One of the secrets of getting more done is to make a TO DO LIST every day, keep it visible, and use it as a guide to action as you go through the day.

This quote isn’t from some buzz-word business busybody, pushing their latest pack of painfully obvious essays wrapped up in “You Go Officeworker!” patter. Instead, it’s from seventeenth century French fabulist Jean de la Fontaine, a.k.a. “someone who succeeded at a career we don’t even have anymore.” (A fabulist is “a maker of fables,” by the way, and possibly the best job description outside of “Chief Fun Officer.”)

The notion of using a to-do list satisfies all the conditions of true common sense wisdom, because:

  1. Everyone knows it.
  2. It really works.
  3. Nobody does it.

The list is the atom bomb of getting things done: effective beyond the minds of mortal men (which is why it works, by storing things outside the mind) when it’s used properly and a malignant object slowly rotting and worrying everyone around it when it isn’t. It ranges in scale from an acknowledgment and upgrade of human limitations to a pointless demonstration of them.

Miller’s Law, one of the most cited papers in all psychology, famously stated that the human brain can only hold seven (plus or minus two) objects in working memory — any more than that and things start to fall out, be forgotten, and cause massive crises the night before a major deadline.

Recent research shows that this limit might be wrong — by being too optimistic. Professor Cowan of the University of Missouri says that the limit is only four chunks of information. Think about that every time a co-worker distracts you by talking about Lost. Then, realize that even doing so blew another “chunk” out of your brain.

Of course you’re not limited to seven items in your entire intellect, but the short-term “working memory” limit is incredibly important when you’re busy: it explains how you can forget the most vital tasks — because even doing one requires you to remember several other steps while you’re at it. Humans are the only species in existence who can just build things to compensate for our problems, instead of resigning ourselves to breeding and hoping evolution upgrades things over the next thousand years.

A pen and paper. That’s all you need. The human brain is the most incredible, most adaptive, most powerful processor ever created and criticizing it because it’s not a USB key is like complaining that your Ferrari can’t press garlic. By simply storing your “To Do” list outside your skull, you can look at it whenever you want, and devote your entire mind to solving each item one after the other.

The problems begin when this incredible ability to organize work is confused with the work itself. All too often, lists are used to assuage guilt, or buy time, or kill an interminable meeting by forcing everyone to agree that they’ve really achieved something with the last three hours. Which is why we’re giving you some Smartlife list tips.

  1. Start Your List The Instant You Finish It
    Of course you’re going to write to-do lists — if you can make it this far into the article without accepting their importance, you’re beyond our help — but don’t fall into the trap of taking a break because of it. The instant your list is complete, start on the first task. Doing anything else means you’re still procrastinating.
  2. Tick or Cross Every Item (With Why)
    The Yellow Stick Forests of the world weep as their notes, stuck to monitors worldwide, are thrown away without achieving anything as their “To Do” items start to sound too much like a nagging parent. Any list you use should be entirely completed, whether that means ticking items off (which feels good) or crossing them out and identifying why they couldn’t be done. Externalizing the failure, forcing yourself to accept that you really didn’t do it, means you don’t ignore any problems in your workflow.
  3. Keep It Clean
    Do the above every morning, refreshing the list and avoiding the anti-work minefield that is the scribbled sheet of paper. If you can’t even see what you’re meant to be doing, what chance do you have of actually doing it? (It’ll also cunningly remind you to check your list every morning, running every item through your mind, but we probably shouldn’t have told you that bit.)

A few useful list resources:

  • Checkser: An open-source archive of lists. No matter what task you’re taking on, someone’s probably already done it – take advantage of their expertise to make sure you don’t miss any unexpected steps.
  • Getting Things Done: An entire management strategy based entirely on the awesome power of the list. With a perfect name.
  • Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush: Travel-tuned lists for everyone who’s endured the agony of arriving only to discover Vital Widget #2 is still at home.

If you’re still not convinced you need to use lists, we leave you with the words of Robert Orben:

Every day I get up and look through the Forbes list of the richest people in America. If I’m not there, I go to work.

Image credit: thesuperph / iStockphoto