Crucial Skills

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Getting Things Done

Tips for the Forgetful

Dear Justin,

I can’t be the only one who makes trips to the grocery store only to kick myself when I get home because I forgot half of the items I needed. This same problem happens at work, too. I’ll have important items to discuss with my boss and forget to bring them up during my hour-long one-on-one meeting. Why can’t I seem to remember the important stuff in the moment that it matters? I chalk it up to being forgetful, but there’s got to be a solution. Please help.

Signed,
Forgetful

Dear Forgetful,

Don’t worry, you’re not alone. This sort of thing used to happen to me all the time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pulled up to the grocery store, walked in the front door, literally stopped in my tracks and thought, “Why am I here?” It’s not only unproductive, it’s frustrating. Let me share two things that I’ve found contribute to this problem as well as a pretty counterintuitive solution.

1. You haven’t written the items down.
Perhaps the most important advice I could give you is that keeping track of stuff in your head is the last place you should keep track of it. David Allen likes to say, “There’s usually an inverse relationship between how much something is on your mind and how much it’s getting done.” So, that’s the first hoop to jump through. Be sure that when an errand comes to mind or someone asks you to pick something up, write it down or record it some place you look at regularly. I won’t get into too much detail here, but you can read more about it in my last article.

2. The way you organize your to-dos makes it hard for you to see that errand in the right moment and at the right place. The way people typically organize to-dos and tasks is either in one big list or by topic. The problem with the first approach is that I’m guessing you don’t just have 25 to-dos. If you did, then one list would work. Rather, I’m guessing you have 100 to 150 to-dos in your personal and professional life—maybe more. So, when it’s time to get things done, you end up spending more time sifting through the massive list to figure out which task to do in the moment considering your location.

With the second approach of organizing by topic/project, we run into the issue of context and resources. What I mean by this is: if you’re jumping into your car and the only work you could reasonably do is to make a few phone calls, you’d have to sift through all your different topic/project lists to see what calls you could make considering how much time you have. We’ve found that those who are the best at getting things done don’t organize in one big list or by topic/project, instead they organize by context.

Here’s the principle: make it much easier for you to see tasks you need to accomplish. Organize them not by project, or even a running list of to-dos, but rather by the location you need to be in, or the resource you need to be connected to, in order to complete the action. For example, have a list of calls to make. That way, the moment you jump into your car and have a few minutes to make some important phone calls, you can glance at this list and know exactly what you can accomplish in the time you have available. A few of my own lists that fit this structure are @Home, @Office, Errands, Calls, @Christina (my wife), @Work computer. Other helpful lists might be things like @Grocery store, Anywhere, @Airplane, Offline.

What this system allows you to do is get the right things done in the right place with the time you have available. You don’t have to waste time recalling why you’re on that specific errand or combing through to-do lists to find that item you wanted to chat with your partner about. Instead, when you jump in your car to head to the store (or when you arrive at the store), you can take 15 seconds to review your “errands” list to make sure you don’t miss anything. When you sit down with your boss for your weekly 1:1, you can open your agenda list (@Manager) that has all the items you specifically want to discuss with her.

Now, you might be thinking: “Justin, what if I forget to look at my list?” I knew you’d ask that, because I had the same question. Many apps now use geolocation technology, a great feature that solves this problem. This allows your phone to notice your location and whenever you get within a certain radius of your preferred store, for example, it will notify you of your errands list.

The approach of organizing by context was very counterintuitive for me, but once I tried it out with both feet in, my productivity was never the same; I’m convinced I’ll never go back to organizing by project, topic, or one big list.

When you organize by context or resource, your focus is on the actions you could take, not on sorting and sifting . . . and that’s really the point of getting things done.

Good luck,
Justin

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24 thoughts on “Tips for the Forgetful”

  1. Justin:
    Very practical solution! I’ll try it, if I can remember to do so.
    (I tell my patients worrying if their forgetfulness is a sign of Alzheimer’s: You don’t have to worry as long as you remember that you forgot where you put the car or the keys; it’s when you forget the car there’s a problem!)
    The background of this topic: https://news.nd.edu/news/walking-through-doorways-causes-forgetting-new-research-shows/
    tom

    1. Justin Hale

      thanks @benzonit….there is also some interesting research from the University Missouri about the number if items our active memory can hold….it’s pretty limited. http://munews.missouri.edu/news-releases/2008/0423-roud- er-working-memory.php

  2. Chris Krall

    Seriously your answer is to make calls from the car? How about being mindful. Not a distracted driver!

    1. Cathy P

      That bothered me too.

      1. Justin Hale

        @cathy, thanks for saying something. I mentioned some thoughts above under @Chris. —Justin

    2. Justin Hale

      @Chris, @Cathy, Yes, thanks for bringing up that concern. If you don’t have proper hands free technology or laws in your state prohibit against using a hands-free system in the car then please don’t make calls in the car. Some prefer to not make them all, I totally get it. The @calls list can be great for anytime you find yourself with a few minutes and you want to make a couple of quick calls. Thanks for speaking up!

