Whether you have an effective way of managing your tasks or if you’ve never been able to get the right tool for the job, making smarter use of your smart phone can make your life a lot easier.
Phone-based task management is effective because it helps with three challenges: capturing tasks before you’ve forgotten about them, being reminded to do the task at the right time, and differentiating between little to-dos and important projects.
The latest phone technology has the biggest impact on the first of those: task capture. Thanks to the voice recognition that’s baked into the iPhone 5 and 6, and into Google Now on Android, you don’t have to pull out your computer or wrestle with a mobile keyboard to type in the details of every new to-do. Instead, just speak to your phone to quickly capture tasks as they occur to you with one quick phrase and save them as reminders.
Throughout the day, I tell my phone to “remind me to follow up with Sarah about the Warren account next Tuesday morning,” “remind me to pack my phone charger when I get home,” or even “remind me to buy gum tonight at 9.” Yes, I come in for a certain amount of mockery (as when a friend overheard me dictating that gum reminder), but I’d rather be mocked for my voice dictation than for my tendency to forget commitments.
Creating reminders on your phone also means that you’ll be triggered to act on the tasks you’ve captured at a certain time, wherever you are. I’ve never been diligent about reviewing to-do lists, largely because they quickly get so daunting that I can’t bear to look at them. Instead, I now rely on reminders that feed me one thing at a time – instead of facing the long list of everything I have on my plate. Even if you’re the kind of person who diligently reviews her to-do list at the beginning or end of each workday, location- or time-based reminders prevent you from neglecting the tasks you’d otherwise avoid, or those you need to complete outside of working hours. And even if you choose to use a task management applications separate from the reminders feature on your phone, most still offer the option to add a reminder to each to-do.
This system gives you a reliable way of capturing all the little things you don’t want to forget. But what about the bigger projects—a report you’re working on over the course of the week, for example? Keep those items separate. I list them in Evernote, the digital notetaking application I use throughout the day: I start a new Evernote note every week or two, and use it to note the three to 10 major items I need to complete before an upcoming trip or deadline. Because my smaller tasks are safely captured elsewhere, I can look at that short list of bigger tasks without getting overwhelmed by additional errands.
After nearly a year of phone-based to-do managment, I’ve finally broken the cycle of task list neglect. I’ve also developed a few tricks and best practices:
Choose a dedicated reminders service that works across devices. If you are an iPhone-wielding Mac user, you can simply use Apple’s default Reminders service to stay synced across all your Apple devices. If not, you can still customize your setup to receive reminders on all your devices so there’s no chance of missing one because you’re away from your desk. Choose an application that runs on your work computer and phone, and any personal devices (including your tablet, if you have one). Just as important, you need to be able to add new reminders from any device. Popular task managers like Remember the Milk and Wunderlist offer apps that work on a wide range of devices and tools, so you can choose one of those as your reminders service, and keep your reminders synced across virtually any combination of platforms.
Always associate a reminder with a specific time. The whole point of a reminder, as opposed to a task list, is that it comes back to haunt you. So make sure that whenever you enter a reminder, you include a specific time when you want to be reminded. (Even if you use a phone that supports location-based reminders, try to use time-based reminders instead: location-based reminders can be glitchy, and they all require you to actually show up in a specific location before that reminder will fire!)
Set reminders for the moments when they are actionable. When you’re choosing a time for your reminder, think about when you’ll have a chance to act on it. If you’re setting a reminder that will fire during the business day, look at your calendar and choose an open window. If you don’t have time to check your calendar first, and just need to get the reminder in there, aim for first thing in the morning or lunchtime.
Snooze liberally. Once you start using reminders to keep track of most of your bits and pieces, you’ll have reminders popping up throughout the day and evening. This is only tolerable if you cut yourself a lot of slack to hit the snooze button. The point is not to get each thing done at a specific moment (if you were doing that, you’d use your calendar) but rather, to keep them from falling off your radar altogether. Just be sure that you quickly scroll through the most recent tasks on your phone every week or two, in case you accidentally dismiss a reminder instead of snoozing it.
Snooze smarter. If you’re dependent on snoozing to exert control over when you actually act on your reminders, you’ll soon find that two or three different snooze durations (like 15 minutes, one hour and one day) just don’t cut it. Customize your snooze options with add-ons that give you more granular snooze control: I love a little Mac utility called SnoozeMaster, which I’ve used to create 20 different snooze options for my Apple reminders, ranging from five minutes to six months. You can get custom snooze times on Android with an app like Calendar Snooze, and depending on which software service you use for your reminders, may have other options for customizing your desktop snooze times within that app. The most useful snooze durations for me have turned out to be four hours (which means, in effect, “later today” or “when I get home”); sixteen hours (“tomorrow, but still during business hours”); and two weeks (aka “I’ll deal with it once I’m past this big project deadline”).
Use “do not disturb” during presentations and conference calls. One hazard of the reminder-intensive lifestyle is that those reminders can pop up onscreen at the most awkward moments … like having a presentation interrupted by a reminder to pick up a particular medication at the pharmacy. Do yourself and your colleagues a favor: if you’re sharing your screen, de-activate your reminders by turning on your Windows machine’s presentation settings or your Mac’s do not disturb feature.
Embrace the power of your phone to keep you from forgetting the little stuff, and you’ll enable your to-do list as the place to keep track of the big stuff. Once you stop relying on it as the one-stop place to find everything you ever need to remember, looking at it every day will become much less daunting. That means your to-do list can finally do what it’s meant to do: keep you focused on the work that matters most.
AUTHOR: Alexandra Samuel
Alexandra Samuel is Vice-President of Social Media at Vision Critical, a market research technology provider. She is the author of Work Smarter, Rule Your Email (Harvard Business Review Press, February 2014). Follow her on Twitter at @awsamuel.
IMAGE CREDITS: http://www.ywcancin.org/