Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Getting Things Done - Your Task List

A continuation of my series on Personal Organization based on Getting Things Done...

Photo by Darwin Bell

The task list is the hub of a well-organized life. Everything starts here.

Capture Everything in One Place
You need one place where you can capture all the things you are responsible for, all the things you want to do or are in process of doing. The most important thing is to capture everything in one place.

I used to make the mistake of having multiple places where I would keep track of ToDo's. I would have paper lists (in my purse, on my dresser, on the fridge), starred emails, tasks in outlook, and post-it notes scattered around. I would often get a sinking feeling that I was supposed to be doing something *really* important, but just could not remember what it was. Days later, I would come across a note to my self left on my desk, or in my purse.

It is essential that you have just one place where everything is recorded. You can see everything in one view, prioritize them relative to each other, and know that you are always doing the most important thing.

Pick a Tool, any Tool
It really does not matter what tool you use to record your tasks. I really love the free online task list at Toodledo. Another popular, free online tool is Remember the Milk (however, RTM's notes fields are not big enough for me). At work, I use Outlook. For those of you who don't spend most of your day online, a Moleskine Pocket Notebook or a Hipster PDA (a.k.a. index cards) are great options.

The concept of having just one task list is so important, that you should choose the tool that allows you the easiest way of adding tasks. So, if you are drawn to a fancy online list because you think that is what "organized" people have, consider how much time you spend online. When you are out with your kids and you think of something you have to do, will you be able to easily enter it on your online list? Or are you more likely to enter it if you keep a paper list?

There is no tool that will magically make you more organized. It's about the process, not the tool! The important thing is to choose something that works for you and to use it exclusively.

The Big Idea Dump
Once you have decided on a tool, the next step is to collect all your tasks into one place. Gather up all those paper lists, starred emails, and post-it notes. Enter them into your chosen tool.

Until you build the habit of keeping everything on one list, you may find yourself falling into the trap of making side lists again. Just don't. Say to yourself, "If it is not on my task list, it does not exist." And, go enter it on your task list.

If you are not in front of your list, it is OK to temporarily write it down. But make sure that the time between writing it down and entering it on the list is short. If you constantly find yourself with paper lists as a holding bin for tasks that you need to enter, consider that a paper list may be the best option for you.

I am able to email tasks into my Toodledo task list from my blackberry which is always with me. So, I rarely need any holding bins or paper lists.

Photo by JennyHuang

Make Each Task Actionable
Another tenet of GTD is that each task be actionable. What does that mean? It means that the title of each task is actually something that you can *do*.

For example: "Doctor's Appointment" is not something that you can do. However, 'Call to schedule Dr. Appt. @ 555-1212", or "Gather paperwork to bring for Dr. Appt." are both things you can do.

Often times, a task will sit on my list for a long time and I'll keep pushing it off and pushing it off -- even stupid little things. I wonder, why can't I get that done? Then, I take a look at the task more carefully, and realize that I had not made it actionable. Example: "M+J Wedding Present". Why haven't I done this? Because I don't know where they are registered. The task should be, "M+J Wedding Present - email M to ask where registered". After sending the email, the very next day, I have the information, ordered the present online, and am done.

Make it as easy as possible to look at your list and key in on something that is do-able right now. The way to do this is to make all your tasks actionable.

Break Big Projects up Into Next Actions
I often feel so overwhelmed by the enormity of what I need to get done that I get paralyzed. I thrash around and don't make any forward progress on anything.

The key to accomplishing larger projects is to break them up into smaller sub-tasks. An example is "HB Birthday Party" (not an actionable task). Taking a few minutes to think it through, I come up with a few sub tasks:
* talk to husband about budget and size of party
* ask HB about theme and activities
* schedule date
* make invite list
* etc.

Can you see where this is going? Each of these sub tasks is short and concrete - something that can be done in one sitting. Now, the task reads, "HB B-day Party - talk to hubby about budget and size". The other sub tasks are entered in the notes field of the task. When the first sub task is completed, I move it to the end of the notes field beneath the word "Done", and I put the next subtask into the task title. You don't get overwhelmed with the whole project; all you see is the next actionable task.

You are a hundred times more likely to do something if you can identify a short, immediately actionable next step toward the final goal. This allows you to get past the "paralyzed" state and into a state of action.

Order and Schedule Tasks
One of the hardest parts of managing a task list is how to order the items on your list. The underlying problem is that certain tasks are time sensitive -- they have to get done by a certain date -- while others are really important, but have no due date. The question is how to balance those time-critical tasks which vie for your immediate attention, yet still make sure that the important things eventually get done.

