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The list

Too many projects, too many ideas, too much going on in that bottomless chasm of tasks that’s known as daily life.


Too many projects, too many ideas, too much going on in that bottomless chasm of tasks that’s known as daily life.

One project after another challenges my inbox’s zero ambitions; one idea after another pops into my head and demands I take notes, buy a domain name, set up a Twitter handle, and claim a Facebook page. Hello, internet hole. Then daily life adds its tuppence-worth: walk the dog, shop, cook, clean the cats, feed the oven…

Fortunately, I discovered a solution long ago.

Start-up fodder

First, to clarify, I’m not some book-thumping advocate of the getting things done approach. For one, I don’t own and I haven’t read David Allen’s Getting Things Done. All I know is what I know, and what I know is what works best for me. It’s called the list.

I started making the list over 20 years ago. At the time, I was muddling along, producing a bi-monthly magazine and the occasional supplement or spin-off publication. As the magazine became more successful, the number of supplements and spin-offs grew.

The company was a start-up, and I was perfect start-up fodder: young, healthy, didn’t drink much – unless you count a hot, dark liquid flavoured with Arabica beans – and a glutton for working hours. Often I would work past midnight, go home, sleep for a few hours and return to my desk before even a sliver of light had coloured the horizon. Sometimes I omitted the sleeping bit altogether; most of the time, I was never caught in rush-hour traffic.

But all those hours weren’t enough. One day I looked up and the piles of work sitting in trays at the end of my desk had grown to block my line of sight to the window and the outside world. I got to thinking: I don’t mind working long hours, but I’m damned if I’m going to be held prisoner. And that’s when I started the list.

The low-tech solution

Over the years, I’ve refined my approach to what I add to the list. That first time, though, I wrote down every task, every morsel of information I needed to get through the piles of work on my desk and restore that view to the outside world.

I rewrote the list every morning, removing tasks I’d completed the day before, adding back those I hadn’t, and including anything new. Within a couple of months – while I never reached in-tray zero – I got back my view.

The list was, and remains, a low-tech affair. All I need is a good notebook, a pen, and time. The time I spend on the list is recouped through more efficient working and fewer paralysing anxiety attacks. The notebook is portable, travels well, and is difficult to break.

Eventually the list begot a second list – in a second notebook – one for ideas and less urgent items that I could refer to and act on later.

These days the list is supported by technology in the shape of task management app Things. Unlike some, I don’t ‘brain dump’ everything into Things, or any other app. Things is for big projects, like books; projects that comprise 20 or more tasks, which are often repeated from one project to the next. Every day, I pull tasks from those projects and add them to the list. This means there’s a certain amount of duplication when I’m checking off tasks, but I can live with that.

What’s more important is that the list lives and, as I’ve discovered, there’s life after work.