Life Hack: The Greatest To-Do List Software You Already Own

Remember that guy in college in the mid-nineties who was ridiculously bad at remembering appointments? He had a paper-and-pencil planner, and he'd even write down everything in it, but then he'd forget to check it, so he had to get one of those original monochrome Palm Pilots? That way there would be something that would beep at him to tell him where he needed to be and what he needed to do? That guy? What? You didn't know anyone like that? Well, you do now. I was that guy. Still am.

Now that we live in the future, many of us have multiple devices that can beep at us and tell us where we need to be. Since college, I've acquired a cell phone, a smart watch, and an even smarter child, and all of them make noises when I'm not where I belong. (My wife does not do this. She says it would make her feel naggy and I'm a grown-ass man who should be able to keep track of his own schedule. And she's a grown-ass woman, so I can't tell her what to do. Noah, on the other hand, is twelve, so he can still be tasked to remind me when I need to do things, especially when those things relate to getting him to swimming lessons.) But how do we put all this information together? And how do we remember where we wrote down that thing we were worried we'd forget? Not only am I getting older, but Google has officially made me stupid (I had to use Google to remember where I read about that). I've exported most of my memory to the cloud. When the big solar flare hits and wipes out all computers, I will be a gibbering moron. Until that happens, here's a trick you can try, too!

I am a huge fan of my Google Calendars (yep, I have three), and those do a very good job of keeping track of specific appointments, meetings, my wedding anniversary, and birthdays (including my own). I've tried to use the calendars for tracking projects I need to complete, and the software is good for telling me to do things at specific times, but what about those projects that need to get done but don't have specific due dates? So much of my life as an author and publisher is composed of projects that all need to be done yesterday but which don't have specific due dates. How does one keep track of those?

This one has figured out a solution that works for him. If you don't have a Gmail account, get one. There are lots of imitators, but it's still the best interface out there. Then, write out the list of the things you need to do and send it to yourself. 

It seems too simple to be a good idea, right? Ah, but it gets better and more complicated! A few times a day, I go back to the list and reply to myself. I can copy and paste the items I haven't completed and move them to the top of the list, or I can reply inline and put check marks next to the things I've finished. Here's what's fun about it: No one else sees my list (except the corporate overlords at Google and the spooks and the NSA) so I can write notes to myself in the to-do emails berating myself for failing to complete things as quickly as I'd hoped or congratulating myself for finishing them early. I can even make fun of myself for sending myself emails. It makes to-do lists fun! And because Gmail keeps all the entries into a single conversation organized into a single line in the list of emails, it doesn't take up lost of space and prevent me from seeing other emails, but it does keep the to-do list near the top, reminding me that I have things to do which are more important than reading a lot of the emails below. And because it's in the cloud, this with me wherever I go, reminding me about what I need to do, whether I'm trying to procrastinate on my computer or my phone.

"Get your butt to work, Ben," it says.

"Fine," Ben replies, "and thank you for not swearing at me this time."

"Well, it's a family-friendly blog post. We both know what I mean," Ben says.

And he's right. We do.

But wait! It gets better! I have three Gmail accounts I use frequently, one for personal use, one for the publishing company, and one for my job as a teacher. This allows me to send the to-do list to the email address where the tasks need to be completed If the tasks at the top are projects I need to complete for work, I send the whole list there. Then, when all those things are done, I send it back to home or the publishing company so I can focus on those tasks. Once I knock out a whole list, I let that conversation slip down the email. It's fine to keep it. If I ever need it, it will be discovered by searching my email. But I start a new one with a subject line like "Wednesday's To-Dos." If I'm still working on that one on Thursday, that's fine. If I'm still working on it on Saturday, time to add some nasty narration about how I'm a slacker who needs to get his act together. 

This year I've joined a goal-setting and accountability group at the invitation of Jason Brick (keep an eye out for his novel Wrestling Demons which will come out this spring/summer), and I'm hoping this strategy will be helpful to the rest of the folks there. I encourage you to give it a whirl. At worst, berating yourself on paper is more amusing than carrying around a constant sense of dread about things you think you may have forgotten to do. At best, it adds a therapeutic element to your to-do list!

Are you a to-do list maker? What works for you?