Taming To-Dos

It's true-confession time: how many messages are in your in box? How often do you check your e-mail? And just how many items did you check off your to-do list today? For many of us, the answers are "too many," "too often" and "not enough." There has to be a better way--and productivity blogger Gina Trapani is here to help. For the past two years Trapani has edited Lifehacker.com, a Web site owned by Gawker Media that offers advice designed to help people work smarter. This month she joined the blogger-turned-author brigade by publishing "Lifehacker: 88 Tech Tips to Turbocharge Your Day" ( Wiley, $24.99 ). The book includes tricks to automatically back up hard drives, optimize to-do lists, construct and remember passwords, filter e-mail and make better use of search engines--just a few of the methods Trapani believes can help desk jockeys cram more into the average workday. "My focus is ... to automate tasks to make things easier, to free up your head to think about important things," she says.

In this quest, she's part of a growing band of efficiency gurus. The movement's godfather is David Allen, who's been giving seminars outlining his time-management philosophy since the 1980s. His 2001 book "Getting Things Done" has sold more than a half-million copies, and today thousands of adherents use his system of file folders, label makers, e-mail subfolders and specially formatted to-do lists to close the "open loops" that he believes cause stress. Allen's message seems to be catching on due to a variety of reasons. Downsizing has heaped more work on fewer people. Flattened org charts, telecommuting and flextime have put more workers in charge of their own time, with less supervision. "In knowledge work, you have to [figure out] what to do during the day," Allen says. "We're all executives now."

In theory, technology--from Black-Berries to Google--should help us. But many workers have only a cursory understanding of how their tech tools really work--or they allow the constant beeps, blinks and buzzes to become so distracting that their tools actually reduce efficiency. Trapani, who's also a computer programmer, along with the geeks who create sites like 43folders.com, aim to help workers harness technology to do a better job of implementing Allen's teachings. It requires more than just learning keyboard shortcuts. "Culturally, organizations can encourage workers to step back from their day and think about what they spend most of their time doing, and how to streamline it," Trapani says. For James Mitchell, a Boston-based leveraged-buyout specialist, David Allen's system has changed his life, and he intends to give Trapani's tips a try, as well. "I've put it on my to-do list," he says. For this crowd, that's money in the bank.

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