How to manage all the stuff in your head – I

In my last post I wrote about how helpful it is to do a brain dump. But what do you do after you’ve got every “to-do” or “to-think-about” or whatever item down on paper? If you’re like me this is 100+ things…just looking at that paper doesn’t actually help you prioritize your actions.

It turns out there are two steps you need to take:

1) Figure out what sort of stuff it is.
2) Figure out what priority that stuff gets in your life.

In today’s post, I’ll show you how I take care of step one, and in Friday’s post  I’ll show you my system for step two.

There are a lot of opinions on how to organize all of this mental clutter, especially among people in the GTD crowd. The long and short of it though is that you need a way that you can organize all of your tasks, and trust that what is on your “top priority” list is actually your top priority.

Some of the task management systems are, by the way, incredibly complex. I’m sure these work for the people using them, but for me simple is better. I’d rather actually get down to doing some stuff than spending all of my time creating an intricate system. Here’s what works for me:

First of all, I think of my lists as either “Concept Lists” or “Task Lists”.

A “Concept List” is any list that is not prioritized in terms when it needs acted upon. A concept list might include very important stuff, but I haven’t organized it that way – instead it’s organized around a central concept, idea, project, etc. Really common types of concept lists include:

  • Project Lists – Anything that needs done around a specific project. For instance, for my NoBossNinja project I have a file with all sorts of things listed I want to get done in the next couple months – things like site upgrades, blog post ideas, etc. etc. A project list might even evolve from a list of disparate activities into a unified plan, such as a business plan. (Although at this point I wouldn’t spend too much time thinking about any one project since it will distract you.)
  • Reference Lists – Anything I want to remember but around a topic such as “Recreational Activities”, “Stocks to Watch”, “Places to Visit” etc.
  • Daily/Weekly Lists – Stuff I should check on regularly but might need a reminder for, e.g. “Call mom.”

A “Task List” is anything I plan to get done as a matter of priority. (Or if you prefer, within a given timeframe.) This isn’t organized around a central topic, but instead around when I need to get it done in the context of my own life. For instance here’s one of my current tasks lists (my “Top Priority” list if you must know):

  • Blog Post
  • Finances
  • Housing
  • Goal Review
  • Pianoblog Book Update

As you can see, this list has a variety of items on it centered around different projects. But they all get lumped together on my “Top Priority” list because these things happen to be the most important to me at the time.

Anyway, don’t worry too much about the nuances of each different category, but just get that there are two general types of lists: concept lists are centered around a topic, and task lists are centered around what’s most important in your overall life. The takeaway here is that all the “stuff you need to do” falls into different categories.

OK So knowing this, we need to start sorting everything out. You just need to go item by item and put it in one of 6 categories. Take all your “brain dump” items and classify them:

  • Things that can be part of a project
  • Things that aren’t really a larger project but that I need to act on
  • Things that are reference list items
  • Things that are too trivial to record, e.g. “Brush your Teeth”
  • Things that need done regularly but that you might forget e.g. “Call your mom.”
  • Things that are neat ideas but you likely should just let go (your “Someday” list things)

Let’s start organizing some of these categories into lists:

First of all – anything that is “too trivial to record”. Well you know what to do. Get rid of it. If it makes you feel better, make a list somewhere (I use Evernote) called “useless” or whatever and put this stuff here. Then never think of it.

Do something similar with your “Someday list things” Although, I actually keep that list visible so I can review it every month or so.

Anything that can be part of a project, or can be stored as a reference, will go on –  you guessed it – a project list or a reference list. What is the distinction between the two? Project lists have discrete steps and a final goal, reference lists are just there in case you want to look something up. Think of the distinction between “Movies I might want to see someday” and “Find a new home”. You can put something on the movies list just in case you think “Hmm what’s a good movie I haven’t seen?” but you don’t really ever need to check it. On the other hand, if you forget something on the “Find a new home” list for a couple weeks, you might never actually get that new place to live.

Otherwise project lists and reference lists are pretty darn similar. They both revolve around a particular topic. I would say from about 60 or 70 items, you’ll want to create about 10-15 projects and/or references. If you’ve got more than 10 real projects in your life, you probably need to cut down anyway.

At this point, you have nearly everything ready to create some useful to-do lists. You have all your projects and different references on individual lists. You’ve also got a sense of daily tasks you’ll need reminded of, as well as probably some scattered things that need done that aren’t really a part of larger projects.

The big remaining step is to clarify your actions by creating to-do lists, which is what we’ll talk about Friday.  Stay tuned!

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