Magic lists

Time management gurus are big on making lists.

I understand the concept—in the abstract, it makes sense to me that I would be better organized if I made a list of what I need to do, and prioritized items so that I could be sure to focus on more important things first.

My husband’s always been really good at making lists. For as long as I’ve known him, he’s made lists on yellow legal pads; his lists are often a page and a half or more. His idea is that as he crosses off the items he’s completed, he will be able to see at a glance how much he’s accomplished each day. His problem, though, is that the first task usually reminds him of something else he needs to do, which reminds him of another project, and he spends his days daisy-chaining through a huge amount of work, none of which was on his list to start with. At the end of the day, he looks at his original list and feels like he hasn’t accomplished anything all day.

My problem with lists was different. I could make the list, and prioritize the items just fine. But once I added a task to the list, I’d forget about it—after all, I’d written it down, so I therefore didn’t need to think about it any longer. Then, of course, I’d lose the list.

Then came Dayrunners. They helped some—I always knew where the list was, at least—but I still had trouble with that whole prioritizing thing. And all too often, the damn thing was just too big and heavy to want to drag around with me all the time.

But modern electronics came to my rescue. A series of Palm PDAs (a III, a V, a Zire, and eventually a Treo phone) held all the information I’d lugged around in the Dayrunner in a convenient size and weight, and showed me the joys of electronic lists. I started out with grocery lists; I could shop and delete until there was nothing left on the list, never missing something hidden among the messy scratch-outs of my old handwritten lists.

I figured the same principle would work for my to-do list, and it did—up to a point. I got really good at making my lists, but I was still no good at making myself check the list regularly. Maybe what I needed, I thought, was a real tickler file, the kind GTD adherents often use, with a physical folder for each day of the month and more folders for each month for stuff farther into the future. But that didn’t solve my problem—it was just as easy to forget to check a physical file as an electronic one.

Obviously, what I needed was to tie my to-do list to something I do every day. Aha! Email would be perfect—checking my email’s the first thing I do every day after letting the dog out. Apple’s Mail even ties together with iCal and AddressBook, so all that Dayrunner stuff was there for me. But still, the implementation just wasn’t quite right—I could never make using it enough of a routine that I didn’t inadvertently miss things somewhere between my laptop and my Treo, which didn’t play by the same rules.

Then about a year ago, I happened to see David Pogue’s video podcast about Reqall, which seemed like just what I needed. Reqall lets me tell my phone what I need to do and when I need to do, and then maintains my list sorted by when I need to do it, by the task type, or by who the task relates to. I can type in my to-d0 or I can dictate it—the app has a very good voice recognition system. Best of all, it sends me an email every morning reminding me what I need to get done and links with my iCal calendars. I’m only using the free Reqall service, but if I decide one day to spring for their Pro service (about $25 annually), I could arrange to have it text me reminder alerts, too.

So I’ve finally found a magic to-do list that works for me—not bad after 35 years of trying.

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