Packing for a trip used to be a nightmare for me. The night before any flight, my brain would get on a hamster wheel. “Did you forget socks?” it would whir. “Do you have a sweater and snacks and toothpaste?” Soon I’d be pillaging through my bags, hunting for the forgotten shirt that I probably hadn’t forgotten after all. But that was before The List.
I’m not a strict practitioner of Getting Things Done (or GTD, as strict practitioners of the popular work-life management system casually call it), but one tidbit from the method has transformed not only how I travel, but also how I shop for groceries every week.
The guiding principle is that you get any checklist—the tasks you need to do, the things you need to remember—out of your head and written down somewhere. So when you go to pack for a trip, or begin your work week, or shop for food, you aren’t reaching into the back of your brain to figure out what you might want to consider doing or getting or including. You aren’t inventing your plan from scratch every time, reminding yourself of all the things you don't want to forget.
A few years ago, we began using a family master packing spreadsheet for travel, so that we weren’t always asking each other if we packed a water bottle and a sweatshirt or if there was something else we were forgetting. The master list includes not just everything we’re bringing on a specific trip, but everything we’d consider bringing on any trip. We don't delete things unless we’ve completely moved on from that item—we just add a checkmark in the column next to the list as we pack it, or write “skip” if we don’t need it this time. Then it’s easy to search and find out if we’ve already included a sun hat or a Thermapen, instead of rifling through each suitcase to see.
The master grocery list works more or less the same way—it's a reference list of all the staples we generally need to have around. I keep it on a magnetic whiteboard in my fridge, but it might work even better in a spreadsheet or task-management app in my phone. Before I go to the store, or place an online grocery order, I check our fridge and pantry against our personal list of essentials. I jot down what's needed, and then I don’t wind up standing in the dairy aisle wondering what I’ve forgotten. I don’t have to think much about stocking up, and I don't accidentally buy more of things I already have.
Of course, the master list is especially helpful for people with a pretty steady need for certain groceries. My husband and I make coffee every morning, and I usually eat an egg. My daughter goes through four to fourteen bagels a week, and similar amounts of string cheese and carrots. We need a constant supply of peanut butter to avoid disaster. Rather than keep this list constantly running through my mind, I’ve stopped worrying. I make my list from the Master List (or place my online grocery order standing right in front of it), and know that everything’s accounted for.
But, Maggie! You might say. Online grocery ordering already offers a list of “Your Items”! And that’s sort of true—but not exactly. Most grocery apps will show you the items you’ve ordered before, but only if they’re in stock currently. They won't remind you of the cereal you need if they don’t have it available to purchase that day. But they will remind you of a litany of one-time purchases that may not be nearly as essential.
The master list takes the worry—but not the spontaneity—out of shopping. I turn to it each week for staples, for the milk and eggs and kiddo-lunchbox standbys. With that stuff covered, I can stop by the farmers' market for weird apples or cool salad greens. I can visit a fishmonger and play fast and loose with a choice of salmon or halibut. Anything goes, as long as the peanut butter’s covered.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious