So now I have three lists. Whichever one I'm looking at, I know it's going to have the right kind of items on it. The first is my "Expletive List," which sits at 10 a.m. on my electronic calendar. If these items are not done by the end of the day, I will emit a barnyard epithet. (I try to be ruthless. If a task can be delayed, it should not be on there.) If I have an expletive event in a day to come, I put it at 10 on that day. There is only a handful of these items every day.
My second list is what Mann calls a "Hipster PDA"—a stack of blank index cards that I carry in my back pocket. When I have a stray thought—whether it's about a kicker for a story or a reminder that we need a bigger Thanksgiving table—it goes on a card. If I've done it right, I lose the nagging feeling that somewhere a flap is open and I've lost good ideas. David Allen calls this process "ubiquitous capture." Theoretically, it frees your brain to keep doing what you were doing before an idea distracted you. To keep writing or reading.
Of course all those index cards are meaningless if you never check them. So at the end of every day, or sometimes multiple times a day, I sort and sift the cards. I add certain items to the "Expletive List" and organize the rest by context, with tabs that read: e-mail, phone call, weekend errand, home errand, at computer. When I have down time, I go to the tab that corresponds to whatever I'm doing and crank through as many of the little actions as possible.
Finally, there's the "Skydiving List," which represents the big picture or 36,000-foot view of my life. From there I try do dive down and create small actions that can be performed. It includes questions like "How can I teach my kids about generosity?" or "Do I need to change the filter in the furnace?"
The name also reminds me of the breadth of thinking I'm trying to do: I'm not just thinking about interviews I'd like to schedule for work but long-term adventures like skydiving. (One small flaw is that I don't actually want to go skydiving. Not in a million years. But I haven't processed the maintain integrity of all metaphors index card yet.) I check this list—which is in a Microsoft Word file in outline form—once a week, usually on Sundays.
Thinking programmatically about to-do lists may, at first, be a real blow to your insouciance. The guy who winds up in the kitchen at parties making people laugh is not doing this kind of thing in his quiet time, you may imagine. The guy who does (and worse, tells you about it) may wind up on your list of people you studiously avoid. Self-improvement has gotten a bad rap, in general, because we associate it with excessive strivery and the attendant qualities of self-absorption and general marching dullness. But try to think instead of a more expansive idea of self-improvement—of the sort practiced by James Boswell or Ben Franklin. Franklin was our country's first great lifehacker; he had trouble seeing both near and far, so he created bifocals. He was also a pretty popular and entertaining fellow.
Does this system work? I don't hate my to-do list anymore, but the system is leaky. I don't follow all the steps I just laid out. And big things still slip through. I forgot my son's lunch today, for example. I have in my pile an index card that simply says "tennis." Really? Play tennis? Watch tennis? Write about tennis? I have no idea what it means. Also, no matter how well I break down a particular task, I still have to do it. Writing a great outline is not writing a great story.
I have stacks of note cards I haven't dealt with, but the upside is that they're in the right place. While I'm reading or spending time with my kids, I'm not nagged as much by the idea that somewhere there's a blinking red light—that there's something important I'm not doing. That may not take my breath away but at least it makes me feel like I can breathe.
What's your trick? We want to know. Send your best tips, systems, or, better yet, pictures of your to-do list to firstname.lastname@example.org.