Why You Should Write Down What You Need to Do

Your head is a terrible place to keep your task list.

A few weeks ago, I took one step down one of productivity’s slippery slopes: not writing down what I needed to do.

It started innocently enough. One task. It was important, so I was going to take care of right then. About an hour, then I’d be back to the list.

Before I knew it, it was Saturday. I hadn’t look at OmniFocus all week. One ad hoc task after another had crept in, and I’d spent the entire week keeping track of what I was doing in my head. I’d gotten a lot done, but very little of it was the stuff that I needed to get done that week. And I still had a dozen things to do before I could even back to what I was supposed to do.

There was only one thing to do: what I should have been doing all long.

Photo courtesy of © iStockPhoto / ScantyNebula

Why do you need to write down everything you need to do?

  • Feel less anxiety. When you have everything written down, you will feel less anxiety. If you’re maintaining your lists in your head, you’re never quite sure you aren’t forgetting something. To remember everything you need to do, you have to keep everything swimming around in your head.
  • Let your system remember for you. I actively try to forget about everything I need to do. The only way that will work is if I have captured it in my trusted system. I am free to focus on the task at hand or completely relax and disconnect because I know what I need to get done and when.
  • Chart the path forward. You can’t foresee every contingency. The unexpected comes up. Interruptions happen. Priorities change. But the more you can lay out ahead of time, the better the plan you can create, and the better prepared you are for what comes up.
  • Have a sense of progress. Have you every written down a task just to cross it off? If you haven’t, you should try it. It’s a wonderfully rewarding feeling. I had been busy all week. I had gotten a lot done. And I hadn’t crossed off a single task. So many missed endorphins.
  • See what you’ve done. By keeping a written task list, you’re automatically keeping a list of what you do. Keeping a log like this can be handy when you need to establish a sequence of events, see when a commitment was made, or put a decision in context. A log will also help you improve your ability to estimate how long a project will take.

A written task list doesn’t have to be pencil and paper, though that’s still the most powerful system I’ve ever used. Most days, OmniFocus keeps track of where I’m going and Evernote can tell me where I’ve been.

The next time you’re getting stressed over everything you have to do, write it all down. Get it out of your head and into your trusted system. Take a step back. Plan your attack. Take a deep breath. Then work your way through the list one step at a time. You’ve got this.

Question: What’s your favorite technique, tool, or tip for capturing everything you need to do as it comes in? Share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

About

Colter writes software and blogs about personal growth and productivity. He lives in Silicon Valley (California) with his wife and children, recently took up golf, and watches mostly British TV shows.

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