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To Do or Not To Do

by Erik Mazzone |

A cogent argument could be made that I am not the *perfect* person to write an article on productivity, to-do lists, and generally getting things done.

I am not proud to say, I have spent (wasted?) hours and hours of my life reading and rereading books, articles and columns on productivity trying to find the absolute perfect system that will transform me into a productivity god. As those who work closely with me know, this is, ahem, an ongoing effort.

As Richard Bach wrote in in his book Illusions, “we teach best what we most need to learn.” So today I am going to share part 1 of a look at my productivity rig – the tech and how I use it and the things that have most deeply impacted my thinking on this stuff. Don’t get me wrong… I am still a productivity mess. But after years of working on this stuff, I am less of a mess than I was to start. I bet Pope would be proud by people still damning with faint praise three hundred years later…

I will follow up with part 2 and 3, as necessary, in coming installments.


Task Management

Let us begin in the middle, with the tech that I use.

I use three types of tech tools in my set up: a to-do list, a calendar, and a notebook. At the most basic level, these could be implemented just fine on paper. Yellow legal pads and Moleskine notebooks have served these purposes well for a long time. But confining your rig to paper, while it confers the benefits of simplicity, frugality and un-hackability, does lose you some helpful doodads, which I will discuss. 

My To Do List

The task list app I use is Ticktick. It checks all my boxes (no pun intended) for a task list:

  • Cross-platform: you can use it on Mac or PC, iPhone or Android
  • Mobile-friendly: it has well-developed apps for my phone and my tablet so that using it on the go is, if not a pleasure, at least not annoying
  • Configurable: it supports multiple lists, folders, and tags for lots of different concepts of organization
  • Affordable: it has a pretty good free level, but premium gets you some nice benefits for $30/year.

Ticktick is not the only game in town, but it meets my needs. And I think that’s the place to start with finding your to do app – auditing what your needs are.

Most lawyers are using Microsoft 365 or Google Workspace these days. I am fan of not adding an additional an additional app and subscription in when you are already paying for something pretty darn good. Microsoft 365 users have access to Microsoft To-Do, which is an excellent task manager and has the added benefits of integrating into the rest of your M365 set up (for example, seeing flagged emails in your task manager). It does almost everything that Ticktick does, and it is what I would use if I worked in M365 all the time (as it is, my time is split between Google and Microsoft).

Google Workspace users (and I am one) are not so lucky. The Google Tasks app available is kind of an also-ran. It seems to get little love from Google developers or users, and its main advantage is that it is built into the rest of the Google rig. It feels more like an add on to the Calendar or Gmail than a full-blown productivity suite. In fairness, the mobile app is great. But overall, I don’t recommend it except for the simplest use cases.

Apart from those two integrated task apps (not to mention Apple’s okay Reminders app), there are lots of other excellent options out there. Todoist is one of the most popular, and deservedly so. It is an excellent app with almost all the things I like about Ticktick and a few other nice additions. For some reason, I never completely warm to its UI (user interface), and I tend not to use its power-user functions, but YMMV. Things, for Mac users only, is a beautiful task manager that Apple devotees love, but similarly, it’s never quite clicked for me. Not to mention that it doesn’t serve my cross-platform requirement.


How I Use My To Do List 

Over the years, I have built out a system for using the task manager that mostly works for me. I doubt that this exact set up will work for you, but hopefully it will serve as a jumping off point.

First, my to do list is, in fact, multiple lists.

I took this approach from one of the seminal works in the productivity literature, Getting Things Done by David Allen. GTD, as it is known for shorthand among productivity nerds, is a system for managing tasks. It has become an enormous force with legions of adherents. I found ultimately to be a little bit much for me, but a few of his ideas have stuck with me through the years. And one of those is using multiple lists.

Allen recommends using “context” based lists (telephone, at home, at the office, in the car, etc.) so that you are always looking at a subset of tasks that suit where you are. There is no point in seeing a task to water the plants in your office when you are sitting in an airplane, for example. 

The contexts didn’t really work for me; I spent too much time on getting things on to the right list. Ultimately, I ended up with a simplified series of lists: 

  • Projects
  • To Do
  • Waiting For 

The Project list is for the big rocks of things that need to get done; like completing the LML CLE Road Show, for example. The To Do list is for all the small, discrete tasks that need to be accomplished along the way. And the Waiting For list is for things I don’t want to forget but the ball is in somebody else’s court.

Second, I share lists. 

I have several projects where I need to collaborate with other folks, and shared task lists help with that. Not only can I seamlessly add tasks to someone’s list, but I can also verify when tasks have been completed. And Ticktick has built-in delegation ability, as well, so I can note that a task has been delegated to me, so a virtual assistant and I don’t work on the same task.

Third, I use tags to organize to do’s.

I have a lot of tasks on my to do list… I imagine you do, too. The list itself can get a bit unwieldy without some suborganization.

My strategy is I always organize the master to do list by date. Then I use tags to separate out projects, clients, or work type. For example, I volunteer with the ABA Law Practice Division and that creates a lot of writing and other work for me (as I am sure many of you have experienced with the ABA or the NCBA). So, on my task list, I tag individual items with “ABA” and “Writing” tags. That way, I can click on the writing tag and see all my different writing commitments separated out from the master list, or all my ABA commitments. I think of tags as being like digital post it notes that you stick in a large file – you don’t change the overall file organization, but you give yourself another way to look at the data.

Last, I use folders. 

Sometimes, I need another list or another set of lists beyond my usual 3 that I mentioned. I tend to organize these additional lists (or sets of lists) by role. In a semester where I am teaching at UNC, I spin up several new lists. One for class materials, another for lectures, and so on.

I find that too many lists floating around gets to be too much for me to hold in my aging gray matter, so I organize these lists into Folders. During teaching semesters, I spin up a UNC folder with all its lists nested inside, and when grades are in and the semester is done, I ditch the folder and the lists.


Things You Lose Doing this on Paper 

I am not a paper hater. In fact, I still have a rather annoying love of paper planners, notebooks, and stuff like that. But the fact is for me, I lose too many things I care about to make paperwork anymore over digital.

The things I think you lose with keeping your to do list on paper are:

  • Portability – I have my to do list on my phone, iPad, and computer. Since I never go anywhere without my phone (which, admittedly, is its own diagnosable mental illness), that means I always have my to do list, both to check things off and to add new items.
  • Recurring tasks – a substantial number of the things on my list are things that happen regularly, from weekly to annually. There is simply no good analog in paper that is nearly as convenient for capturing these repeating tasks.
  • Notifications – my task list has deadlines and reminders built into it, so I can make sure I get sufficient notifications on my phone and even my watch to make sure that I (theoretically) don’t miss any important deadlines.
  • Collaboration – I’ve already mentioned that I share some of my lists and the ability to collaborate with other folks on a shared list is a nice feature you don’t get with paper.

To give paper its due, there are a few things you get with it that you don’t get with digital options:

  • Cheap – we’re still surrounded by paper, and it’s vanishingly cheap to use. Unless you get weirdly obsessed with twee Japanese notebooks and fancy pens.
  • Simple – paper and ink require no learning curve.
  • Unhackable – no online security risks from carrying your to do list around in paper form only.
  • No battery power – paper never runs out of battery power to keep working.


Conclusion, for now

Okay, so that is a deep dive into how I use my to do list. Since this ran as long as it did, I will continue the rest (using Calendars and Notebooks) in the next installment.

In the meantime, if you have any questions about this or anything else in practice management, you can schedule three (3) free practice management consultations per year through this link. I look forward to talking with you.

Happy to-do’ing!

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