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7 Expert-Approved Ways to Write a Better To-Do List

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When feeling overwhelmed by the mountain of tasks ahead of you, sit down, take a breath, and write a to-do list. This isn’t just a sneaky form of procrastination: Studies have shown that we’re more likely to achieve our goals when we commit them to paper. If you really want to make the most of your planning time, ditch the old-school bullet format. These expert-backed strategies will help you confront your deadlines with confidence.

1. TIME-BLOCKING

On a traditional to-do list, obligations that take hours to complete appear alongside tasks that last a few minutes. Without time-blocking, it can be hard to tell them apart. Fast Company defines time-blocking as assigning individual tasks to manageable time slots. So instead of writing out everything on your plate for the day and hoping you have enough time to tackle it all, this approach lets you set realistic goals for yourself one task at a time.

2. IF/THEN LISTS

To-do lists are inherently optimistic. By writing something down, you’re betting that you’ll have the time and energy to make it happen. But sometimes life gets in the way of your fine-tuned plans. One strategy for setting reasonable goals without selling yourself short is to make two lists: one for high-energy days and another for days when you struggle to roll out of bed. According to blogger and Bullet Journal enthusiast Kara Benz, both lists should follow an “if/then” model. An entry on the first list, for example, might read, “If I have a lot of energy, then I will take a walk at lunch.” The second list should feature more mindless tasks like cleaning out your inbox, organizing your desk, or even setting aside time for a power nap.

3. EISENHOWER MATRIX

Michele Debczak

President Dwight Eisenhower once said, "I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent." Someone found a way to turn this maddening statement into a rather useful prioritization system. Plugging your to-do list into an Eisenhower Matrix breaks it into four categories. The first box, filled with items that are both urgent and important, is to be tackled immediately. The second set, labeled important but not urgent, can be scheduled for a later time. Tasks deemed urgent but not important can be delegated to others if possible, and entries that are neither urgent nor important should be crossed off the list altogether.

4. DRAWING

Many people use their own special shorthand when writing to-do lists—which is fine as long as they can decipher it hours later. If you’ve ever had trouble decoding the notes you write to yourself, consider doodling quick images to get your message across. One study found that words are more likely to stick in our memories if we draw pictures of them instead of writing them down. This is likely because drawing takes up more mental facilities (visualization, analysis, motor skills) than language alone. So not only does creating a visual to-do list help you memorize tasks, it also forces you to think them through ahead of time.

5. ONE-THREE-FIVE LIST

Instead of organizing entries by time or urgency, a one-three-five list looks at the size of the tasks at hand. Start by identifying the biggest job of the day—that goes in the number one slot. From there, pick three smaller, but still important tasks to fill out the middle of your list. Finish it off with five small items you’ll be able to take care of quickly. COO and co-founder of The Muse Alex Cavoulacos is a notable fan of this method. She wrote for her website, “Planning ahead like this also means you'll be able to have more informed conversations with your manager when he or she drops something new on you that needs to be done right away—as well as the tools to re-prioritize your other work.” So while it may be impossible to stick with what’s on the list every day, it doesn’t hurt to have it as a guideline.

6. KANBAN BOARD

Jeff.lasovski via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Like a calendar, a Kanban board helps you keep your day organized by visualizing the tasks ahead. Kanban was popularized as a scheduling strategy for manufacturing plants, but as productivity experts Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry write in their book Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life, it works on an individual level as well.

Start by finding a board. It can be a tool on your computer, a white board covered in Post-its, or a few columns of index cards on your desk. The important thing to remember is that any task you write down won’t stay in the same spot for long. After filling out the three columns—"To-Do," "Doing," and "Done"—jump into the items in your “Doing” section. Any items you complete should be relocated to the "Done" column, and any items you start from the "To-Do" section should move to under "Doing." Ideally the board should be situated in a spot that’s easy to glance at throughout the day. That way you can easily visualize your progress.

7. COULD-DO LIST

Sam Bennett likes to be realistic when planning out her day. Instead of writing a to-do list, the author of Get It Done: From Procrastination to Creative Genius in 15 Minutes A Day takes the pressure off by creating a "could-do" list. In order to weigh the importance of her optional tasks, she plugs them into a worksheet. She suggests reserving columns for tasks, time (how long each task will take), expense (if any), inclination (how appealing the task is on a scale of one to 10), and the return on your investment (also scaled one to 10). Based on those metrics, it should be easy to see which items take priority—and if you don’t have time to get to everything, it’s not the end of the world.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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