The main function of a to-do list is to organize and prioritize the tasks you have to do. Besides, they allow you to gain a certain sense of control and peace of mind, since you know you don’t need to remember what’s on it.
But if you let it grow out of control, the effect of the to-do list can be completely different. An excessive list can ruin your sense of control and become a source of stress and frustration.
It is very difficult to focus on what you have to do when your to-do list is endless. Selecting the next task to perform from a hundred possible actions is a rather overwhelming experience and, under those circumstances, you will most likely not choose the most desirable option. Let’s face it, if you have a hundred tasks on your action list, you’re not going to do them all. You will do some of them, and they probably won’t be the ones you should.
The shorter your to-do list is, the easier it will be for you to stay focused on what is most important at any given moment. Also, keep in mind that leaving a long to-do list every day generates a negative psychological effect that will prevent you from fully enjoying your leisure time. It’s as if you have no right to have fun, knowing that you still have so many things to do.
So, in order to be truly productive and keep stress at bay, you need to keep your next action list as short as possible. Here are a dozen tips to help you do that, in a smart way.
1. Don’t be afraid to use the trash can
It is clear that, in order to have the security and peace of mind that you are not forgetting anything, you must somehow capture everything that comes to your mind. But that doesn’t mean that everything you capture is necessary, interesting or actionable.
When you are processing the material you have collected, ask yourself if it is really something you need in your life or work, and if you want to make a commitment to it. If in doubt, garbage can it! If it turns out that in the end it was something you did have to do, it will come back to you later, in a more obvious way.
Don’t accumulate meaningless tasks. When you review your next action list and see tasks that have been there forever, rethink the need for them. Use the trash can often.
2. Use a different list for actions you have not committed to.
There are always tasks listed that you have not yet fully committed to doing. If you include them all in the same list, they will distract you from what you really have to do. Move those tasks that you still don’t know if you are going to do or not, to a list of “uncommitted” actions (If you practice GTD, that list is the Someday/Maybe list).
Review this list weekly. If something no longer makes sense, delete it. If you have made a commitment-internal or external-to perform any of the actions on it, move them to your to-do list.
3. You don’t need to keep all the actions of a project on display.
You may have already realized that in order to achieve a certain commitment, you must take several actions. Let’s call that set of actions that will lead you to achieve a desired outcome a project. Since you probably won’t be able to do all the actions of a project at once, it doesn’t make sense to have them all on your list of next actions. They generate too much noise.
You only need to include in your task list the first task of each project (in some cases, there may be several tasks that can be done at the same time). When you have done this, delete it and add the next achievable task of the project, indicating to which project it belongs. Logically, this implies having an additional list of projects.
4. Live in the present
Surely, a good part of your next actions, although already committed, do not need to be executed for a few weeks, or even months. These future actions also add unnecessary noise to your action list, so you should hide them for the time being.
An elegant solution to this problem is proposed by David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: save future actions in a Tickler File sorted by date, so that it is easy to activate them when the time comes. You should review this file weekly and move the tasks that are activated to your to-do list.
5. Separate actions from non-actions.
Your task list should contain only actions. Everything else (ideas, information, reference material, etc.) should be somewhere else, without interfering. Use other lists for these things that are not executable actions (if you practice GTD, use the Reference Material list for additional information, and the Someday/Maybe list to keep your ideas alive).
6. Divide your task list into context sub-lists.
Let’s say you have a list of 30 tasks and you are in a coffee shop with a notebook and an iPad with an internet connection. How many of those 30 tasks are “eligible” under those circumstances?
Instead of having one list of tasks, have several, one for each of the contexts in which you usually find yourself in your daily life. In this way, you only have to look at the sub-list that corresponds to the situation you are in at any given moment. This sub-list, shorter and more focused, is, in reality, your to-do list at this moment.
7. Make a simple estimate of expected times
Let’s go back to the previous case, and add the fact that you are only going to spend half an hour in the cafeteria because you have to go to a meeting afterwards. If you marked your tasks with an expected time (you can’t always do it, but you know how much time some repetitive tasks need), you can reduce your to-do list even more. Just look for those items on the list that can be done in less than 30 minutes.
8. Mark the tasks that require little energy
You can still fine-tune when you are tired at the end of the day or simply don’t have the energy to do complicated things. In those cases, you could filter only the actions that require little energy (answering an email, making a call, reading an article…) and take advantage of those moments.
As in the previous cases, think that, in reality, your next actions list is usually a subset of your to-do list.
9. Tag your tasks
Add any type of tag to your tasks that allows you to classify and filter them by any criteria that you find useful. Organizing your tasks with as much information as possible will allow you to save time when choosing what to do.
10. Mark the most important tasks in the short term
One way to prepare well for the day is to pre-select the most important tasks to be done that day. This will usually be one, two or three tasks. As long as you are in the right context, prioritize those tasks that you have already decided you need to complete as soon as possible.
As long as you don’t complete them, the most important tasks list becomes your real to-do list.
11. Remove the tasks done as soon as possible
Once you have completed a task, mark it as done and remove it from your list. In addition to reducing the size of the list, executing tasks is the ultimate purpose of your task list and, therefore, this generates a very positive reinforcement in your productive habits.
12. Choose the right tool
Unfortunately, all of the above is very difficult to do with pen and paper. You need a good tool accessible from anywhere that also allows you to have the necessary lists and make the necessary movements between them. Your tool should allow you to assign contexts, tags, expected times and energy level to your tasks, and filter by all these concepts. It would also be interesting to be able to indicate which tasks are more important in the short term.
Your tool should help you manage your projects in combination with your task list, and should automatically trigger new active tasks, not only from projects but also from the Tracking File.
In short, your to-do list needs a good dose of realism and concreteness to be useful. With the right approach and the right tool, your to-do list can be the key to a more relaxed life.