[Photo by B Tal via Flicker]

The conventional grocery list is plagued by a recurring flaw: there’s no guarantee that it will accompany you on your journey to the grocery store.

We’ve all done this to ourselves, and it’s blood-boilingly frustrating. You arrive at the store, reach into your pocket or purse, and the damn list is just not there. So you walk out to your car. It’s probably pouring rain, hailing even.

Not there either.

No, your grocery list is 30 minutes away – at home on the kitchen island or perhaps still decorating the refrigerator door. At that point, your list can only help you to the extent that you’re able to visualize what you wrote on it. But I’m guessing that if you need a grocery list in the first place, you’re not very good at remembering the items (like me).

Like I need to tell you why this sucks

Forgetting to bring your list to the store has several consequences.

It may mean a second trip to the store later in the day or week. It may mean that you just don’t get to cook the meal you wanted because you can’t remember all the ingredients. Or it may mean that you end up buying too much milk because you can’t remember whether you have half a gallon or half a spoonful left.

Until, very, very recently (I mean blink-of-the-eye recently), humankind had to accept this as a fact of their universe. Physical objects – including human bodies and lists – will sometimes find themselves in separate locations at undesirable times. It’s just going to happen every now and then.

Virtual lists to rescue humanity

Or at the very least, sanity.

If smartphones only made grocery list-making easier and more efficient, that would be enough to justify their existence.

In my opinion, it’s no longer about whether you should use your smartphone to make grocery lists, it’s about which tool is best for you. And tools, there are a plenty.

The virtual list-making tool you use doesn’t really matter to me, but to be most effective, I think it should have these characteristics:

  • It should be with you a lot
  • Putting items on it should be really easy
  • Checking items off should be easy as pie

How to Remember the Milk (and lots of other stuff too)

As I’ve often mentioned before, Remember the Milk is my productivity task app of choice. Making grocery (or more generally “store”) lists is just one of the myriad useful functions it performs. Perhaps the name reflects that grocery lists were the driving force behind its initial creation.

In true GTD fashion, I have several context-based lists inside Remember the Milk. I denote them with an @ symbol. I keep one general-purpose list for anything that I need to buy at a store, groceries included. It’s called @Store.

There are two main ways that I enter items in @Store:

  1. Directly entering individual items using the RTM app for Android/iOS and the RTM website
  2. Emailing longer lists into @Store using the RTM import email address

Directly entering individual items

One of the true god-send qualities of a smartphone is that it’s almost always with you. If you’re low on bread, just get out your phone and put it down. If you run out of light bulbs, put them down too. There’s no need to attempt to temporarily store this information in your head. It’s full already.

The chances that you’ll remember “memorized” items when you enter a store are low – especially large stores like Home Depot and Target – both of which fire a memory-erasing laser through your head when you walk through the doors. So don’t fall into this trap. Write it down ahead of time. It’ll be with you when you go to the store.

Emailing longer lists

If you need to quickly make out a longer list, the most efficient way to get it into Remember the Milk is to email the list of items to your account’s import email address. You can find that special address in your account settings.

Put your store list (@Store in my case) in the subject line, then simply write the items one on each line like:

Beef tongue

When you send the email, RTM will create a task for each item and place them all in the list you put in the subject line of the email.

The most obvious place to make out an email list is at a computer, but I sometimes do it right on my mobile device and email it to my RTM import address because it’s such a fast way to make out long list.

@ the store

When I’m actually at the grocery store, all I have to do is go to my @Store list and begin completing items as I buy them. There is something really satisfying about using a task app like RTM to check off grocery items. As you check them off, they disappear, leaving you with a smaller list each time – making it even easier to ensure that you don’t miss a thing.

Other choices for making virtual grocery lists

There are so many great apps that you could use in similar ways. Examples include Evernote and Simplenote. Both of these are as ubiquitous as RTM, but for me, the ability to check off tasks and make them disappear makes RTM preferable.

You can also find apps dedicated to making grocery lists. I’ve never looked into any of them myself because my existing toolset works so well for the job.

If you have tips or tricks on making grocery lists, share them in the comments.