Step 1: Make a list.


I’m just going to come out with it here.  I’ve found something that helps me cope with my hectic days and too-short weeks.  It’s becoming something I rely on–perhaps even depend on.  I’m lost without it.

Hi, I’m Jessica, and I’m a Listmaker.

Bah, you say.  Everyone makes lists.  Everyone knows that making a task list can help keep you on track.  I agree.  However, earlier this week I went a couple of days without making my standard to-do list, and felt totally at sea by the afternoon.  What was I doing just now?  It was so easy to get sidetracked.  Perhaps I’ve become addicted to my list board.

The list board is a small whiteboard on my desk at work.  It’s about the size of a standard piece of paper.  I’ve got a set of four whiteboard markers next to it, the same ones my whole company uses on the large wall whiteboards in conference rooms.  Every day before I leave the office, I erase the contents (writing them in a small notebook for posterity and to use in my weekly status reports) and then I make a new list of what I know I’ll need to do the next day.  I use the large markers because I’m not trying to summarize the task, just keep track of it, and if it takes me more than three or four words to capture it then perhaps it needs to be broken into smaller steps.  “Meet w/ George” “Test plan feedback” “Code review for E” were some of yesterday’s items–just a couple of words per item, enough to trigger my memory .  The whiteboard isn’t to document the details of the task.  It’s mainly a way to keep my work items in front of me throughout the day.  Its small size, combined with the thick-tipped markers, help keep my workload at a do-able level.  If I was able to write as small as I can on a pad of paper, it would be really easy to fill the board with a set of tasks that I couldn’t realistically complete in a day.  And on the rare day that I do finish everything on the whiteboard, there’s a “Future To-Do” list in the notebook with extra tasks to work on.

I also color-code my tasks.  Black ones are work-related ones, blue ones are personal ones like “Dentist appt.”  I check off the completed ones with green marker, and mark the ones that are blocked or postponed with red.  (Not coincidentally, these are the four colors available in the company office supply rooms.)  I tried crossing off items as I completed them, but that was getting the tip of my green marker all messy.  It also made the items hard to read at the end of the day.

I used to use a spiral notebook for tasks, and I’ve long been known to jot notes on whatever scrap of paper I can find when I need to remember something.  That worked, but the little whiteboard has been really helping me narrow my focus so that I can get through just today’s tasks without being overwhelmed or stressed out about the things I need to do next week.  Those items are documented in emails and on my calendar, so as long as I’m checking it regularly (or, um, obsessively) I don’t forget about them.  But one source of stress for me has been getting too focused on the big-picture glob of things to do, to the point where it’s hard for me to stay on track working on a single small piece of that glob.  The whiteboard has another advantage that paper lists don’t: at the end of the day, it’s so satisfying to literally wipe the slate clean and start anew.

Keeping the whiteboard list on my desk has helped me a lot over the past few weeks.  I haven’t yet carried the practice home for evening and weekend productivity, but that’s because I keep coming up with other things to do that are more important than fixing our whiteboard so that it hangs properly, or rounding up a set of markers.  One of these days I’ll remember to do those things.  Hey!  Maybe I should put them on a list!


Author: Jessica Wallace

I'm a wife, mother, and software engineer living near Seattle, Washington. I like doing competitive puzzle events like the MIT Mystery Hunt and The Game. I've recently started learning a bit about candymaking, much to the delight of my husband, friends, and co-workers.

2 thoughts on “Step 1: Make a list.

  1. You get it from your Dad. Nearly evry day I fold a piece of scrap paper, letter size, in half and make my list for the day. Sadly, at the end of the day I often have not completed any of the tasks on the list. A similar piece of paper, has a more long-term list. That’s the one that gives me the creeps or keeps me awake at night when I look/think about it.

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