Slate readers submit their to-do-list techniques.

Do things better.
Oct. 12 2009 6:58 AM

The Better To-Do List

Slate readers collaborate to help you manage your life.

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Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

At Eunice Shriver's funeral, her daughter Maria Shriver told a story about her mother picking her up from school wearing a to-do list. She emerged from a blue Lincoln convertible wearing a sweater with little pieces of paper pinned to it. On each scrap she'd written one of the tasks she needed to complete by the end of the day.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

The above is one of many submissions contributed by Slate readers in response to our call for great to-do-list techniques. One person leaves notes or items he must attend to on his bed. One woman endorses staying single because men get in the way of living a productive life. On the other end of the spectrum is a man who finds the whole pursuit ridiculous. He just gets his wife to do stuff. Any time he must do something, he has his wife leave him a reminder. (Apparently you can post to the Internet from the 1950s.)

Many of the submissions are highly detailed. There are too many to print in full, but they all share a common set of core principles: Keep multiple lists (at least one personal and one job related), break down tasks into manageable bites, and review your lists regularly.

There is variety, however, in the details. Among our readers, there are box-checkers and crosser-outers. One person suggests that coloring in a little box next to a completed item gives a greater sense of accomplishment than a simple X. One woman writes long-term projects on the back pages of a notebook and immediate ones on the front pages. Several respondents use colored pens and different symbols to denote importance. One pins index cards to a wall. Some rely on digital devices. Others are so anti-technology, we're just thankful they were willing to type e-mails.

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What follows is a list of tools. Readers insist that these—in various combinations—can help you do whatever needs doing. They are listed in order of popularity:

Software

Omni Note, an iPhone application
Evernote
Microsoft Excel
Google Tasks
OmniFocus
Toodledo
Tinytodo.com
Remember the Milk
Inspiration
Life Balance
Notify Me, an iPhone application
Todoist
Action Method Online
RescueTime (This last was suggested as a reverse to-do list. Instead of listing what you need to do, it tracks what you've actually done. Theoretically, this should help you set realistic goals.)

Hardware

Most people keep personal lists in their back pocket. A lot use their iPhone or other PDA, but the majority prefer old-fashioned notebooks and pads of paper. Favorites:

Gurus

The devotion to Getting Things Done would be frightening if I didn't share it. Several people with very impressive signature files said it had changed their lives. Other suggestions included Mark McGuinness' "Time Management for Creative People" and Michael LeBoeuf's Working Smart.

The submissions were, on the whole, thoughtful, generous, and detailed. A few respondents said the whole endeavor was a waste of time: We should all stop making lists because if we can't remember something, it's not important. This point of view, however, seems unconfirmed by human experience. Others suggested that we should all be less obsessed with doing things—to which I can only say, amen. The most useful variant of these two themes is the caveat that not everything on a list can be completed. Although if "read Slate article on to-do lists" was on your list, you may now cross it off.

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