Finding a new way to manage my day.

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Oct. 1 2009 7:11 AM

The List Is Life

Finding a new way to manage my day.

Some people carry uplifting phrases with them for inspiration. "Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away." I used to carry around the opposite kind of reminder: a list of short sentences that instantly depressed me. My to-do list.

Since childhood I carried the burden. My mother or some well-meaning teacher once told me to write a list of the things you need to do, and when you do one, cross it off! That was fine when the items included "color within the lines" and "play catch." Marking down tasks was gratifying at first. To have begun is to be half done! But as I grew, the list did, too. And it became a monument to the things I hadn't done.

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.

To Do List.
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To fix my problem, I tried to fix the list. I'd write in different colors to prioritize until I could only keep track of all my pens by wearing a bandoleer. I crossed out completed items twice instead of once, as if I couldn't complete a task because of flawed demarcation between finished and unfinished. I've written lists in different places—calendars, special notebooks, and the palm of my hand. I've sent myself e-mail reminders until I considered putting myself in my spam blocker. None of it helped get the undone things done any faster.

By now some of you are nodding or shaking your heads. You've either had the same experience or know how to get out of it. I want to hear your ideas and solutions. Send your thoughts, best iPhone applications, or whatever you use to help keep track of things or pictures of your to-do list to us at slatetodolist@gmail.com. I'll write another story collecting your best tips and share them to create a more organized world.

Back to the story of how I tried to fix my to-do list. To rescue myself from the slavery of the awful to-do list, I turned to David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, and Merlin Mann, the author of 43folders.com (among other things). If what you're about to read makes sense, read these two next. It's the only way to really understand. If I don't make any sense, then read these two—they explain it better and more entertainingly.

The first thing I did was blow up my to-do list. It had at least two flaws: It sat in just one place, and each item was unwieldy—a cluster of actions rather than bite-size ones. An example: Digging through the boxes in my garage, cursing the disorganization, I came across an old planner from 1995. "Clean garage," it said on June 6. That was from an entirely different house. I've moved, and the to-do lists have moved with me. The old garage never got cleaned (until we moved), and the new one isn't clean, either. This can get existential. I'm going to have items on my to-do list that will never get done in my entire existence.

The first trick is to turn the big project into little action items. This is one of the key theories behind Getting Things Done. "You need to break down each noun into tiny little transitive verbs," says Mann. So now the list reads: Call carpet recycler to dispose of carpet, buy container for baseball cards, and buy hooks to hang tools. I no longer stand at the door of the garage wondering where to begin.

The clustered item is a silent killer. It not only makes cleaning the garage harder because you don't know where to start. It keeps you from writing things down on your list at all. I want to rock climb. But if I'm thinking in clusters, it just all seems too daunting.

The other thing that kept me from crossing off items is that I had only one list for all sorts of different tasks. So, for example, I'd write "go rock climbing" right after "call Robert Gibbs to schedule daylong interview with President Obama." Depending on my mood, one of those two things would feel out of place. I'd probably call Gibbs and forget about the rock climbing. I'd do this another thousand times until I rewrote the list and rock climbing wasn't on it.

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