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To-do list apps: 5 easy tricks for using them better

Everyone is relying on to-do list apps. But productivity guru David Allen says we can get more out of them. Here's how

Chris Kornelis | WSJ 

To-do list apps: 5 easy tricks for using them better

Once, Pakistani-American immigrant Misha Euceph had a dream. The host of a podcast called “Beginner,” which chronicles her life as a 24-year-old transplant in Los Angeles, she had her heart set on covering her apartment walls with white boards or chalkboard paint—the better to keep track of her multiple to-do lists. I can relate: Facing my writing desk is a corkboard wall covered in to-do-list note cards.

But a couple years ago, Ms. Euceph’s story deviated from mine: A friend showed her Evernote, an organizational app that includes a myriad capabilities and she gradually started dispensing with conventional written lists. “Slowly, I started actually using all of the features of Evernote,” she said, “and it kind of just became an integral part of my life.”

Everything Ms. Euceph now does for “Beginner” lives in the app. She uses it to create digital to-do lists inside of to-do lists. “allows me to organize my life within the context of the world that I live in, which is mostly on the internet and on my computer,” she said. “And there’s just no way I can do that physically.”

In the experience of David Allen, the creator of the (GTD) methodology—which made him a demigod among life-hacking hyper-obsessives in the early aughts—my disinclination to use a app makes me the exception. In his world, Ms. Euceph is the rule. 

“Most people out there have some sort of a list manager that they’re using now,” said Mr. Allen, who estimates that today there are “hundreds” of that use elements of his GTD system. “When I first got into this game, if you even had a pocket Day-timer, you were a geek.” 

Of course, we all can’t be as organized as Ms. Euceph, but Mr. Allen and his professional productivity peers note that app users can certainly try to improve how they use their list-making tech. It just takes some simple best practices.

Empty your human brain into your digital brain

“Your brain did not evolve to remember, remind and prioritize beyond about four things,” Mr. Allen said. “Your head is for having ideas but not for holding them. So get all the ideas out, not just part of them. Otherwise, you won’t trust your head and you won’t trust your list.”

The Things 3 app is uniquely set up in this regard: The app, a complete overhaul of which was released last spring, has an “Inbox” specifically designed for a brain dump.

Put any idea or task into the Inbox—or even direct Siri to put a thought in the Inbox—and leave the item there. When you’re ready to get organized, mouse-click each Inbox idea or task and drag it to the specific list where it belongs, or schedule a time to complete the task. 

Detail the whole task

“Most people’s to-do lists don’t work very well,” Mr. Allen said, because they don’t specify an action to be taken for each item. He recommends putting actionable items into your app—input “Make a reservation at The Cheesecake Factory for Mom’s birthday,” rather than something that requires even 10 seconds of analysis, such as “Mom’s Birthday.”

Trello, an app that allows users to drag-and-drop digital cards onto various vertical boards, makes it easy to visualize every one of your to-dos at a glance and make sure each is actionable. But the onus is on you to do so.

Write down when and where you’re going to complete the task

E.J. Masicampo, an associate professor of psychology at Wake Forest and co-author of a paper exuberantly titled “Consider It Done!: Plan Making Can Eliminate the Cognitive Effects of Unfulfilled Goals,” says one of the biggest mistakes people make is failing to commit to a time frame to accomplish each of the tasks on their lists.

“If your strategy is to go to the list and pick something to do,” he said, “eventually your list becomes a graveyard of things that you never felt like doing.”

can help with this better than pen and paper. Santiago Merea, CEO of Raised Real, a San Francisco-based meal delivery service for babies, says one of his favorite features on Google Keep is the ability to have it send him reminders according to his location—pushing alerts when his phone reaches a certain address. 

For example, when he recently arrived at a packaging conference, Google Keep reminded him to consult some notes he’d made about customer reactions to Raised Real’s packaging.

“I push everything for a certain time or certain place so I don’t have to look at my phone and see this crazy backlog of things that I have to do,” he said.

To-do list apps: 5 easy tricks for using them better


Embrace Anxiety and Satisfaction

Merely writing down a to-do task can give you a feeling of having made progress. But Mr. Masicampo cautions against letting that give you a false sense of completion. “There’s a balance,” he said. “You want to have some anxiety, otherwise you won’t work at all.” And, of course, it’s far more satisfying to cross a finished task off a list.

Michael Chu, the CEO of K-Motion, a San Francisco-based company that makes training tech for athletes, said he and his colleagues use Dropbox Paper. When someone completes a task on a project, everyone gets a notice. (Something those of us who feel overwhelmed by alerts might not welcome.) 

“It’s very childish in a way,” he said. “Like, when you’re a kid and you’re like: Hey, class, I’m done. And everyone knows that you’ve finished and gives you a pat on the back. It’s kind of that feeling.”

It could come to this: delete the app

Earlier this year when I was interviewing Steve Ballmer, I recalled that the former Microsoft CEO is a notorious advocate of going paperless. As we talked, I took notes in a large Moleskine notebook.

“Does it bother you that I’m using a notebook?” I asked. He answered sincerely: “Yeah, it does, actually.” (He’d better not see my office.)

I’m not ready to give up paper, and unlike Mr. Ballmer, Mr. Allen says that’s OK: “I know a bunch of tech people who are going back to paper because there are fewer clicks. It’s easy input and output. You don’t need to slow yourself down too much to use it. Tech sort of pretends that it’s going to speed things up, but it doesn’t.”

Source: The Wall Street Journal

First Published: Sat, October 14 2017. 22:34 IST
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