We'll see | Matt Zimmerman

a potpourri of mirth and madness

Cognitive time travel through reminder lists

Making a list

Credit: guinnessgurl/pamelaadam

I make a lot of lists: lists of things to do, things to talk to someone about, things to write, and mistakes never to repeat. I use them to keep track of various aspects of my life, and to help me to “shift gears” to a new task or project by filling my mind with the work at hand.

List-keeping is generally regarded as boring administrative work, something only important to compulsive organizers. When a writer wants to portray a character as meticulous and dull, they need only brand them as a list-maker, with eyes bespectacled from years of squinting over their lists.

The reality of list-keeping is much more exciting: reminder lists are a mechanism for cognitive time travel. They allow us to transport information from the time when it occurs to us, to a time in the future when it will actually be useful. Like a wormhole, they connect distant points in spacetime (though unfortunately only in one direction, as in the Stargate universe).

Throughout my day, I will remember things I need to do, though not right away: an article which looks interesting, or someone I need to remember to call. Putting these items on a list frees my mind to keep going with whatever I’m doing, knowing that the idea is not lost. A common scenario for me is that I’m riding the tube, reading RSS feeds offline on my Android phone using NewsRob, and come across something I want to explore further. There is as yet no wireless service on the tube, so I can’t do anything but read, but I can send myself an email using K-9 which will be delivered later. At the other end of the wormhole, when I’m back online, I receive the email (usually at my computer) and pick up where I left off.

Traveling through time in your head may not be as exciting as flitting about in a TARDIS, but it is much more accessible, and genuinely rewarding.


Written by Matt Zimmerman

March 19, 2010 at 11:25

10 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I keep a number of lists. I find them useful, for similar reasons as you outline here, but a problem I have is organizing the lists themselves. I’ve been using Remember the Milk for a while now and it’s helped quite a bit. I use the web application from my computer and the iPhone application from my phone, and for the first time I always have the lists I care about with me in a manageable form. Still, even with the ubiquity problem solves, I find it difficult to manage them. Do you have any words of wisdom for those of us that are list-converts and looking for better ways to work with them?


    March 29, 2010 at 09:57

    • I use a hierarchy of text files and vim. It’s easily extensible, keyboard-driven, fast and private. It is not ideal for access from my phone, though.

      It sounds like you have a pretty good system. What are you finding difficult to manage?

      Matt Zimmerman

      March 29, 2010 at 10:20

      • The main thing I find difficult to manage is keeping my lists up-to-date when I get busy and “just do stuff”. I often find the lists lag behind reality. I think one of the things I miss is integration with the way I track my time. I use Gtimelog to track all my work-related activity, but without a link to Remember the Milk it means that completing a task means doing something with GTimelog and then going to RTM to mark an item as completed. I suppose the real problem is that, although I use lists, I need to do more work to integrate the use of the lists into my personal workflow.

        Something I’ve traditionally been bad at is doing a weekly review of my lists. I use several tags for email, like ‘task’, ‘read’ and ‘answer’, for example, and have the same problem there, in that I don’t make time to review/update them as often as I should so they end up accumulating cruft.


        March 29, 2010 at 11:37

        • I use my lists as a context switch tool, so whenever I consciously finish a task and go on to the next one, I load up the list. If I’ve forgotten to tick something off or add something, I do it then, so it’s usually not far out of date.

          As I mentioned, looking at the list in between tasks also helps me reorient myself for the next task, so I don’t really see this as a cost. Looking at the list of work ahead helps clear my mind of the task I’ve just completed, and refocus on the next thing.

          For email, I only have two categories: “haven’t looked at it yet” (New), and “seen but not processed yet” (Old), both of which Mutt manages for me automatically.

          Matt Zimmerman

          March 29, 2010 at 12:13

  2. My “deferring tool” of choice has kept shifting between Tracks, todo.txt, Planner Mode and index cards + pen along the years, and I’m now looking forward to the next major version of GTG implementing multiple backends, possibly including Tracks, as well as using Desktop Couch for storage, thus becoming accessible and privately synced among all devices where I can replicate my CouchDB.

    The one problem I have yet to solve is keeping sync between paper lists and digital lists. Tips and experiences would be appreciated.


    March 29, 2010 at 11:10

    • My approach to paper lists is:

      1. Avoid paper lists wherever possible. :-) With a smart phone and a netbook, there are fewer situations where I need to use paper.

      2. When I do take notes on paper, I transfer the notes to electronic form, preferably before going on to the next task. I tick off the items in my notebook as I enter them.

      Matt Zimmerman

      March 29, 2010 at 12:17

  3. I’d strongly suggest using Remember The Milk and managing multiple lists all accessible on your smartphone. One of the best articles for this is http://blog.rememberthemilk.com/2008/05/guest-post-advanced-gtd-with-remember-the-milk/ and of course, RTM is accessible via GnomeDo and when needed on my worklaptop, via Launchy (http://lifehacker.com/284127/take-launchy-beyond-application-launching)

    Mark McKinlay

    March 29, 2010 at 11:31

  4. I like how you managed to work in those Stargate and Doctor Who references (including K-9).


    March 29, 2010 at 12:46

  5. I love making lists too.

    To Do (School)
    To Do (Work)
    To Do (Personal)
    To Buy

    But I have reminders in my BlackBerry, on my calendar above my desktop and sometimes I make separate ones using gEdit. I really wish I could find an all-inclusive organizer that has reminders, is easy to write information to (paper is the easiest, then anything on a computer (or phone) and the worst is anything that needs Internet access).

    I’ve looked at GTG and Remember the Milk, but digital lists just don’t do it for me like my Calendar app on my BlackBerry

    Brett Alton

    March 30, 2010 at 02:15

  6. In this context, you may want to look at http://taskwarrior.org/ – a command line tool to manage tasks.

    Daniel Hahler

    April 6, 2010 at 10:59

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: