Append List System: How to stay on top of everything

For several years, I’ve developed a strategy that I use to stay on top of all my personal and work projects, while not getting overwhelmed by infinitely-growing lists. Using this strategy, I’m able to regularly surprise people about how I remembered to do some passing request they had, and am able to bring back concepts after weeks of dormancy. It’s quite simple, and adaptable to many different tools.

Guiding Principles:

  1. When a task arises, it’s hard to know the absolute priority and allocate time effectively. Many things that come up solve themselves or weren’t important. Important things stay important over time.
  2. You have a massive number of small tasks you could do, and you need to be selective about what gets done.
  3. You can only work on one thing at a time, and only effectively do a few big things a day.
  4. Ease of use matters more than anything. If you can record a thought quickly, you’ll do it. If it’s too much work, you won’t.
“It doesn’t matter how fast you move if it’s in a worthless direction. Picking the right thing to work on is the most important element of productivity and usually almost ignored.”
— Sam Altman, Productivity

The System

Start a new text file, named for the month (today’s is 2020-05 for me). I use Bear, but you can use any editor.

Whenever I have a thought or task, I append it to the end of the file. This could be a book recommendation, link, thought to do laundry later today, etc. I’ve optimized to be able to append to this file as easily as possible. Latency here matters, because this lets me record many notes a day.

Tasks are direct things that need to be done. Notes could be as simple as (a real example): “Good conversation with David about scoring models; decided to emulate grade system (90 = A, 80 = B, etc) [glucose]”.

On my laptop, I have an Alfred workflow that allows me to type Cmd+Space, note Whatever the note is, and it’ll append it. On my phone, I can email a custom email address or text a Twilio number, and that message is appended. This makes it easy to take voice memos with Siri.

Over time, this turns into a flat, ever-growing list of everything I found important at some time.

The Daily Process

Every day, I start my day by appending a template:

May 1
Deep work
  1. Task 1
  2. Task 2
  1. Process 1, such as triage email
  2. Process 2, such as a check-in with someone
  3. Process 3, etc

I populate this by grabbing tasks from the previous 1-2 days that are incomplete. In Deep Work, I choose 1-3 important, large things to focus on for the day. For Process, I add things I need to get done that take time, but do not require strict time set aside.

I then block off time in my calendar to make meaningful progress on Deep Work tasks. This time is sacred, and I mute all notifications.

Throughout the day, I continue appending to the end of the file anything that comes up, and adding tasks to Deep Work or Process as I have capacity.

You’ll notice that I mix notes with tasks. This is intentional: I optimize for how easy I can record new things, and not all have an associated future action.

As I complete tasks, I just move them above the date header, and prepend a ✓.

If I finish everything, I look in the previous few days for tasks that should be attended to. The key is to find ones that are still important (i.e., the problem still exists), and they are likely the highest return on investment for time compared to other things.

The Weekly Triage

Every Sunday, I review all previous days and re-order the list as needed. More important things get moved down (closer to “now”, the bottom), and irrelevant tasks get removed.

I set aside time for the week to knock out small tasks so that minor things don’t get lost. These usually need to be solvable in a few minutes.

The Monthly Bankruptcy

These files get quite long, so every month, I start a new one. I start the file by seeding with often 10-20 tasks and notes from the previous month. This is better than simply deleting the file, because I search them often.

Using the System

The result is a log with associated times of all tasks and notes that I had over time. Because I can dump concepts out quickly, I can get them out of mind quickly, and work from a queue.

Importantly, this system embraces that “Todo Zero” is incredibly difficult to achieve—and likely a non-goal—because it requires perfect triage ability. If you’re too permissive with what’s put your list, it’ll grow unbounded over time. Likewise, if you’re too restrictive, it misses small ideas and tasks.

My notes, now covering a few years, have become valuable to search. As you noticed above, I’ll often include extra words at the end that I may search for.

I’ve shared this strategy with friends over the past year, and it’s resonated with several. Give it a try and let me know what you think. Other strategies I’ve experimented with and recommend are GTD, Bullet Journal, and Visualize Value Daily Manifest.

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