How much money have you wasted by forgetting to do something?
Forgetting to pay a bill on time. Forgetting to return library books. Forgetting to send in a rebate or file an appeal form for a medical bill.
Or, hey, there’s more to life than money. How about clutter?
Is the perimeter of your living room occupied by an advancing army of stuff you’ve been meaning to get to? Can you even see the perimeter of your living room?
And let’s not even talk about your email inbox.
For a long time I struggled with these seemingly unrelated problems.
Then I learned a simple rule. It’s not always easy to follow, but properly applied, it can save you money, time, and space.
Here’s the rule, which I stole from David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: Don’t use a thing as a reminder.
What was I supposed to do with this, anyway?
Here’s the problem in its most basic form.
Imagine a classic office inbox tray full of papers.
You know, Cathy’s inbox, from the comics. Every paper in the inbox is either trash or requires some action: pay a bill, respond to a letter, fill out a form, put documentation in a client file.
The most obvious way to deal with this problem is to work through the inbox from top to bottom.
Pick up the first paper. It’s a form. Fill out the form, lick the envelope, and stick it in the outbox.
Move onto the next paper. At 5 o’clock, go home and start again in the morning.
This approach doesn’t work, for several reasons:
- People are always adding new stuff to the inbox.
- Useless paper tends to accumulate at the bottom of the box.
- It’s impossible to tell how much actual work the box represents, because it’s not a list of actions, just a box of random stuff. This is not only inefficient, it makes you anxious.
- The important stuff looks exactly like the unimportant stuff, meaning there’s no good way to prioritize.
A lot of us don’t have that kind of old-school inbox anymore.
But we still have paper bills, and bags of clothes to take to Goodwill, and other things we’re meant to do something with.
Most of us “solve” the problem the same way Cathy does, by letting stuff pile up and expecting the important stuff to magically rise to the top and say, “Hey, remember me?”
We don’t want to let any of these items out of our sight, because then we’ll forget about them. But we forget anyway, because it’s just too much to keep up with.
The result: unpaid bills, clutter, and the feeling of being chipped away by a thousand dull responsibilities.
Put it on the list
There’s a better way to do this. If you need to do something, put it on your to-do list.
If the to-do item requires a particular file, paper, or item,just mention the location of the item on the to-do list.
You’ll feel like an idiot the first few times you do this. Why am I telling myself the bag of shirts is in the closet?
Where else would it be? But most of us have too much stuff (virtual and tangible) in our lives to remember where everything is.
There’s no shame in writing it down—certainly nothing like the shame of letting it pile up in the living room.
So Cathy takes a new approach to her inbox. She pulls out that first form, writes “Fill out TPS request form (in the TPS file)” on her to-do list, and puts the form into the TPS file.
She continues processing the entire inbox this way. A lot of papers end up in the recycle bin.
The whole process takes less than an hour, and now Cathy has a clear list of responsibilities and can estimate how long they’ll take, what the top priorities are, and where all the necessary materials are located.
Where to keep your list
Why don’t more people do this? I think it comes down to two reasons:
1. They don’t trust their to-do list.
A to-do list scrawled on a piece of paper and shoved into your pocket is little better than lint.
It’ll get lost, smudged, left in your jacket on the coatrack while you’re in the conference room.
There are so many good electronic to-do list apps and websites today, you can go crazy choosing one, but any of them is better than not having a to-do list.
2. This approach produces a big, scary to-do list.
Nobody likes the idea of a 77-item to-do list. But putting items on your list instead of trying to use stuff as its own reminder will reduce your stress level.
It doesn’t actually increase your workload, and it offers more clarity about what’s important and what isn’t.
Also, you can partition your list however you like (say, pick a couple of items for today and move the rest to a “tomorrow” list), and you can put your list away when you don’t want to be bothered by it.
Again, I didn’t come up with any of this. It’s essentially a restatement of Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero approach.
Give it a try. Next time your eye falls on a thing that’s really a to-do item, put the action on your list and file the thing away.
You’ll be surprised how much time, money, and worry a dumb little trick can save you.
Matthew Amster-Burton is a personal finance columnist at Mint.com. Find him on Twitter @Mint_Mamster.