it just hasn’t worked for me. Even though my notes are available across all my devices at all times I still prefer looking at a piece of paper to see what I have to get done. There’s something inherently satisfactory with the act of physically crossing an item off a list and then seeing the list full of crossed off items.

My “Ubiquitous Capture Tool”

I use the front notes page of my FlipPlan to jot down my to-dos. If I don’t have my FlipPlan with me then I’ll use any old piece of paper I have to hand. These get placed into an in-tray when I get home and are then processed at the end of the day (or straight away if I have the time).

Each Item Has Its Place

It’s important that each type¬†of item (calendar, to-do etc.) goes into the right spot, there’s no point in putting a calendar item in your to-do list as it will get lost and you might miss your appointment.

Calendar Items

Items that have a defined date such as my work schedule, appointments etc. go into my FlipPlan, these then get transferred into my Google Calendar at least twice a week.

To-Do Items

To-Do items go into my FlipToDo list planner. I still use the idea of “Contexts” from GTD so each “context” has it’s own FlipToDo page. Contexts include “Bedroom”, “Office”, “Kitchen”, “To Buy”, “Blog” etc.

FlipToDo In Use

I’m still tweaking the FlipToDo List Planner, at the moment it’s in A5 (and half-letter) format but I’m toying with the idea of increasing the size to A4/Letter and having it folded to increase the available space.

Contact Details

Contact Information goes into my Google Contacts list, although I am toying with the idea of having an offline version of this list I can access – at least for important contacts. It struck me the other day that I wouldn’t be able to telephone anyone if I didn’t have access to my mobile phone or the internet – I can’t remember my own phone number let alone anyone else’s!

Mail and Other Paper Items

Yes, I still receive useful mail! It’s weird I know but it does happen occasionally – not as much as it used to mind you as I have gone paperless with quite a lot of things such as bank statements but every now and again I’ll get something that I will need to action, file or shred. To cope with these items I have a three tier in-tray. The top tray is stuff I need to look at, the middle tray is for things I need to file and the bottom tray is for items that I need to action. Anything that needs shredding goes directly into the shredder (although sometimes I do pile things on to of it to do a “big shred” once a week or so)

Filing System

I have a simple two draw filing cabinet. In it I keep my last years worth of wage information, any communications from the dreaded Tax Office, all the info on my car – MOT and service records, insurance etc., quizzes I have written (I’m a quiz master for my local pub and lend them out to other people) and instructions for items I use regularly. Most of my paperwork is now stored digitally as much as possible but there are still things I need for my records.

I’ve toyed with the idea of using a “Tickler File” which is a tool in GTD and is the basis of Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders (the site hasn’t been updated since 2011 but it’s still worth a read) but as most of my date/calendar items are in digital format I’ve decided not to bother going into this. I know when my bills are due as they’re in my calendar, anything else that’s time/date sensitive becomes a calendar item too.

I guess I could digitise everything that’s been filed – I have a my own cloud server that I can access from anywhere with an internet connection – but for the time being I need to have the facility to send or give paper items to people, plus as I’ve said I prefer the tactile and immediate nature of paper so, sorry, I’m not 100% ecologically friendly currently!

Don’t be afraid to tweak

I have read so many articles about so many different time and task management systems that I’ve lost count! Most of these systems present their way of doing things as the “be-all and end-all” of task management and they shouldn’t be changed in any way. I strongly disagree with this. If you’re going to use a system you have to make sure that it’s right for you, whether that be using contexts in a system that doesn’t use them natively, mixing electronic and paper-based systems or just lumping everything in to one long list the most important thing is that the system works for you not me, not some productivity “guru”, author or tech blogger.

Don’t be afraid to start again

I’m always trying different things, although as I mentioned previously I still keep coming back to various paper-based solutions. Many people will think that this is a really bad idea in terms of task management, basically they say that you should pick a system and stick to it. I ask though, how do you know if the system that you’ve been given is really the right one for you? I have friends that have been on time management courses through work and kept using the system their company has told them to use even when it’s obvious from speaking to them that the system just doesn’t suit them, or their role in the business.

Please don’t feel that you’re locked in to one particular system or methodology. Feel free to mix and match and play around with whatever system you want – don’t let anyone tell you what system suits you, work out the system yourself.

Final Thoughts

Along with tweaking, I don’t think there’s any problem in cherry picking parts from different systems – whatever works for you. Don’t think that what you have is what you must stick with. I’m sure if you’ve spent any time looking through my archives you’ll know that I’m constantly refining my systems, I guess you could say that I’m still searching for the “Holy Grail” of productivity systems. Will I find it? Who knows but I know that the journey is a fun one to be on!

Over To You

What’s your To-Do system of choice? Are you paper based or full on digital? Do you religiously stick with one system or swap and change between them? Let us know in the comments.

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