When a group of engineers began an informal discussion about the uses of to-do lists, the dominant theme seemed to be that such lists don’t always work well. Yet most said they continue to use them in some form and often try to “fix” them to be more useful.
Most agreed that we expect our to-do lists to cover too many items, including not just job-related tasks, but also family-related chores and other personal matters, including finances, education, and recreational events. Many agreed that we too often complicate our lists by including short-, medium-, and long-term items.
As a veteran user of to-do lists, and having encountered many of their shortcomings, I decided to go online to see what the experts are thinking. No surprise, they identified many of the same issues outlined above and more, and, in their individual discussions, did not necessarily agree on the best solutions.
Projects vs. Tasks
If you are a project manager your to-do list will differ from those of the individual engineers assigned to the project. You may do well to choose one of the project management software apps that deal with task planning and scheduling, collaboration, and progress tracking. Among them are LiquidPlanner, monday.com, Smartsheet, Workamajig, and Workfront Project Management Software. Individual project tasks, on the other hand, are the responsibility of the project engineers. They may be simple, easy, doable in a day, or complex, multistage, requiring days or even months. Tasks may involve hardware or software, or perhaps research. Each project engineer may elect to choose his or her format, and switch to another if it does not work.
Types of To-Do Lists
Those who choose to include both job-oriented and personal items in their to-do lists will likely need to deal with a daily list of twenty or more items, and, most likely, only a fraction will be completed by day’s end. Some to-do apps permit the separation of these work and personal tasks with a context tag. Or, if you choose to use pen and paper (e.g., 3-by-5 cards, as I do), you can create separate lists and thus avoid referring to your personal list while on the job.
There is still another good reason to consider using separate lists for work, home chores, and entertainment. In our quest to check off several items each day using only a single composite list, it is easy to be lured into choosing a fun item we know we can easily complete (the daily crossword puzzle, or something possibly even more tempting, like “Use Burger King coupon”). In today’s work-at-home environment, these choices are easier to make.
If you do opt for using a single list, one expert advises giving each item a priority (say 1 to 4) to encourage you to tackle the most pressing items first.
Whether you use single or multiple lists, it will help to include only items that are readily doable and likely to be done. An item like “Research Cyber Security” is a loser. Instead, make it “Read cyber security article ABC in IEEE Trans on XYZ, April 2080.” Another item to ban from your daily list is “Continue to work on subsystem X.” Instead, pick just one task from a list of likely next steps in the subsystem project.
Schedules vs. To-Do Lists
If you are part of a very large, ongoing project, you may elect to use a separate project schedule that includes task details and target completion dates, and thus keep everything involving that project off your daily to-do lists. Instead, you would put the daily project tasks directly on your calendar, with a particular time allotment for each. Its proponents admit that you may have to carry over a task or two to tomorrow that you failed to complete today, just as you must with your to-do lists.
Forbes consultant Keven Kruse, an advocate of schedules versus lists, notes that “That which is scheduled actually gets done.” He recommends that we schedule everything. For example, instead of checking e-mail every five minutes, he suggests a specific schedule of three times daily for e-mail processing.
Naming Your To-Do Lists
Should you elect to follow the advice of several of the experts, you will no longer label your lists simply “to-do.” Here are a few choices: Do-Today, Do-Now, Do-ASAP, Just-Do-It, DDALP (Delay Doing As Long As Possible), DSM (Do Something/Maybe), and, finally, Fuggedaboudit. The last three may help relieve the stress of carrying certain items on your daily to-do list seemingly forever.
Given a list in which all entries are “do today,” which ones should be tackled first? Those involving safety issues, error recognition, and fault corrections are prime contenders. Plus those involving customer complaints in general. Items left undone with predictable consequences, like “repair emergency power generator,” are obvious do-first candidates.
Enough about what needs to be done. What about a Done-It list? Gina Trapani champions its importance, noting that your “done” list is a great indicator of whether your do-do list is working. It also enables you to refer to your past work activities when, for example, you are writing that final report on a particular engineering project, or an article for possible publication in an IEEE technical journal.
The “done log” also permits you to “revel in your own productivity” as Trapani phrased it.
- Allen, D., Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, Penguin, 2000.
- Trapani, G., Practicing Simplified GTD, https://lifehacker.com/335269/practicing-simplified-gtd (retrieved Mar. 19, 2018)
- Gordon, W., Back to Basics: How to Simplify Your To-Do List and Make It Useful Again, Lifehacker (retrieved Mar. 30, 2018)
- Trapani, G., and Dash, A., Lifehacker: The Guide to Working Smarter, Faster, and Better, Wiley, 2012.
- Kruse, K., Millionaires Don’t Use To-Do Lists, https://www.forbes.com/kevinkruse/to-do-lists-time-management (retrieved Mar. 31, 2018)
- Printable To-Do Lists and Task List Templates, https://www.vertex42.com/ExcelTemplates/to-do-lists.html (retrieved Mar. 17, 2018)
Donald Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. He can be reached at email@example.com.