Scott Belsky penned a terrific article at The 99% on how the ritual of writing out a to-do list helps some people stay productive. Here's how he describes the ritual of Bob Greenberg, the CEO of the digital agency R/GA:
Despite his digital interests, Greenberg's productivity tools are entirely analog. He uses a paper agenda with a series of lists written at the top that he writes every single day. In the morning, Greenberg will manually bump uncompleted tasks from the previous day to the current day. He also re-writes the names of key clients and other areas of focus; often transcribing the same names again and again, daily, for weeks if not months or years. . . . By manually bumping a certain task every day, he feels that it is incomplete. He is faced with the reality and forced to either complete the task, delegate it, or bump it again.
I see a clear parallel between this ritual and the process of 5S in a manufacturing environment. You can't engage in a thorough 5S program without looking at every physical item and determining its purpose and value. The same is true with the information you manage.
You need to sift through the accumulated flotsam and jetsam of your day -- the scribbled notes, the emails, phone calls, and hallway conversations, the random thoughts that occur to you while getting your coffee -- and identify what has value and what doesn't. Applying 5S to the information you handle (or, in Greenberg's world, re-writing his daily lists) means making decisions about what to do with it. Whether you choose to act upon it now, defer action for a later date, or finally give up on it, you're actively assessing your work and analyzing your needs. It's this analysis that will give you greater clarity about what's required on a daily basis to move forward with your responsibilities.
Personally, I'm not a big fan of writing and re-writing the same tasks. I think it's far better to put a stake in the ground and set a target date for action or completion. But I do respect Greenberg's focus on creating visibility for his work and forcing himself to make mindful decisions about what he's going to do. Too often we act unthinkingly, reacting in a Pavlovian fashion to the latest stimulus. And that's a recipe for failure.