So how do you make your to-do’s
doable? When it’s time to add something to your list, stop and think it
through, using the following guidelines.
- Break it down. The best way to make yourself avoid a task like the plague is to make it a vague monstrosity. The Getting Things Done
productivity system defines projects differently from tasks: projects
have multiple sub-actions. That’s an important distinction –
internalize it, because your to-do list is not your project list. Don’t
add multi-action tasks to it, like “Clean out the office.” Break it
down to smaller, easier-to-tackle subtasks like “Purge filing cabinet,”
“Shred old paperwork” or “Box up unneeded books for library drive.”
Because Assistant you is going to run for the hills when Boss you says
“Clean out the office.”
- Work through projects using next actions.
If you’ve got a multi-action task – that is, a project – only keep its
next sequential action on your to-do list. When the task is complete,
refer back to your project list (again, separate from to-do’s) and add
its next action to your to-do list. At any given moment, your to-do
list should only contain the next logical action for all your working
projects. That’s it – just one bite-sized step in each undertaking.
- Use specific, active verbs.
When you’re telling yourself to do something, make it an order. An item
like “Acme account checkup” doesn’t tell you what has to be done. Make
your to-do’s specific actions, like “Phone Rob at Acme re: Q2 sales.”
Notice I didn’t use the word “Contact,” I said “Phone.” Contact could
mean phone, email, or IM, but if you’re taking out all the thinking and
leaving in only action, your verbs will be as specific as possible.
Literally imagine yourself instructing a personal assistant on her
first day on the job what you need done.
- Keep your list short.
Just like no one wants to look at an email inbox with 2,386 messages in
it, no one wants to have an endless to-do list. It’s overwhelming and
depressing, like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. I keep my
to-do list under 20 items. (This morning it’s only 17 tasks long, and
I’d call myself a busy person.) Does that sound like too little?
Remember, your to-do list isn’t a dumping ground for project details,
or “Someday I’d like to” items. These are tasks you’re committed to
getting done in the very near future – like the next 2 weeks. Keep your
projects and someday/maybe items elsewhere. Your to-do list should be
short, to the point commitments which involve no more deciding whether
or not you’re really serious about doing it.
- Keep it moving.
While my to-do list is only 20 items or so, it’s 20 items that change
every single day. Every day 2-5 tasks get checked off, and 2-5 tasks
get added. Remember, your to-do list is a working document, not some
showy “look how organized I am!” thing that quietly gathers dust
because you’re off doing real work which isn’t written down anywhere.
While your to-do list might have 20 items on it, the reality is you’re
only going to get a couple done per day (assuming you’re not writing
down things like “get up, shower, make coffee, go to work…”). So make
sure those tasks are at the very top of your list. How you do this will
depend on what tool or software you use to track your to-do’s, but do
make sure you can see what you need to get done next at a glance.
Just like you should be able to see what tasks are top priority on your
to-do list, you should be able to see what items have been on your list
the longest as well. Chances are you’ve got some mental
blockage around the tasks that have been sitting around forever, and
they’ve got to be re-worded or broken down further. Or perhaps they
don’t need to get done after all. Deleting an item from your to-do list
is even better than checking it off, because you’ve saved yourself the
- Log your done items. Like any good assistant,
you want to show the Boss exactly much you’ve gotten done. Make sure
you stow your done items somewhere so you can revel in your own
productivity. Also, your “done” list is a great indicator of whether or
not your to-do list is working: if more than 2 days goes by without a
new done item? It’s time to revamp your to-do list and get back to best