I hate paper lists.

I hate them because I lose them. Sure, they’re a great way to use leftover scraps of paper, from the backs of envelopes to the backs of junk mail. I get that; I do. But so is my worm bin, and it frustrates me far less.

On the other hand, I love electronic lists. That’s not because I’m a gadget whore; while I love gadgets, I love them as tools to help me get things done – not because I need the newest, shiniest thing available, as soon as it comes out.

I’d suspected my listmaking proclivity for some time. It started small – after growing frustrated with all my lost scraps of paper, on which Important Things had been written, I started writing simple to-do lists in Word. Mostly, I did this at work.

Then, I’d frequently refer to them on my desktop during the day. I hadn’t been unproductive previously, but I noticed that my focus and productivity both increased – while my overall stress level decreased.

Some people say disorganization is a sign of creativity. That may be true. But being flustered and panicky because you can’t find the thing you wanted to use for that one project doesn’t help you express your creativity.

Being organized does. I’m not saying you need to go stock up on plastic boxes (although they’re helpful), but I am saying you need to find a system that works for you.

Labeling file folders is boring, but you know what? It helps you find important stuff later on, very easily. Even keeping everything you know that you’ll need for your tax returns in one place (no, not just crammed in a shoebox) can make a huge difference. If you remember to put those things in that place regularly, you don’t even have to worry about looking to see if they’re in chronological order. They’ll automatically be in chronological order; they can’t help it.

But back to listmaking. It was around that time that I started looking into getting myself a used Palm PDA. The more I read, the more I loved all the things I could, potentially, do with this one little thing.

I had a laptop as my primary personal computer, but it was a 7.5 lb. behemoth. While I occasionally carried it around so I could write papers and such on the train, while I was in school, it got old pretty quick.

With the Palm Tungsten E that I got, I was able to get a tiny I/R folding keyboard. With DocsToGo, I was able to write papers on my PDA, at less than 1/10th of the weight. My back was grateful – those schoolbooks weren’t light, either. I jokingly referred to it as “my outboard brain,” because it was.

Mostly, though, I used it to make lists. There was this awesome program called Handy Shopper that I loved. Sure, you could do a standard shopping list in it – but you could easily bend it to your will to make lists for anything imaginable.

So I did.

That’s why I became so excited when the Palm Pre was announced. I hadn’t wanted or needed another Palm product between my eBay purchase of the Tungsten E and that time. But the Pre meant I’d be able to only carry one thing around, instead of several. And I really adored webOS (and still do).

The hardware could be more robust, but I haven’t found an OS that I love more (and I’ve used several). For me, it’s brilliant.

I have several types of lists that I maintain at all times on my Pre. Most of them are in a program called Shopping Manager, which was meant to be an updated version of the Handy Shopper program I’d known and loved with the Tungsten E. Shopping Manager lets you have any number of databases you want.

I’ve got databases for Groceries, Wishlist, Library, and Trips. The coolest thing is, anything you check off each list as having been accomplished, doesn’t automatically get deleted. Instead, it gets shunted to the bottom of the list, away from the active part.

That way, if it’s something you’ll need to do or buy again, you don’t have to type it into your database again – you just have to uncheck it. This is very handy for groceries, since generally if you like coffee, you’ll probably buy it more than once.

It goes further than that, too – you can assign items to a specific shop, or to multiple shops. You can maintain separate lists for different shops. You can track how prices for items change – and whether or not you’ve got coupons for them.

It doesn’t just work for shopping, either – my Library list, for example, has separate sub-lists of books and movies that I want to look for. The old, disorganized me would simply have said, “Oh, I’ll have to remember that…” and then promptly forget to look something up. Now, it’s simple; I just whip out my Library list every time I’m there, and I get things I’ve been meaning to read or watch. And I check them off.

This is equally – if not more – important for actually accomplishing things. The principal way in which I stay on-task is making an outline for myself. At the end is my goal. All the steps in between are the things I need to do in order to reach my goal – sub-goals, if you will.

It’s completely possible to sketch outlines for yourself on a piece of paper (shudder), or in any word processing program you like. For myself, I prefer a webOS program called tasks@hand (yes, in lowercase). It’s an implementation of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” approach, and I really like it.

Basically, it addresses a primary problem that I believe many of us have: sure, we may loosely have goals in mind, but they look big and daunting and unattainable from here. We think that someday, surely, we’ll get there – and then we meander rudderlessly, hoping that we’ll eventually figure it out.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned: it’s virtually impossible to reach goals without maps.

If the word “outline” makes you shudder – and it used to make me, actually – consider it a road map. It’s fun to go out exploring unmapped territory, but only if you’ve got time. Unless you want to spend your entire life doing that, you need to draw yourself some maps.

What I like about tasks@hand is that it allows you to set a major goal, then set several sub-goals you need to reach in order to get yourself across the big finish line at the end. Sounds like an outline, right?

Ah, but the genius is in the display. tasks@hand offers you several ways to display your tasks. So, for example, you might have a list of things you want to get done at the Office. And you might have one you want to get done at Home.

Tap the header for “Office,” and all you’ll see is the very next thing you must get done. You can choose a different view to see everything you must get done for “Office,” as well as any of your other headers, but the main view simply shows you what to do next. It works the same way for the other headers, as well.

The idea behind this display is that it takes the stress off of you, and allows you to simply go along doing what needs to be done – in the order it needs to be done. For me, it works brilliantly.

I don’t find myself agonizing over whether things are going to get done, or whether I’ve forgotten this, that, or the other task that I needed to accomplish. I simply add sub-tasks to whichever thing I’m working on, as I think of them. Then, I know I don’t have to worry about remembering – I can just concentrate on getting things done.

No goal is impossible – you just need a map to get there. And you need to be willing to follow that map. Don’t be like the South Park underpants gnomes, with Step 1: Steal Underpants, Step 3: Take Over World. Figure out Step 2, and how it leads you to Step 3.

Or figure out as many steps as it takes to get you to your goal. Break it down as far as you, personally, need. This isn’t an outline you’re handing in for some assignment in school. You won’t get punished if you don’t adhere specifically to the outline.

However, it’ll help you get your thoughts in order. And it’ll help you identify potential weaknesses/areas for improvement, so you can address them. Remember, you can always correct your course along the way.

Electronic listmakers let you do this easily. No white-out, no erasing, no ghosts of what you’d previously written hanging around to haunt your scraps of paper. Simply add a new goal, or sub-goal. Change the map entirely. Keep separate files to compare, if you have a few different ideas in mind for getting from point A to point B.

It’s all up to you. How do you keep yourself organized and motivated? (And if you use paper, how in the world do you keep from losing it?)



Kate · January 10, 2012 at 11:11 am

Now I’m going to have to see if tasks@hand is available for the TouchPad…

I do love Wunderlist and Todoist, though, for their all-platform beauty. Things sync across web and phone and pad, without thinking!

    Janaki · January 10, 2012 at 1:01 pm

    Hrrm. And while I love webOS, chances are excellent that I’ll soon be making the jump to Android. It’s a pity…I really wanted to see webOS grow and flourish, but the future looks kind of murky. Open sourcing it is a good thing, but who knows who will end up taking up the gauntlet? Meanwhile, my poor Pre- develops delightful new quirks of age regularly. D:

    I don’t think tasks@hand was updated for the TouchPad, but I’m not positive about that.

    On a side note, which TP did you get? Wish I’d been able to take advantage of that fire sale, but funds did not permit at the time. 😛

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