Overwhelmed with Life? A Simple Notepad Trick to Help

Priyanka Mashelkar

No matter how many roles you juggle.

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The kids have to be dropped at daycare. Your weekly all-hands meeting is in 10 minutes. No one’s had breakfast — you’re out of milk and eggs, which could’ve helped in a pinch like this.
You turn up and all the other kids are dressed in red — damn. You forgot about the theme for the day. A bill arrives in the email, with a late charge on your credit card. A charge that could have been avoided if you had just remembered to call up the card company last week.
Your friend’s baby just turned one; you remember when you check your Facebook. You’ve not met the newborn, because of COVID, but you wished you had remembered to order her a gift. It’s too late now; you put it off till you finally go meet them. Who knows when that will be.
The day ends just as it began — in a hurry and in a fury.

Are you on a never-ending treadmill, struggling to get ahead but there’s always another curveball?

I see you. And I’ve been there. And more importantly, I have managed to get out of there, managed to get ahead of the curve, and more or less managed to stay ahead.

I don’t have a complicated system of using multiple calendars, blocking off chunks of time, or using the Pomodoro techniques, though they are all excellent techniques for whom they work. Neither do I have any productivity tool of choice, no Trellos or Notions.

Instead, I use my Notes app. Specifically, I use the ColorNote app. I’ll explain why in a bit, and what you can use instead if you are an Apple user.

The Method

Think of the simplest productivity tip you’ve ever read about. This one is simpler than that one too — so simple that I’ve always hesitated in sharing it.

My trick is that I note down any and every single thing in one single to-do. It could be something I have to do for work, or a household chore, calling up my friends, or even something for myself. The only condition is that it should involve some action on my end.

Wouldn’t it be better to have separate lists for things to be done professionally and personally?

I think the answer is no. I am a single person who can do only one thing at a time. Sometimes I have more to do on the work front while other times are family-heavy. I think the distinction is pretty artificial. On the days on which I have a deadline at work, I will prioritize it, even at the cost of not having a healthy meal cooked for the fam. Parallelly, on the days that my personal life needs attention, I am not going to respond to e-mails that can wait a couple of days, at the cost of not looking after a sick family member.

The prioritization needs to happen at the level of me as a human being capable of achieving a limited number of things each day, and not at the level of 8 hours of work, 8 hours of sleep and 8 hours of everything else.

This is why I have a single, consolidated to-do list with ALL my tasks listed down, from the trivial to the major.

Wouldn’t important tasks get lost in the mess?

Yes, I always have a million things to do, just like you. And yes, my to-do is a mess. Here’s what it looks like right now:

It has everything from things that I need to get done for my blog (Hostgator), to new ideas that I want to research on (KDP and Twitter threads), to random trivial chores that I need to do personally (Health insurance, CC complaint follow-up with the complaint number noted down, changing my passwords). For work, I have to complete a Coursera course on finance.

As a habit, I always jot down anything that requires action. The trigger can be anything — an email, family members asking me to look at something, or most likely, me running across an idea I like and wanting to read more about it. I never leave anything to my brain — I like to use that for more complicated tasks, not for reminding me to buy milk at the store. An empty brain may be a devil’s workshop, but at least it is creating something.

Once at the end of the day, I go through the to-do and move my top priorities to the head of the list. For example, I know that the CC complaint is urgent and I have been putting it off forever. So I move it to the top. Do so for your top 2–3 tasks.

Now, the most important tip, the one that will save your sanity:

The next day, only and only focus on the top 3 that you decided yesterday. Do not bother looking at the remaining, thinking of them, or giving them any brain space at all.

You do not need to even prioritize them. Treat it like a bucket of tasks you have to do, from which you pick up the three most important ones every day. The remaining tasks are all equal, and equally unimportant for that day.

What about tasks that have deadlines?

Well, I incorporate the deadlines into the task itself. For example, if I have to finish a course by Friday, and I know it will take me at least two days, I will write it as ‘Course — Wednesday’. So, when I look over my list on Tuesday night to see what needs to be prioritized for the next day, I will automatically choose this one.

Yes, it is that simple.

The Catch

Of course, that isn’t my whole system. But the remaining parts are as simple.

I maintain a few other lists on the same app. Here they are:

The neatest part of this app is the colour-coding. You can use whatever colours you want to signify any meaning. I use it like this:

  1. Orange — Immediate Action Items. This has my main list, which is my To-Do. The only other list in this category is my grocery list, where I jot down whatever is needed to be bought. But — when I actually want to order groceries, typically once every couple of weeks, I will put down an ‘order groceries’ into my ‘to-do’ so that it doesn’t slip between the cracks.
  2. Yellow — Long-term Action Items. There are some tasks that do need action from my end but are more long term in nature. Specifically, these are two lists — gifts (which I plan to order/make) and credit card (where I note down any large purchases made that month so that the CC bill is never a surprise).
  3. Purple — References. These are the lists where I maintain any and all references. These usually include ideas for new articles/books, a book list of books recommended by people I trust, and a feedback list for any constructive feedback received on my writing, which I will then incorporate while editing my book/articles.

And that is all. But you don’t have to maintain these lists at all, the system works just as well with the single to-do. As you start running with the system, you will fine-tune it to your own liking.

But just don’t end up with a few dozen lists, because then the point of having everything in ONE list loses its significance.

The Takeaway

  1. Maintain a single list of tasks to-do, small or big, personal or professional.
  2. Incorporate deadlines into the task itself.
  3. Treat the to-do as a bucket of tasks, and pick any three to be done the next day.
  4. Eliminate the remaining ruthlessly from your mind for that day.
  5. If required, maintain a few other lists. I recommend a grocery list, a reference/ideas list, and a book/show recommendation list.
  6. Color code your lists, and sort as per the color in your app (Colored Note is an alternative for iOS). Ideally, the lists with action items should be on top, and the ones with references at the bottom.

And yes, put down the theme of the day at your kid’s daycare on this list too, for the day before, so that you can lay out the correct clothes for the morning, and not have your kids be the odd ones out!

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Personal finance that is simple, practical, and enjoyable. Productivity that isn't toxic. Advice that is research-backed, not pleasant.

Hollywood, FL
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