The most important thing for me is to keep my task list to one page. That way, I can look at everything in one place and make the right decision on a day-to-day basis. On Toodledo with my laptop screen, that means no more than ~75 tasks. When my task list grows beyond this, I know that it is unmanageable. If I don't do something about it, I will end up overwhelmed and paralyzed by my responsibilities. (See below on how I manage to keep a short list.)

For tasks that need to get done by a certain date, you have to schedule them. For simple tasks that are due on a certain date, I schedule them for the day before they are due. If they are more complicated, I think about how much time I need to get them done, and schedule them for that many days in advance. That doesn't mean that you can't work on it earlier than that. In a well-managed task list, you can always look ahead and work on upcoming stuff when you have time. However, if the task remains undone on its scheduled due date, you know you had better get cracking on it, or you will miss the deadline.

For whimsical things that you want to do, but aren't important or time-critical, GTD recommends a someday/maybe folder. It's a side-list that you look at when you have time. You could use a Toodledo "folder" for this. I prefer to use a specific far-off-date, so that these items always remain at the end of my list. Right now, I'm using 1/1/2020 because it's easy to type. In a moleskine, I like to keep my someday/maybe list at the back of the book, and my normal list at the front of the book.

Tasks that are important, but don't have a specific due date are the most difficult ones to manage. Finding a process that allows you to make progress on these kinds of tasks is they key to having a fulfilling life. If spend all your time on less important, yet time-critical things, then your life is out of balance.

For these items, I think about the next time that I will have time to work on them. I schedule them for that date. It is critical that you have already thought about the next actionable subtask. Otherwise, you are likely to see the task, and pass it up because there are more pressing things to be done. Make it as easy as possible to see this action, latch onto it, and do it.

If you find yourself constantly passing up this task, consider why. Is it really not that important to you? If so, then put it on your someday/maybe list or get it off your list altogether. Is there something about the next action that is difficult or uncomfortable? Either address that issue head on, or find some other way to accomplish the task. Is there something else that needs to be done before the subtask is do-able? Then make that the next action. Is the next action too big and overwhelming? Then break it up into yet smaller tasks. Really ask yourself, "what am I waiting for; what is stopping me from doing this right now"? Getting to the bottom of these "roadblocks" is the key to moving on and getting these important tasks done.

Process Your List Daily
A task list is useless if you never look at it. You need to make the habit of regularly looking at and processing your list.

When forming habits, Leo at Zen Habits suggests having a trigger - the thing that will always precede your new habit. What is going to remind you to look at your task list? As soon as the baby goes down for his first nap? At the end of the day once the kids have gone to bed?

When I sit down with my list each day I like to:
* check off things I already completed
* enter any items from my holding bin or side-list
* examine all the things that are past due. Ask myself the critical questions about what the roadblock is. Fix the roadblock and schedule them for another day.
* do anything that can be done quickly right now
* make a plan for today (or the next day if you look at your list in the evening). If your list fits onto one page, it should be relatively easy to see what the most important things are.

Keep a Short List
It is very important for me to keep my task list to a single page. On Toodledo with my laptop screen, that means no more than ~75 tasks.

There are a few tricks I use to keep my list short.
* Get rid of tasks. It's surprisingly easy to get all your stuff done if your list of stuff is small. You would be amazed at how many things on your task list don't need to be done. Ask yourself, "What would really happen if I didn't do this."
* Get unimportant things off your list and onto the someday/maybe list.
* Collect smaller related tasks into one larger task. "Things to buy" is a good example. You can do all your online research and purchases in one sitting when you have time. Or you can consult this one list on your next trip to the mall. The "next action" should be the next thing that you need to buy by a certain date. For example, see my post on keeping track of baby gear weight/height limits. Kids fun activities is another. Rather than 10 separate tasks to research and plan 10 different activities, have one task and select the next activity that you want to do. Work on that one until it is done, and then start the next.

The idea is to allow yourself to look at a small, simple list and prioritize effectively. Hide groups of tasks under one task with an actionable next step. Use the notes field to record the details.

If you have a long list of tasks, yet never have time to sit down to process them and do them, then your life is just too busy. You will forever be running around managing crisis after crisis - reacting to situations - rather than acting out of purpose and intention. Getting control of your life requires the time and energy to take stock and work on the important things, not just the crises and emergencies. Simplifying your life will allow you the breathing room to work on the things that *actually* matter to you.


  1. Great post. Thanks.

  2. @Kristen - I'm glad you liked the post. Hope it's helpful!

  3. Yes, great post. I find that I've been doing a lot of this already and has really helped with my to do's! Thanks!

  4. Josie Thanx for sharing the post! All the idea which you share like- Capture Everything in One Place, Break Big Projects up Into Next Actions, Order and Schedule Tasks etc are really help me get organized . Thanx again and keep posting!


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