I have a confession to make. I'm not very good at keeping a to-do list. In fact I don't really even keep one. To-do lists make me feel bad. Terrible even. When I sit down and see all the tasks that I've been neglecting, I want to run away and join the circus. Witnessing the sheer magnitude of all the things I should and could do stresses me out.
The problem starts with the three or four urgent and important items I always have. No matter what, I always seem to have 3 or 4 of them. When I finish one, I inevitably pick up another task to replace it. The remaining tasks either aren't important or aren't urgent. Items that aren't important I can ignore -- thankfully. But I can't ignore the important but non-urgent.
Those important but not urgent items are trouble. With or without a to-do list, these are the tasks that never seem to get done. Those items -- the sea of important but non-urgent -- build quickly and stick around because the urgent problems get all the attention. When these tasks do get finished it is often by virtue of getting moved to the urgent category. Not pleasant.
Training is my classic example of a important but not urgent task. I want to spend a little time every day learning new skills. This training isn't urgent. I could skip a session on any given day without consequence. Unfortunately, urgent tasks pressure me to skip almost every day. Even if I did manage a big to-do list, this would probably happen naturally as I prioritize my tasks. Urgent items are very compelling -- by definition, the other tasks can wait.
How To Get Tasks Done Without Making To-do Lists
So what is my solution? I schedule non-urgent tasks in my calendar. I just pick a date and time and schedule the task just like I would a meeting. What used to be a big scary list is now spread out across the calendar in bite-sized chunks. As a bonus, if you also schedule your urgent + important items, you can use the calendar to have very fine control over how much time you spend daily on each task.
Does it seem odd to schedule time for tasks that are not urgent? You might say that by scheduling the tasks you're making them artificially urgent. When your calendar reminds you to do a task, suddenly it's urgent -- but just for the scheduled time. Although the task wasn't urgent before, you must act like it is when the scheduled time arrives. This artificial urgency is the whole point. If your task never becomes urgent, you may never complete it.
By making an appointment with myself, I force myself to actually make time. Urgent items get put off for a moment while other important tasks get addressed. This makes it a lot easier to justify spending time on myself - I can build the balance between different projects, between work and life right into the calendar. The calendar becomes the plan.
This method of tracking tasks has some limitations. First, it requires that you actually obey the calendar. If you often ignore or miss appointment notifications, this probably won't work for you. Similarly, if your daily schedule isn't somewhat predictable, you may end up with tasks schedule when you can't possibly work on them.
Another issue is that you need to be around the computer so you can get notifications. There are some possible workarounds: Google Calendar for instance can SMS reminders to your mobile phone. Some PDAs, cell phones, and iPods can synchronize with your main calendar.
If your work depends a lot on mental focus, this type of scheduling may be harmful. Lots of interruptions from the calendar can prevent you from getting in "the zone". In this case, you'll want to block off significant chunks of uninterrupted time.
Finally, the task of managing a calendar can eat up a lot of time. Depending on what software you use, finding tasks and rescheduling them can be painful. I personally enjoy Google Calendar because I can schedule tasks with one click and a plain English sentence: "Read GTD at 7pm", and search quickly too. On the down side, you need internet access to use it.
This is just an idea that I have been fooling around with for the past few weeks. Over the long term there may be issues I haven't seen.
For more of this sort of thing, try David Allen of Getting Things Done fame, or Merlin Mann of 43 Folders. They are more or less my source of inspiration. Otherwise, let me know what you think. When you have time.