Do you make your to-do lists too hard?

Use this simple note-taking technique to leave your future self best equipped to take action. 

Do you repeatedly hose your future self

Or do you consistently tee up future you for success? 

Unfortunately, it’s usually one or the other. Either we are regularly and deliberately thoughtful in our actions towards our future self, or go about our lives as if they don’t exist. In fact, if references to future you in these last two sentences had you scratching your head, you may want to continue reading. 

Current you taking care of future you—a quick example. Consider a time when you stopped on the way home from dinner or a late evening at work to fill up your car’s near-empty gas tank so that you didn’t have to leave early for work the next day to fill up the tank. 

Would it have been hard to leave 10 mins early to fill up the gas tank before work the next day? Nope.

Were you glad you did when the next morning inevitably rolled around? Yep. 

So what does all this have to do with taking notes or making to-do lists easier? Everything, but first we need to briefly discuss human nature.

When it comes to us as humans living our day-to-day lives—although there are tons of simple actions that our current self could take in the moment to shave time and inconvenience from our schedule in the future—we often take the shortcut, thereby choosing to hose our future self instead.

A quick example of how everyone does this: to-do lists.

How many times have you written a to-do that looked like this?

To Do:

  • Glass Animals concert
  • Dave’s birthday

All objects, no action (nouns, no verbs). 

What about the concert? When is it? Do I want to go? 

What about Dave’s birthday? Is there a party? Am I buying him something? 

These are what I refer to as word blobs. They make it hard for our future self to understand what our current self was trying to communicate. 

If instead we had more empathy for our future self, we might have written the list like this instead:

  • Buy Glass Animals concert tickets
  • Buy Dave’s birthday card

Verbs have made the action clear!

In this scenario, the inclusion of verbs has made all the difference. Similarly, the use of simple geometric shapes can have an outsize impact on clarity when taking notes.

Assuming that taking notes is a key way to communicate important and actionable information to our future self, let’s talk about how we can do that with minimal friction and maximum impact. 

When taking notes—analog or digital—all we need to do is employ a few simple, visual signals that our future self will immediately recognize as “action required.” Including a simple square, circle, or triangle before or after an actionable tasks is one of the easiest ways to provide an easily recognized visual signal. 

By placing a shape or symbol next to action items in our notes, we are providing simple instructions to our future self about what those notes mean to us (action required, yo). 

Although Michael Hyatt is credited for a particular method, ultimately, the shapes you use and when you use them should be determined by you based on your needs. You do you, essentially.

Here are the shapes I use and what they mean to me:

  • Square: Do this task
  • Circle: Delegate this task
  • Triangle: Share this information

By signaling actionable information with shapes, we are eliminating the need for our future self to re-read old notes, line by line, painstakingly sifting the inert from the actionable, unnecessarily deciding again and again what every single entry is, or was supposed to mean to us. These shapes are a bullet-proof way to tell our future self, “Hey you, this thing right here, this is something that we decided requires action.”

The second result of tagging action items with shapes is that not only are the action items clearly identified, but they now also pop right off the page. That is, by using shapes—signals that our brain immediately recognizes—to “call out” tasks that might otherwise be obscured or camouflaged in our notes, we are making it incredibly easy for our future selves’ eyeballs and brain to immediately differentiate between the inert and the actionable. As you may have noticed at the 2-3 second mark in this video, even when the words were backwards (and otherwise unreadable), the shapes on the page in notebook make crystal clear which data points require our attention. 

So by including signals (open shapes: circles, squares, and triangles) adjacent to actionable information when taking notes, our current self eliminates the need for our future self to reprocess notes in search of meaning, and we make any action items—potentially embedded across pages of homework or research notes—immediately clear to our future selves. 

When we take deliberate steps to clearly call out action items in our notes, we keep our to-do list clear, actionable, as easy.

So take care of future you by providing him or her with a to-do list that is friction-free and 0% harder than it needs to be.

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