Simple To-Do List Systems

Marissa Mayer, the senior Google executive, in a "How I Work" interview with Fortune, says:

To keep track of tasks, I have a little document called a task list. And in the same document there's a list for each person I work with or interact with, of what they're working on or what I expect from them. It's just a list in a text file. Using this, I can plan my day out the night before: "These are the five high-priority things to focus on."

Mayer receives 600-700 daily emails and sits in 10-11 hours of meetings a day, and uses a simple text file to manage her to-do list.

I have a similarly ultra-simple approach: stickies on the Mac. It is equivalent to a text file. Different stickies hold tasks of varying timelines and priority. For example, "Long Term To-Dos", "General Short-Term," and the most important, daily sticky created each night and morning, "Thursday Tasks." When I finish a to-do, I delete it. I love stickies for how easy they are to manipulate and how fast the 860 kb application runs off my desktop.

Too much complexity is the problem with sophisticated task management applications. I don't want to have to fill out (or look at and choose not to fill out) various fields. Not every task needs to be dated. I don't want to categorize my tasks, or if I do I want to do so on the fly using basic formatting like bold or italics. Over-optimization is a common trap in the organization and productivity and lifehacking world.

I supplement my use of Stickies with the "Tasks" and "Calendar" functions of Exchange Server (which I access via Entourage). If I have a time-sensitive task that I do not want to think about until I need to do it, I will create a Task and attach it to a date. For example, if I'm meeting with a guy next week and want to remember to bring him a book that's on my bookshelf, I will set a task to remind me two hours before I leave for the meeting to grab the book. If I have a super time-sensitive task that I do want to think about in the time before it's due, I will add it to the appropriate sticky and add it as an event on my calendar on the day.

Finally, I have "temporary to-do lists" on my mobile device and in the notebook I carry to all meals and meetings. Per David Allen, anytime a task crosses my mind and I'm away from my desk, I jot them in my notebook or on my mobile, and then once a day transfer the tasks into my main Stickies set-up or into my Exchange calendar.

Bottom Line: Find a system that works for you, and everybody is different, but beware of overly complex task management systems. Even really busy people like Marissa Mayer do just fine with a text file.

7 comments on “Simple To-Do List Systems
  • I set up a private WordPress blog with the P2 theme. It’s basically like my own personal Twitter. I use it more as a big picture task list than a day to day task list. I can reply to tasks with updates, and it works pretty darned well. The best part is that I can access it and edit it from anywhere.

  • Excellent post. Specifically, “Too much complexity is the problem with sophisticated task management applications. I don’t want to have to fill out (or look at and choose not to fill out) various fields. Not every task needs to be dated.”

    David Allen, by the way, uses Lotus Notes and eProductivity precisely for the reasons above.

  • One thing to keep in mind is that at her level, 95% of her work day is meeting with people and either telling them what to do or asking for advice on what they should do. Even most of the emails are probably logistical scheduling things that can handeled by an assistant (interview requests, invitations to speak etc).

    In a startup environment you often are juggling doing with managing. And often doing things you aren’t good at, but have to do anyway. My inclination is to write code, but sometimes I have to make sales calls or write press releases too (though thankfully we’ve grown to a point where we can start to specialize on a lot of that stuff).

    Also, I’ve found that at the stage we’re at, task list management is less challenging that communicating the results. For example, when a new feature is rolled out or a longstanding bug fixed, how do you make sure all the support reps know about it? Yeah, you can use email, but that doesn’t have any memory, so maybe it’s better to put in the wiki? But a lot of people don’t check with wiki every day… So you have to send an email with a link to the wiki.

    You see how this can become a challenge unto itself.

  • What I have been looking for so far (and havent been able to find one that satisfies what I have in mind) is a freeform database app where I can store anything text without having to choose whether it is a bookmark, login infoset, text with links, text of email, etc and without having to organize where a new note goes into a tree form (determining which node is parent). Marissa Meyer uses text file because of that only – you dont have to spend your brain cycles thinking about the note you are about to send in to your freeform database. In the case of Marissa it is a text file. The “Notational” Mac app looks promising, but it is for Mac only. Shortly I couldnt care how information went in, but how it comes out needs to be ultra fast – via instant matches as soon as I start typing.

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