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Stop Stressing: Just Write It Down

Image via Lasse Kristensen/

Like all of us, I’ve been crazy busy lately. I’m in graduate school, working part time as a management consultant and recently moved halfway across the country. Since I’m not sitting at a desk all day anymore, my Post-It-Note-Everywhere system of task management isn’t going to cut it. As such, I’ve been searching for some all-encompassing management system to keep track of the deadlines, phone calls, reading assignments and general life-management tasks (that laundry’s gotta get done somehow).

Some of my grad school colleagues are passionate—almost cult-ish, in fact—about David Allen’s Getting Things Done. Allen’s system is based on task context, priority levels and areas of focus for major projects. That seemed too overwhelming for me, but I was sure there was some “golden nugget” of the GTD system that holds everything together, that turns these otherwise normal grad students into GTD gospel-preachers.

I think it’s the notion that writing down all the tasks in your mind frees up brainpower to actually get things done. Instead of worrying about forgetting all the things on your plate, purge them from your brain and just start doing them.

When we turn to psychology, this makes sense. Psychologists call our natural tendency to fixate on all the stuff we have to do the Zeigarnik Effect. And in 2011, two Florida State University psychologists published an article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that showed we don’t necessarily have to complete the task to free our mind of it, we just need a decent plan of how we’re going to complete it. Allen’s system helps us identify this plan.

So here’s the down and dirty of how I’ve adapted Allen’s system to my needs:

  • I started by taking the time—a lot of time—to identify all the to-do’s in my inbox, my iPhone reminders, on the sticky notes everywhere, in my calendar, and those just taking space in my brain. It sounds overwhelming, and it is.

  • I imported all these tasks into a virtual task management software solution. I use the Toodledo app on my iPhone, iPad, and computer browser. Toodledo is built specifically for GTD, so it includes a ton of features I don’t use. There are a bunch of to-do solutions (Remember the Milk and Things are two of my favorites); which one is best is all based on personal preference.

  • As GTD advocates, I broke down major projects to individual tasks. That is, it’s not helpful to add “Finish Memo to Jim” to your task list. Instead, “Interview Pamela”, “Write Executive Summary”, and “Send Memo to Robin for Review” would be better tasks. Remember, psychology tells us we’ll get as much benefit from planning how to complete a task as we do from actually completing it.

  • I then looked through all these tasks and identified and removed the stuff I didn’t really have to do (e.g., stuff that may have been important three months ago but doesn’t matter at this point) and separated out the stuff that would be nice to do, but isn’t tied to a deadline (I labeled this stuff “Someday”). This is a super important step.

  • Now that everything I need to do is on my Toodledo list, I just add tasks to it as I get them. Right away.

  • Every morning, I spend 10 minutes reviewing the list, “starring” the tasks that I need to accomplish that day. Every couple months, I’ll look at the someday tasks and see if they need to be tied to a deadline instead.

  • As soon as something is done, I check it off the list. The best part.

No one system works well for everyone. I’ve tried quite a few myself. Take what works, and modify or toss out what doesn't. What strategies or tools work best for you?

Image via Lasse Kristensen/

Corey Reynolds attends the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, where he explores the link between leadership, innovation and sound policy. Prior to graduate school, he spent five years as a management consultant, helping senior federal leaders in the emergency management and public safety space manage and improve their programs and engage their stakeholders. Corey has a degree in journalism from the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he spent time as a newspaper reporter and worked for a research center that studies social impacts of hazards and disasters.

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