The first week in August is “National Simplify Your Life Week.” For many parents, the timing is odd, as it also signals the beginning of the back-to-school frenzy. Still, nostalgia causes us to long for a time in the past when the pace was slower and the demands on our time were far less great. At least that’s the picture we have in our minds. We see ourselves joking with Andy and Barney over at Floyd’s Barber Shop. Using the mantra, “Simplify, simplify,” we look at how we can clear our calendars, purge our closets, and get “back to the basics” of life.

But if selling it all and moving to Walden Pond seems appealing, let’s look a little deeper. You won’t find any electrical outlets around Walden Pond. No place to plug in that microwave. Whatever shelter you can muster will be free of air-conditioning but well-supplied with mosquitoes. And as for that side-by-side refrigerator is concerned, there’s no place for it and no place to plug it in. Your choice of which restaurant to visit for dinner will also be easier. There aren’t any. Hope you like berries.

While we are nostalgic about a simpler life, the truth is we like the complexities that make life enjoyable. The automobile you drive is far more complex than what we remember as children. With the push of a few buttons we get turn-by-turn directions. No more unfolding and re-folding a road map. Shifting gears happens for us. We’ve got lights on the dashboard for every possible alert. The simplicity of the driving experience is brought about by the complexity of the design.

Is “simplicity” really what we’re after?

Would a better word be “control”? How about “peace of mind”? We don’t feel like we have either one when our technology allows others to interrupt us every time we start to engage in something which requires thought. We don’t feel in control when we have so many commitments that we always feel like we’re forgetting something.

But if you want to simplify your life, just which emails are you going to ignore? Which meetings are you going to skip? And what are you going to say to the boss when she asks you about either one?

Control is nothing more than having a system that is designed to handle the level of complexity thrown at it. Peace of mind comes from the confidence that we have trapped all of our commitments in one place, and looking in that one place will show us what we need to be doing that will make today a success.

The trouble is far too many of us don’t have a system. Sticky notes around the computer monitor isn’t a system. Neither is fooling ourselves that we can remember it all.

Many tools work. Pick one.

Lots of things work. A digital to-do list synced across all of your devices works. A paper planner from the local office supply store works. A legal pad with a page set aside for each day works. Pick one tool…not 15. Every time a “to-do” comes across your brain, put it in that tool.

Regardless of the tool, it’s going to need to help you do three things:

Batch your tasks

Tasks include some time for both start-up and clean-up. “Batching” reduces the time on both ends. This time-management practice refers to handling a group of similar items back-to-back. For example, running six errands in one trip saves considerable time over getting in the car six times and driving to the same general area over and over. When your tasks are all in front of you, arranging them in batches becomes easier.

Identify repeating tasks

Our life is filled with things we do on a regular basis. The ones we do every day or every week on the same day become habit. The ones that happen annually or quarterly tend to fall through the cracks. They cause us to let our driver’s licenses expire, neglect routine maintenance around the home, and wake up in the middle of the night wondering what we forgot to do.

Getting good at recognizing repeating tasks when they first arrive is a skill that makes life simpler. Having a system to hold them is where the magic happens. In the early 1980s when the Tickler File constituted my entire system, I dropped index cards in that file. On each card was the name of a repeating task and when the task needed to be done again. I would do the task and re-file the card for when that task needed to be done again.

Today, I use a digital task manager (Remember the Milk) which has a repeating task feature. All I have to do is enter the task once and it comes back to me at just the right time.

Trap the details

Many of our tasks have information associated with them that we need when it’s time to do the task. Does your system have a place to hold that sort of information? In the digital world, a good task manager will have a note section for each task. For example, if the task is a phone call, the note section can house the five items you want to discuss during the call. If the item is a document or an entry in Evernote, put the link to that digital information in the note section.

When I used a paper planner, I preferred the Day-Timer. The original versions of both the Day-Timer and Franklin Planner feature two pages per day. The blank right-hand page allows for this type of information.

End the day by…

End the day by planning the next one. There’s no need to brainstorm from a blank piece of paper. Your commitments are in that one tool. Put them in the order you want to do them. There’s your successful day. Start stacking one successful day after another and you start experiencing the control and peace of mind for which we long.

Do you have a tool which helps you simplify your life? Tell me about it in the comments.