3 Ways To Build Better To-Do Lists (3 of 3)

This is a continuation of a thread of posts (part 1, part 2).

3.  Put the whole project on a list and off your mind, or don’t use one at all.

Computers are simple creations.  Despite dramatic advances in artificial intelligence – and the ensuing debate on what constitutes “intelligence” – our multi-core, multi-gigahertz processing machines touting terabytes of storage can’t make a decision that it wasn’t programmed to do. 

In some ways, this is a good thing. Because if you assume that computers are incapable of truly spontaneous events, then the only possible mistakes it can make are those made by their programmers. (In reality, hardware attrition, electrical surges, and – in the old days – physical insects do cause bugs outside of the programmer’s control, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.)

Because you as a human are better at thinking, and your computer or todo planner is better at recording, you should optimize each to take advantage of the mutual strengths.

I used to only make a todo list when I have a busy day coming up.  “I have 3 deadlines coming up next week.  I need to make a list to make sure the key things don’t fall through the crack.”

So I spend the better half of an afternoon creating this list, putting the date and time of when I want each item done (which doesn’t work, see #1 above), and inevitably, according to the plan, I will have finished everything necessary with 2 days to spare.  I’ve never finished “everything necessary with 2 days to spare.”  Usually I end up forgetting to use the todo list until 2 days before the deadline, realizing only then that I’ve been behind the whole time.

The problem?  Haphazardly constructed todo lists are not comprehensive.

Let’s face it.  It’s really hard to keep everything at work organized, but if your mind can not trust your todo list to actually contain everything you need, than your mind will try to be the vessel that contains everything.

And when my mind tries to remember everything, it usually forgets a few.

In other words, you can’t make “key item” todo lists.  If you keep a todo list at all, it needs to be comprehensive to be worth your up-keeping effort.

The best way to keep a comprehensive list:

(1) Plan ahead – Keep a todo list from a project’s inception.

(2) Determine dependencies – which include those that depend on other people, those that depend on time, and those that depend on events.  Include those on your todo list and supplement the time-sensitive pieces with your calendar.

(3) Tap into your existing habits – If you do end up with deadlines approaching, and you haven’t kept an up-to-date todo list, then realize that you will have to frequently remind yourself to use the list. Get an upper hand by tapping into existing habits.  Tape your list on the door of your office, or put it on the home screen of your smartphone.

My personal favorite is writing an email to myself, and keeping it marked “Unread” so that I be compelled to review it every time I check my email.

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Howard Chen
Vice Chair for Artificial Intelligence at Cleveland Clinic Diagnostics Institute
Howard is passionate about making diagnostic tests more accurate, expedient, and affordable through disciplined implementation of advanced technology. He previously served as Chief Informatics Officer for Imaging, where he led teams deploying and unifying radiology applications and AI in a multi-state, multi-hospital environment. Blog opinions are his own and in no way reflect those of the employer.

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