How to do a to-do list

Everyone has a to-do list. And everyone has a favorite way to handle it, from index cards to computer-based project managers. No matter how you manage yours, your Mac can help. Here are some to-do list tips for Apple’s iCal, Microsoft’s Entourage, and plain old text files. (Note: the work of productivity guru David Allen strongly influenced many of these ideas. Check out his Web site.)

Apple iCal

iCal is easy to use, free, and ubiquitous (every Mac user has it). But its to-do tools aren’t stellar. Still, if you only need to keep track of tasks for a few projects at a time, iCal can do the trick nicely.

Group Therapy When it comes to maintaining to-do lists, iCal’s best features are its multiple calendars and customizable calendar groups. If you use those calendars to categorize to-do items, chances are you do so based on projects. But you might consider using your calendars for what David Allen calls “contexts”—grouping to-do items based on the tools you’ll need to do them or the locations where you must perform them (see “What Everyone Should Do” on the next page).

So, for example, you could create an web calendar (File: New Calendar) for all your browser-based tasks. Next time you’re browsing the Web, you can select just that calendar in iCal’s Calendars sidebar, see all your browser-based tasks, then knock them off all at once. You could do the same with calendars such as computer and phone (see top screenshot).

You can collect related calendars into customized groups. So you might create an Office group (File: New Calendar Group), in which you store all the calendars for your work agendas, or a Home group for all the chores you need to do back at home.

Alarming Productivity If you’ve assigned a due date to a task, you can create an alarm for it. Each task’s Info window includes an alarm drop-down menu, which lets you pick the kind of alarm you want to run—Message, Message With Sound, Email, Open File, Run Script—and when you want to receive it.

While most of us rely on that first option, the simple pop-up message, these alerts can do much, much more. For example, if you’re going to be away from your office Mac when an alarm is set to go off, you can have an e-mail message sent to your home Mac or laptop. Select Email from the Alarm drop-down menu. In the address field, enter your home or mobile e-mail address, and specify when you want the message sent. Remember that your Mac must be on—not asleep—and connected to the Internet to send the alarm.

Microsoft Entourage

Entourage is a love-it-or-hate-it to-do manager. It’s overkill for many people, and the fact that it comes from Microsoft puts off some Apple die hards. But its Project Center, easy file attachments, and all-in-one functionality make it an excellent to-do tool, particularly for corporate users with many projects to manage.

Custom Views The custom view is Entourage’s best to-do weapon. Like the Finder’s smart folders, iTunes’ smart playlists, and iPhoto’s smart albums, custom views let you create live lists of tasks that match specific criteria.

For example, to create a quick list of all your overdue tasks, select File: New: Custom View. Give the list a name, deselect all item types except for Tasks, then select Is Overdue from the Criteria drop-down menu. If you find yourself repeatedly searching your to-do list by one criterion or another, you’re best off capturing that search as a custom view (see bottom screenshot).

Linking to Files Entourage has one wonderful little feature that few users seem to know about. You can create a link to any document or folder on your hard drive from any Entourage task (or e-mail message or calendar item, for that matter). Let’s say you have a to-do item, “Call Bob about project.” You can create a link from that task to all the documents you’ll want to cover in that call by clicking on the Links icon in the task’s toolbar and then selecting Link To Existing: File. When it’s time to make the call, open up the task, and all the documents you need will be right there.

Plain old text

Many users (particularly the geeky ones) eschew dedicated to-do tools like iCal and Entourage in favor of plain-text files. A text file doesn’t give you the bells and whistles that a proprietary program does. But it’s easy to use, editable in a wide variety of applications, and eminently portable via PDA, e-mail, and the Web.

Use Codes Plain-text files don’t let you assign fancy colors, labels, and date fields to tasks, the way GUI apps do. But you can create your own task-tagging system by using only the ASCII characters available in plain text.

Take, for example, this line from a to-do list:

[ ] - MDM - 2006-10-01 - Send Judy sketches for new shopping cart design

The brackets ([ and ]) indicate that this is an open to-do item; putting an x inside them ([x]) could indicate a completed task. Most text editors and other apps that open plain-text files have some sort of sorting tool; you can then sort your to-do list alphabetically, which will put all the empty brackets ahead of the filled ones so you can see all your open tasks.

You can also use other line-opening codes: a set of parentheses could indicate deliverables you’re waiting on from someone else, exclamation points might indicate high-priority items, and question marks might tell you which items require answers. You may prefer to start each task with its due date so you can sort by that criterion. It all depends on how you like to work.

After those opening codes, you can enter other details—in this case, the initials of whoever’s responsible for the item (you or someone on your team), its due date, and a description. You can then use your task editor’s search tools to find all items due on a certain date. Some text editors—including Bare Bones Software’s BBEdit and TextWrangler—will show you all the lines on which a search term appears. If your text editor does that, searching for the initials of a given team member will reveal all the items assigned to him or her.

The final word

It doesn’t really matter which tool you use to keep track of your to-do list, as long as you choose one that fits your organizational style, apply some smarts to how you use it, and let your Mac keep things simple.

In iCal, you can create custom calendars to collect tasks that use the same tool—your phone, your Mac, and so on.Entourage’s custom views let you drill down to a specific subset of tasks, based on due date, project, priority, and other criteria.

What everyone should do

No matter what tool you rely on to keep track of your tasks, following a few general principles will maximize the usefulness of your to-do list.

Be Discrete Make sure the tasks you’ve added to your list represent single, discrete activities that you can accomplish in 5 to 20 minutes each. If they’re going to take longer than that, try breaking them down into smaller chunks. In other words, “Plan vacation” isn’t a good task (that’s a project). Break it down into items such as “Check Web rates for flights to Seattle,” “Ask the boss for a week off in December,” and so on.

Keep It Concrete Avoid mushy verbs and try to phrase your to-dos in concrete, physical terms: “Brainstorm report” isn’t nearly as effective as “Draft five ideas for report theme” or “Write 500-word introduction to report.” If you have to come up with ideas about a topic, you may find that your best brainstorming happens in the course of other, more concrete actions, such as writing or discussing. So try to anchor your to-do items with those activities, rather than something like “Think about X.”

Give It Context It makes sense to divide your to-do list according to where you need to be and which tools you need to complete a task. Keep-ing an “At the office” list separate from your “Errands around town” list only makes sense. For instance, if you’re stuck for an hour someplace where you can only make calls from your phone, then you can go ahead and skip items that require a laptop (computer), a lawnmower (chores), or your boss (boss-agenda).

Make a Commitment Apart from never completing any of the items on your to-do list, the biggest mistake you can make is to use the list as an undifferentiated dumping ground for everything you might do someday. Filling your list with fantastic plans or spur-of-the-moment thoughts leads to procrastination, indecision, and inaction. Think of your to-do list as hallowed ground, where you’ll put only those tasks you’re really committed to completing.

[ Merlin Mann is a writer and the proprietor of the 43Folders blog. ]

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