Make Your List & Check It Twice (Or More)

by Annie

in working with your list

A to-do listOur brains are not designed to hold a series of short data strings for days on end.

Can we all agree on that? Can we all accept the premise that if I give out 20 telephone numbers, including area codes, you may memorize the list but chances are you will most likely not be able to recite all 20 10-digit sequences in order a week from now or more?

(Unless you’re one of those freaky eidetic memory peeps, in which case … bah. This isn’t for you, anyway.)

(Yes, I’m envious.)

So here’s today’s productivity tip:

1.  Make a list. 
2.  Check it twice OFTEN.

Make Your List

You can use an app, a text file, a Word document. Or you can go analog and use a day planner or a plain marble-covered composition notebook.

Personally, I love the feel of a paper list. But there’s one problem with going analog: you lose out on the ease of cut and paste.

Now that might not seem like such a big problem, especially if you’re only responsible for one business. But when you’re juggling one business + a day job + kids + dogs + creative work … trust, you’re gonna love the ol’ Cmd+X/Cmd+V (or Ctrl+X/Ctrl+V for you PCs out there).

Whatever you decide on, make a list. Get those to-do’s out of your brain and onto the page or the screen. You’ll very likely discover, as I did, that when you do this brain-dump consistently — moving your obligations from your brain to your list — your brain responds by becoming more proficient at the higher-level stuff you demand of it (i.e., creativity, learning, planning, etc.).

And stick with that method, whatever method you choose. Switching back and forth, evaluating this app and that piece of paper, or some other system will only net you lots of frustration and wasted time.

Give your new choice a three-week tryout, at least. It takes 21 days to form a new habit, and that’s a good length of time to figure out whether that method is right for you.

If it isn’t right — if you’re feeling compelled to evaluate some other method after that three-week period — then before you go on to the next method (and the next, and the one after that…), take a few minutes to get clear on exactly what wasn’t working. This helps you avoid the constant, never-ending “trying new apps” syndrome.

Check the List Often

What good is that list you so carefully devised and agonized over if you’re not checking it?

Well, it does some good, in that at least you’ve gotten the information out of your noggin, but it won’t help you achieve productivity superstar status.

Nope, to truly become ruthlessly productive, you’ve got to develop another habit: the habit of checking your list often.

How often? Up to you, entirely, but here are some suggestions:

  • At the beginning of every day – this will help you stay on task for the day ahead, decide which of your many to-do’s are the most critical (aka “The HOP Test“)
  • At the end of each day – check yourself and see how well you did, and prepare for the day ahead
  • At the beginning of every work week – get a sense of your upcoming deadlines and scheduled tasks, and fill in the gaps in your calendar with the most important stuff first
  • Whenever you feel overwhelmed – after you get your heart rate out of “massive myocardial infarction” range, get clear on the big picture. This is the critical first step to conquering overwhelm.
  • When you’re not sure what to do next – a quick glance at the to-do list will give you some suggestions
  • When you find yourself with unexpected time on your hands – this one in particular is a good reason to categorize your list by type or function (or “context” in Getting Things Done lingo). When you have 30 minutes to wait at the dentist’s office, and you can see you have 13 things on your list, and 3 of them can be done anywhere, with a notebook and pen for example (which you always carry with you – right??), then you can take advantage of those found opportunities.

Bottom Line: Play Santa!

So yes, boys and girls (and llamas), I am suggesting that you make a list and check it twice, or thrice, or as many times as you feel like (as long as you’re not using list-checking as a substitute for, y’know, actually doing shit).

How do you keep your list? Are you cuckoo for apps or are you an analog girl/guy? Tell us in the comments!

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Kellie Leigh August 6, 2012 at 1:35 pm

Great post Annie! I have one of those weird memories but only with names. I never forget a name, but other things I will forget. I have many lists on the go for all the other things… can’t remember anything without them!


Joseph Ruiz August 6, 2012 at 1:54 pm

Annie, I appreciate the tips. I have to be careful not to use list as a way to procrastinate (I am an expert in this field) I am certainly NOT suggesting one shouldn’t keep lists I agree they are important I just have to be careful that I assign some kind of target or I’ll just keep listing 😉
thanks for the practical advice.
Joseph Ruiz recently posted..#usguyschat 10/3 – How Do You Engage in Social Media?


