Simple, helpful, and dangerous. Why, after 10 years of daily use, I had to establish some ground rules on how to use my favourite app.
The first app in the top-left corner of my home screen is Things 3, the to-do list of my choice. Since Apple introduced Reminders in iOS 5 I was sold on the idea of ditching all my Post-it notes and, for the first time, fully embrace a digital tool. It was this possibility that made me so excited when my mom handed me down her old iPhone 3 because I felt like James Bond, having a supercomputer in my pocket, ready to achieve great things.
What followed were years of me abusing this technology. While being careful at first, only putting down 1-2 things a day, it didn’t take long until I wrote down everything I could think of. Reminders, ideas, thoughts, stuff I liked, and motivational quotes … you name it and it was probably on my to-do list. I remember a point in college at which I simply accepted the fact that I would always have a giant list with over 100 items on it. I couldn’t reduce the number of items because there were too many great ideas and future projects on it, which would take a lot of time to finish but which I also didn’t want to forget about. So, my to-dos for the day were at the top and thoughts eventually made their way down to the bottom of the list, a place I rarely ever looked at. I even went back to writing down my daily tasks on a piece of paper because I knew that there was a high chance that they wouldn’t get done if they were on my list.
Since I introduced it into my life, the digital to-do list has made me less efficient because I spend more time creating and organising it than actually working on my tasks.
Now, after 10 years of use, I finally decided to establish some rules on how to use this tool. There are undeniable advantages I don’t want to miss out on - I just have to find a way to use them without the negative side effects. It is the same problem that I spotted in many different areas of my digital setup; when implementing a new, potentially amazing tool, I do so without any plan (mindless adoption). This, over time, leads to a chaotic setup that negates all the positive potential and even makes me less productive.
Surprisingly, it only took 10 minutes to come up with my rules. So here they are:
- An empty list at the end of a day
Before going to bed, my list should be empty. If I didn’t manage to finish everything, I either have to delete it or move it to the next day.
- A to-do list is for to-dos only
There are no notes, ideas, or quotes allowed on this list. It is only for things I have to do.
(But where do I put all my stuff then?)
That is an article coming soon. 🐫
- Actionable and doable tasks
Every entry should be formulated in a way that makes it easy to execute including a noun and a verb (call dentist to schedule appointment vs. Dentist). Also, I have to break up huge tasks into doable sub-tasks (lookup up how to write a business plan vs. find a startup).
- Keep it simple
Often underrated, yet one of the most important rules for nearly everything: complicated does not mean better - keeping it simple is often (if not always) the better choice. And this is what I want to keep in mind for my to-do list as well. It is meant for actionable to-dos and should be empty at the end of the day … nothing else.
Establishing these rules meant to do the impossible: cleaning out the giant monster of a to-do list I have created over the last 10 years. It wasn’t fun. I realised that this list is only one piece of a whole digital setup - and when other pieces, like a good structure for notes and projects, are not working properly it is very hard to make the to-do list work. The Digital Oase is ultimately about building a perfect digital setup - and the to-do list is one (for me crucial) part of it.
Using the advantages
After talking about all the bad stuff to avoid, I also want to focus at least a little bit on the positive aspects. There are things I grew to love over time and I never want to miss them again:
- Schedule to-dos for the future (or when arriving at a specific location)
- Synchronising and sharing to-dos
- Enhancing single to-dos with additional information and sub-to-dos.
- And my absolute favourite: repeating to-dos
I have an espresso maker that requires me to clean it in a very specific way every 3 months. So I created a reminder in Things 3 that includes every necessary step including some additional explanation. This reminder shows up every 3 months and I know exactly what to do. Another example would be watering my plants. I set a to-do that repeats itself after a specific time whenever I check it off my list. It is a very simple implementation, yet it has helped me to not forget about a plant and keep everything alive (something I wasn’t so good at before). It is this strategic use of technology that I love; it is simple, yet tremendously helpful.
It only took a few minutes to come up with some simple rules that improved the relationship with this digital tool, yet for 10 years I didn’t think about it … and it took a long time to clean up the mess I created. To-dos are the most basic and logical adoption of a digital tool over its physical counterpart, but even this simple process includes a lot of dangers. If I would have sat down and thought about how to implement this new tool before using it, I would have instantly improved my productivity. But I choose to mindlessly adopt the new technology into my life. By applying new rules, I started to love my to-do list again because now it really makes me more productive.
I haven’t been writing by hand in a long time, but parts of this article were written on paper and then transferred and edited on my PC. Why I did this and whether I will do it again in the future will be the topic of the next article🐫.