Picture this scenario at your house: You’ve just sat down to prepare the perfectly-grilled hamburger. As you add pickles, ketchup, mustard, and onions, you notice something.


“We’re almost out of ketchup,” you think. So, how do you handle the common task of replenishing the ketchup supply? Three possibilities exist. First, you could use the common time-management practice called, “I do it when I think about it.”

You get up from the table, hop in the car, and drive to the grocery store to get—ketchup. It’s not the most efficient method, especially when you then realize you’re almost out of pickles. Is that going to be another instant trip back to the store?

“I do it when I think about it” is a recipe for things falling through the cracks. However, you have a second option.

I can remember that…

“Next time I go to the grocery store, I’ll get ketchup…and pickles. That’s easy enough,” you think. By the time the trip to the store rolls around, the number of items on that mental list has grown exponentially.

Up and down the aisles you push the cart trying to remember what it was you were there to buy. The trip results in its share of impulse buys. Emptying the final bag, you realize, “I forgot the ketchup.”

“I do it when I think about it” doesn’t work. “I can remember that” doesn’t work. So what does work?

It’s on the refrigerator door

When you realize you need ketchup, you walk over to the lowly grocery list. Typically, it’s pinned by a magnet to the refrigerator door. As soon as you write “ketchup” on that list, you earn the right to forget about ketchup.

Over the next few days, you and other family members add to the list. You don’t give those items another thought. That lowly list on the refrigerator door is doing the remembering.

When Mom decides to bake a cake, she doesn’t write “cake” on the grocery list. She thinks in terms of all the items that go into a cake. She adds to the grocery list: eggs, sugar, flour, butter, and milk. While she envisions the outcome—a delicious cake, she’s focused on the steps that will get her there.

Off to the grocery store

When you walk into the store, suddenly the lowly grocery list that had “zero” percent of your attention now has 100 percent of your attention for the next few minutes. If you’re really good, you may have even organized the list according to how the grocery store is arranged.

One item after another goes in the cart and gets checked off. With a plan in hand for what to buy, we’re less attracted to the strategically-located impulse buys.

If only we handled the rest of our lives that way

Having the grocery list makes the shopping experience easier. What if we approached our lives the way we approach the grocery list?

When people ask what to do to “Get Organized,” I start with three words: Write it down. It’s a practice I started when I was a senior in high school and never stopped. The “where” has a variety of answers. The answer could be a pocket memo pad, a paper planner, a task manager app on a smartphone. I particularly like voice input into that task manager.

Whatever your choice, the idea is to trap those thoughts in your system. The system never forgets. Then, you organize what you trapped. The grocery list may start as a list that’s in order according to when the item was added to the list. The trip to the store will go faster if the list is organized according to the layout of the store. As you push the cart down aisle 4, having all of the aisle-4 items listed together keeps you from backtracking. The trip to the store, the “doing” part is faster and easier.

If you haven’t done so, sit down and make a list of what you need to do. Break the big projects down into small steps just as we thought about the ingredients we need to buy in order for the cake to taste good.

Put some order to the list. What’s going to be on your list for today? Tomorrow? This weekend? In the evening, look at what’s planned for tomorrow and adjust as needed. The day starts with a plan. With a plan in mind, distractions are easier to avoid. Interruptions are easier to deflect.

Life doesn’t have to be as hard as we sometimes make it. If only we could plan our days as easily as we make the grocery list.


I am up for Global Gurus “Top 30” again this year in the “Time Management” category. Part of the selection is determined by popular vote. Could I get you to take a second and vote for me? You’ll be asked to log in with your Facebook, Google, or LinkedIn account to be sure you vote only once.