Use a free-form To-Do list for better memory retension

I’m a big believer in writing things down so I don’t forget to do them. To help me, I’ve used many electronic to-do list apps, but nothing has ever really clicked for me. I even tried hand-written paper lists a couple years back.

The Problem With To-Do Lists Apps

The primary problem for me with to-do list apps is that I’ve never been able to get in the habit of religiously reviewing and updating them. Eventually, I’d forget about them and end up with a bunch of out-dated lists of things to do.

For years, I’ve tried many to-do list apps for the many phones and PDAs I’ve own, including my current iPhone 4. They have always failed me. However, I’ve come to realize that it isn’t the app’s fault. The problem is that I can’t instill the regiment of constantly reviewing the lists all the time. It really didn’t matter what app I used. You know what they say: Out of sight. Out of mind.

To-Do List Nirvana?

I’ve been trying a new method for several months and I feel like I may have just discovered to-do list Nirvana. I call my method a free-form to-do list. Let me explain.

Generally it’s like any other to-do list, but I just use a free-form text app, like a notepad app. It’s all just plain text, no fancy formatting. I group lists using a header in [] brackets. Here’s an example:

[ H I G H  P R I O R I T Y ]
-Get prescriptions

-Get car washed
-Go to bank and deposit check

-Check out iPad 2
-Look at new LCD TVs

-Get coffee
-Buy soda


You get the idea, right? The vertical order of the groups give your a sense of priority as well. [MUST DO] has a higher priority than [EVENTUALLY DO] and naturally appears higher in the list. Note the use of spaces in the [H I G H  P R O R I T Y] header to bring attention to it. I would recommend only having one of these to make it truly stand out.

Why this works

I think this works because I only have to look at one list and can quickly scan through it. It helps me remember some of the things on lower priority lists. Now although editing and reordering is more cumbersome than using a dedicated to-do list app–requiring a cut and paste–this manual exercise increases memory retension.

Using only plain text is very important. Even if the app supports text formatting, avoid it at all costs! Different font sizes, colors, bolding, etc. will eventually become meaningless and you’ll have to think about the meaning of the formatting. Being able to quickly scan your list is key. Using plain text only, limits you to pretty much the order and grouping of tasks. It is simple and easy to pick up things with a quick visual scan. Notice that I don’t even number items. Use the KISS method and keep it simple!

Of course, you still need to remember to update the list, but maintaining a single list is easy to do.

Nothing to buy

One of the beauties of using free-form to-do lists, is you probably don’t need to buy anything. You can just use the notepad app that most any phone or computer comes with. However, I’ve found that something that syncs online, like Evernote, works perfectly because you can edit your list anywhere. Better yet, these services are often free.

There are only two main things you need to keep in mind: 1) update frequently; and, 2) don’t let the list get too unwieldy. That’s it! Drop-dead simple. For me, since I have to refer to it at least daily, it’s almost automatic and requires no discipline at all.

To keep your list concise, don’t put, say, your entire grocery list on it. Just put the things that you want to remember to put on your list as they come up. (e.g., “I have to remember to buy Band-aids.”) Put your final grocery list on its own separate list that you can delete when you’ve done your shopping.

Give free-form to-do lists a try and let me know if it works for you!

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