Annie August 7, 2012 at 3:17 pm

Absolutely, Joseph – but that goes back to the foundational principle of ruthless productivity: Productivity means you PRODUCE something – something important to you. I think when you start with vision, break it down to goals, and then into tasks and habits, but always keeping in mind the starting point – the vision – you tend to naturally take those actions you need to take to make that vision reality. I don’t mean to imply it happens “magically” – it’s still a crapload of work – but it helps avoid the kinds of distraction you’re talking about.


Jonathan Payne August 6, 2012 at 3:32 pm

I pretty much always have a running checklist of things to get done. Evernote is great for this type of thing as it syncs across all devices and has an actual checkbox feature.


Annie August 7, 2012 at 3:18 pm

I love Evernote too – I use Notebook for my list, because it also has action/tick boxes, and the ability to import files, as well as keep notes and logs separate by sections. But Evernote makes a fabulous List tool.


Someone August 6, 2012 at 5:27 pm

Great post. I use apps mostly, sometimes Word. As you said, paper lists miss out on the beauty, magic, and pure wonderfulness (is that a word?) of cut and paste. That’s always really useful for me, so I’ll always use apps or Word.


Annie August 7, 2012 at 3:19 pm

Word’s very good, as are plain text files (a lot of my coder buddies use plain text files – I did for awhile, but I missed the tick boxes from Notebook & Evernote). ANY tool could potentially work – as long as you WORK the tool. (Um. That sounded dirty.)


Jeff Belonger August 6, 2012 at 6:20 pm

Darn, and I thought we were talking about my Christmas gifts.. 🙁 Seriously, I make notes and lists all the time. I just need to get better at having them in 2 places and 2 places only. I need simple solutions.. 🙂 I’ll have to check up on Jonathan’s suggestion… Good post and reminder. So, what was that you wanted us to do? 🙂
Jeff Belonger recently posted..One Shot Coffee – Serving Excellent Coffee & Food in Northern Liberties


Annie August 7, 2012 at 3:20 pm

Step 1. Start a list.
Step 2. Add your crap to the list.
Step 3. Add all this to your list.
Step 4. Mark all this done.
Step 5. Feel AWESOME about yourself.
Step 6. Decide to do MORE.
Step 7. Check your list.
Step 8. Lather, rinse, repeat!


Jeannette Baer August 6, 2012 at 6:28 pm

Annie, thank you for these great tips! I am a huge believer of Lists , and I find the busier I get the more I depend on these list 🙂 and it’s always great to know other people use them as much and check them as often – great post!


Nathalie Curabba August 6, 2012 at 9:16 pm

Thanks, Annie! I’ve realized that since my daughter was born (somehow 9 months ago already) I haven’t been so good at keeping my lists…and I LOVE lists! I’m definitely going to put these tips to good use. I need them!


Annie August 7, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Bless your heart – you’re still operating with post-baby brain. Science has conclusively shown we actually LOSE brain cells during pregnancy! Be easy on yourself. Growing and taking care of a small human is hard work!


Clare Price August 7, 2012 at 2:42 pm

Great for focusing us on the highest priorities!
Clare Price recently posted..When Opportunity Doesn’t Knock – Reinvent!


Sheila Hibbard August 8, 2012 at 5:54 pm

How did I miss this post? Most likely because it wasn’t on my list?

My fear is doing a brain dump of all of the To Dos will make me freak. Too long, not doable, who am I kidding kinda feelings will crop up and I won’t want to look at the darn thing. On the other hand, if I put everything on the list, I might actually get control of it.

Great tips as usual, Annie.
Sheila Hibbard recently posted..Blog Tools To Drool Over


Lorena August 21, 2012 at 1:38 pm

Ahh….lists. Those things I endlessly mark things off of, but never fully complete. I seriously have such a long to-do list–because I add things to it as soon as I think of them!–that it’s a running joke at my office. Because my job has frequently shifting priorities, I use Excel because the sort function is critical–I can add the tasks of a new project, create a priority number that allows them to be sorted to wherever I need in my list, and voila, I’m still overworked, but at least I know when 🙂
Lorena recently posted..radical compassion


Annie August 21, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Nobody ever died with an empty inbox, Lorena. Not finishing a list = part of the game, for sure! Thanks for the comment and the great tip. 🙂


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