If you’ve been around me for very long, you know how much I believe in the power of the to-do list, preferably, a digital one. Life gets easier when you learn to throw things on the list as soon as they occur to you. No more forgetting!

Often, we’re impacted by the things other people should be doing.

Here are some examples:

  1. You’re working on a project with others and have delegated certain tasks to them. How do you make sure everyone comes through with what they’re supposed to do?
  2. Someone borrows books, your lawnmower, or anything else that belongs to you. How do you keep up with what you have loaned? What sort of trigger will cause you to mention something when an item is not returned?
  3. You have placed an order with a company. How do you keep up with what you have ordered? At what point would you call to ask about the status of the order? What is the trigger that would cause you to make that call?

As long as we live in a world where our happiness, success, longevity, or whatever else is in part dependent on other people, we need to have some system that will allow us to follow up.

How I started

At the start of my career, my organizational tools consisted of a pocket memo pad and my Tickler File.

  • When someone borrowed something from me, I immediately made a note in that memo pad, something like “Expect to receive XYZ book from Steve. Loaned on Oct. 3.” After asking myself when I wanted to see that reminder, I would drop the little slip of paper into the Tickler File for that date.
  • When I placed an order with a company, I would take a copy of the order and write “Expect to receive” on the top of the form, ask myself when I should expect it to arrive, and throw the form in the Tickler File for around that time.
  • When someone was supposed to handle a task and then get back to me, a little note saying “Expect to receive reply from John” went in the Tickler File for around the time I wanted to check on progress.

Shortening to 3 Letters

Over time, “Expect to receive” became “ETR.” Though the tools have changed, that acronym stuck. When I moved to a digital task list in 2001, I would include the letters ETR at the start of any task where I was expecting to receive something from someone else. I would include in the task the name of the person, what I was waiting on from them, and the approximate date of when I should have received the deliverable. That way, I could follow up at the appropriate time.

At that point, I could forget about the task and let the system do the remembering.

When the due date arrives, I am looking at the “ETR” item, and there is my trigger to take action. What if I want to see at a glance all of the things that I am expecting from other people? On my digital to-do list, I search for “ETR.” The result is a complete list of everything I am expecting from someone else.

Enter the ETR tag

For a very long time, I used keywords in the task name to provide context. I would add to word “call” into any task that involved a phone call or “errand” into a task that involved getting in the car. Then, I simply enter the keyword in the search window. That works.

Now, I use tags. I’ve created an ETR tag and attach it to any task where I am expecting someone else to come through. When I want to see all the things others owe me,

When I click the ETR tag in the sidebar, I see a list of everything I am expecting to receive from others.

Pro tip: In Remember The Milk, after clicking on the ETR tag the first time, I go to the cog at the top of the list(right beside where you see Incomplete and Completed) and choose to sort by Due Date. That way, you see ETR items that are overdue or due now towards the top and ETR items for the future at the bottom.

The Need Grows Greater as Our Careers Advance

The further we advance in our chosen professions, the more our success depends on getting work done through other people. Training is important. Having confidence in those with whom we interact is important. However, people drop the ball. When that happens, the consequences are often felt far up the chain of command.

When we delegate, it takes only a second to decide when we should expect the completion of the task and make the appropriate entry on the digital to-do list. That simple habit provides peace of mind. You develop the reputation of being someone who follows up.

Relying on memories for all of our responsibilities does not work. Add to that trying to remember what we are expecting from others makes the whole thing a recipe for disaster. Our lives are complex, and the complexity requires simple systems.

What are you waiting for from other people? Take a few minutes to identify those tasks, put them on your list, and assign due dates to prompt you to follow up. It’s too simple not to do.

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