  3. Eileen Jenkins

    I enjoyed this article. Are you able to list where we might find some Apps like you referenced? Or are you able to tell us which one(s) you use? “Many apps now use geolocation technology, a great feature that solves this problem. This allows your phone to notice your location and whenever you get within a certain radius of your preferred store, for example, it will notify you of your errands list.”

    1. Justin Hale

      @Eileen, thanks for asking. Here is a document we created that provides some general principles to help you choose the right tool as well as a whole page of apps and some key features. Off the top of my head, i know that iphone reminders and Omnifocus have that feature, but there are many others that do. You can search online for apps with “location-based reminders.”

      https://www.vitalsmarts.com/resource-center/?fwp_product=getting-things-done&fwp_resource_type=pre-training-tool

      1. Eileen Jenkins

        Thank you!

  4. J. Nielsen

    Lists. Lists. Lists. I live by lists. And not only do I live by lists, I categorize AND prioritize my to-dos in such a strategic way so I can minimize “wasting time” having to redo a task or rerun an errand. I also check off items as I complete them. This weekend I had six to-do items on my household list. I categorize them by inside and outside, what day I plan to accomplish those things, and I checked them off as soon as they were completed. Making lists helps keep myself and my life organized. AND when I write things down, I sleep better at night because I don’t continuously worry about remembering things.

    1. Justin Hale

      @ J. Nielsen…thanks for chiming in! and the results you mention at the end of your comment are the best part of all of this

  5. Donna Russell-Kramer

    Great article! I am assuming that those calls you have to make, are made before you put the car in motion? ;o)

    1. Justin Hale

      🙂 thanks @Donna. Good point. If you don’t have the right hands free technology or laws in your state prohibit against using a hands-free system in the car then people shouldn’t make calls in the car. Some prefer to not make them all, I totally get it. The calls list can be great for anytime you find yourself with a few minutes and you want to make a couple of quick calls. Thanks for chiming in!

  6. Nina

    Is “organizing by context” covered in the Getting Things Done book or in the training or in both?

    1. It’s in the GTD book. See “Context” in the index.

    2. Justin Hale

      @Nina, @David Rossiter is right. We cover it extensively in the course and actually help people build lists in this way.

  7. Tambra Williams

    Interesting system. I’ll give it a try. I already had three lists: Home To Do, Work To Do, and Groceries/Shopping. Your system refines that more.

    Also, I want to caution folks to think carefully about making phone calls from their car. Balance risk vs. reward. We all know the dangers, have seen the warnings. Before you make a call ask yourself: Do I have a Bluetooth system in my car? Voice activated? Are numbers pre-programmed? Am I in heavy traffic or an unfamiliar area? Can the call wait?

    I’ve spent more of my driving years without a cell phone in my car than with, and I can count on one hand the number of times where I really could have used a phone. Be safe out there!

    1. Justin Hale

      @Tambra. Really great points you make here. And i love the questions that people should consider. Thanks for contributing to the conversation! If you don’t have proper hands free technology or laws in your state prohibit against using a hands-free system in the car then people should NOT make calls in the car. Some prefer to not make them all, which I totally understand. The calls list can be great for anytime you find yourself with a few minutes and you want to make a couple of quick calls…good luck with ongoing “refining” you mentioned with your lists!! —Justin

  8. Clifford Spoonemore

    Google “organize list apps” or “to-do apps” will pull up some different sources.

  9. Kerry

    Distracted driving may solve your problem, but it creates issues for the rest of us.

    Try a blast from the past…ditch the “smart” phone, get yourself a flip phone, a small notebook and a pencil.

    You may find that most of the things on your list are superfluous.

    1. Justin Hale

      @Kerry, thanks for speaking up, we are all about that! If people don’t have the right hands free tech or laws in your state prohibit against using a hands-free system in the car then please don’t make calls in the car. Some prefer to not make them all, as you mentioned, which I totally understand. The calls list can be great for anytime you find yourself with a few minutes and you want to make a couple of quick calls. Its the list that solves my problem, not where i make them; it really helps when i have a few minutes at work, at home, when i’m waiting for my flight to leave at the airport, etc. I love it because it makes it easy to see the calls without having to sift through a lot of stuff. And i’m totally with you about trying to find items that are superfluous. I am in constant re-evaluation mode. I have take the opinion of David Allen – when you have agreements you have three choices, 1) do them, 2) say “no” to them, or 3) renegotiate them. I think there are far too many things on our lists that fall into the second and third category. There’s a lot of wisdom in your comments.

      take care —Justin

  10. Great post, Justin. Very practical ideas. I really need to take this course!

    1. Justin Hale

      you definitely do!! 🙂

  11. […] are ineffective is because they are unclear. Therefore, it’s time to rethink your to-do list. In my last article, I shared some counterintuitive, but very efficient, ways to organize lots of actions. Let me […]

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