What goes on your to-do lists?

This is the fourth post covering how to organize all of the stuff in your head. For some context, you’ll want to check out the previous three posts: here and here and here.

Assuming you’ve been following along – at this point you’ve got all your project and reference lists in order, so you’re left with figuring out what goes on your to-do lists. I’ll talk about that today, and then in my next post try to tie all of these disparate ideas together so you can have a sense of how my task system operates.

Prioritizing your task lists (and deciding what gets to go on them) requires a bit of thinking. It’s important to keep in mind why you’re making lists in the first place. When I first started organizing all of the stuff I wanted to do, I was under the impression that it would turn me into some sort of super-human who would accomplish 20x more than a mere mortal.

But instead I’ve grown to learn, mostly the hard way, that having a task-management system isn’t really about accomplishing X amount more stuff every day. It’s more about accomplishing the right stuff more efficiently at the right time, and not being so worried that you’re not doing the right thing.

I would put it this way: Task-management lets you be certain you’re doing the best thing at the right time, and lets you stop stressing about what you ought to be doing – both when you’re at work and also when you should be chilling out.

The goal is clarity. If you don’t have a few lists you can glance at quickly to see what needs done you aren’t doing it right. You want to make decisions like the following:

“I want to go get a pizza with my friends but I sure seem to have a lot to do. Is any of that crucial or important for my long terms success?”

“I know I need to accomplish a lot today, but my time is limited. What should I focus on?”

“Should I spend an extra hour doing odds and ends, or should I just call it a day?”

If your system can’t let you quickly and easily answer those questions, you aren’t doing it right. Keeping that in mind, let me tell you about my to-do lists:

1) Top Priority

These are things that need to be done within the next few days. I try to keep this list no bigger than 6 things and review it once or more a day. If I’m not sure about whether something is important enough for this list, I can use this rule of thumb: Would I be willing to lose money if this didn’t get accomplished this week?

2) Second Priority

This is pretty self-explanatory. This is stuff that is important but the world won’t end if I don’t get this stuff done within a week. I review it every day though to see if anything needs promoted up to the Top Priority list.

3) Important but for weekly review

I guess I’m not very creative with my names. This is stuff that is important…but I’ll review it in a week.

4) Would be Nice Maybe Someday

I glance at this list about every month or so. If you didn’t read last Friday’s post on how this list functions, you can check it out here.

5) Every Day List

These are odds and ends that need to be reviewed every day. Anything from meditation to watering the plants to calling the folks. I try to keep this list fairly short because else it is daunting and useless. A good rule of thumb: Do I actually need reminded of this or will it occur naturally in the course of the day because of my daily routine? By the way, part of this list has a section for little odds and ends that I need to take care of but that aren’t that urgent.

What goes on what list?

As you start populating your to-do lists, you need to make some decisions about the difference between these different priority levels. Here are a few tips:

  • Try to keep the first three lists at 6 items or less.

This is tough but I’ve found with anything longer, especially on my “Top Priority” list, the function becomes lost. You want to be able to glance at these lists and get a very quick sum of what’s important in your life right now.

  • Remember that you will be reviewing your projects every week

If you’re scared that something that isn’t on a to-do list will be forgotten forever, don’t fret. You can always move things around during your daily and weekly reviews! The point of having everything grouped by project is that when you regularly review it you can quickly see what is important to your overall plan.

  • Sometimes you can even put an entire project as a to-do item.

For example, one project list most of us has is a “Shopping List”. The project of going shopping has lots of stuff you want to pick up…celery, green beans, chips, ice-cream, chicken, whatever. But it wouldn’t make any sense to put all of those items on your “Top Priority” list. Instead you just write “Shopping” as an item in itself.

On the other hand, if one of your project lists was a business plan and a crucial component of that plan, say “Call Bob about the do-jangle configuration specs”, had to be met this week, then it wouldn’t make sense to just write “Business Plan” on your list – you’d want to be more specific and hone in by having “Call Bob about the do-jangle configuration specs” in a place where you would see it every day.

So there you have it. Good luck figuring out what to do with your to-do lists. On Monday I’ll show you my actual setup in Evernote  and how you can tie everything together into a functional system!


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