The Invaluable To-Do List
An essential tool for managing a busy
life is the "to-do" list. It's essential, but it can be frustrating
as well, when the list gets unmanageably long. When there are hundreds of
items, people tend to give up on maintaining their list.
One of the areas where the most
inefficiency creeps in to a busy life is in responding to the perennial
decision of a busy life: "What should I do next?" On the one hand,
deciding to do something that isn't very important can cause important
opportunities to be missed or obligations to be unmet. On the other hand,
spending too much time deciding can be worse yet, leaving essentially nothing
accomplished. Yet another pitfall is that you can find yourself biting off more
than you can chew, taking on a project that is too big for present
circumstances, and bringing on still more tasks.
An example of taking on more than you
can really manage on the home front, which we have seen several times, is the
furniture-refinishing project that can take up a lot of space for months or
even years. Even though it could be completed in only a week or so of concerted
effort., if you haven't got any prospect of finding that week, you are setting
yourself up not for the pleasure of accomplishment and delight in beauty but
for an ongoing source of frustration and clutter, If you have neither a lot of
time nor a lot of space, wouldn't you have been better off letting someone else
pick up that bargain?
The standard tools for organizing a
busy life are the calendar and the to-do list. The idea is this: when you think
of something to do, you simply wrote it down on the to-do list. When you sit
down to plan your week or your month, you look at your list and slot items from
it into your schedule. If you maintain this strategy, you will have a
systematic way of thinking about what you need to get done, and deciding when
to do it.
That helps a lot, and if you are busy
and aren't already using the to-do list method, we strongly recommend that you
take it up. Still, to-do lists won't necessarily help you find time to refinish
that old buffet. Here are some of the reasons to-do lists may not be enough,
and some suggestions on how to improve your strategies.
Problems of Scale: The Endless List
It's not rare for to-do lists to get
out of hand. When there are hundreds of items on your to-do list, the
"listless" feeling of doing whetever comes to mind in a frazzled sort
of way gets replaced by an "over-listful" feeling of having so many
things on your plate that you can't imagine which one to tackle next. The list
itself may become a burden on your time.
There are two reasons for a list to
keep growing, and it's important to keep in mind the distinction. In one case,
you are just starting to use a formal list, and things keep getting added as
you think of them. You can expect the list to grow for a while, and you may be
surprised at how many things you already intend to do. Building the list,
unflinchingly, is a good way to come to grips with what is on your
The other case is that you really are
falling behind. If you habitually promise mroe than you can deliver, your list
will keep growing indefinitely. If you find that to be the case, you will need
to make a decision about what you can delegate (can you afford, say, a maid
service?) or what you need to drop. Be realistic, It's better to decide what to
drop than just embarassingly fail to do some things without considering which
things don't get done.
It's possible to have a very long
list without falling behind. This has some practical problems - a paper list is
especially hard to maintain, but even a computerized list with hundreds of
items on it is unwieldy and time-consuming to manage. If your list is long,
even if it's very very very long, don't panic. It's possible to be effective
even with a very large number of tasks in your queue. All you need to do is to
break the list down into categories.
Solution: Task Categories
If your to-do list is so long that
it's unwieldy, there is a simple solution.There is no reason you need to keep
all your to-dos on a single list. (There is a reason to keep a single
calendar, though - you want to have a single plan since you have only one life
to accomplish your plan!) It can be very helpful, indeed, to have multiple
to-do lists, broken down by category. The default to-do application on the Palm
Pilot has multiple categories. I divide my tasks into "home",
"university", "administration" , "management",
"content" and "community", for instance.
During my weekly planning sessions,
it is much easier to pick the most urgent items from each of my sublists to
slot into my calendar than it would be if they were all on a single list. This
strategy relates to our advice on filing. The human
mind is much more effective with heirarchies than with long lists. Ideally,
have no more than seven categories of to-do items, so that you can remember
them easily. If these too get out of hand, consider subcategories.
Remember, as long as your list isn't
consistently growing, you are keeping up, even if the list is very long.
However, if the list is very long, it will be easier to deal with if you give
it some structure.
Problems of Classification: Projects, Tasks,
Another problem that we see with
to-do lists is that some items on the lists are not really to-dos. A to-do item
is something that can in principle be crossed off in a day. You need to sleep,
so the day is a natural dividing line between tasks and larger objectives,
which we call "projects". Much trouble and frustration arises when
projects get put onto to-do lists.
Here's an example: "call
architect about plumbing issue" is a to-do. "Build extra room on back
of house" is not. There is no way you are going to wake up one morning and
decide "today is the day I get that extra room built". If it sits on
your to-do list along with "buy Malibu Barbie for niece" and
"call accountant regarding tax rebate", it won't ever get slotted
into your calendar, and it won't ever get done.
A project may generate many tasks,
which in turn go from your to-do list onto your calendar. But a project is
something that you cannot expect to deal with in a short period of time.
Another sort of item which clogs up
to-do lists is the repeating task. We call it a "routine". A simple
example is taking out the trash every week. "Take out trash on
Thursday" hopefully only takes a small fraction of a day, but it happens
weekly. It would be better to keep it out of your to-do list, because for
planning purposes you already have enough to think about.
Solution Part I: Default Calendar
We discussed the advantages of a
default calendar in last month's essay. This is where
your weekly and daily routines belong. It is also possible to have rotating
slots for monthly and quarterly routines. Or you can consider putting these
less frequent items directly in your calendar when you plan out a year. Don't
clutter up your to-do list with items that you need to handle regularly.
Solution Part II: Project Portfolio
The idea of a "project
portfolio" came to me from one of Tom Peters' overenthusiastic
new-capitalism books. He mentions it in passing, in a way that makes it seem a
natural part of his corporate culture. It helped me pin a name on a concept for
something like a to-do list that applies to larger items. Think of each pending
project as a file, and the whole set of projects as a portfolio.
Managing your project portfolio
requires several steps. First of all, you need to make a realistic assessment
of which projects can be considered active, that you are currently dedicating a
serious fraction of your time to. Decide how many hours each project requied to
to allow meaningful progress, and slot that project into the available hours in
your week after the routines are scheduled.
Once you have decided which projects
are active, you need to generate tasks from them to put into your to-do list,
and then to put into your calendar. Formally, you can imagine a planning
session for each project occasionally. In practice, most people tend to think
about active projects often enough that a stream of to-dos gets
This may seem a bit ovecomplicated at
first, but this distinction between tasks, projects, and routines can greatly
clarify time management strategies once you get the hang of it.
Problems of Follow-up
Finally, especially if tasks are
generated from projects, there is often a follow-up problem. There may be a
next item in a sequence that someone else can accomplish once you complete your
task. Be sure to remember to inform that person or you will have gone to the
trouble for no reason! We often run into this sequence-breaking in work group
settings. It can also apply to yourself.
For instance, suppose you did talk to
the architect about the plumbing problem. What happens next? Do you call the
plumber? Does the architect call the plumber? Suppose it's the latter. How long
should you wait until you decide that the architect has forgotten and you need
to remind him?
Solution: Think when you cross it out
What are the implications of
finishing a to-do item? The time to think about it is exactly at the moment
when you cross it out. Is the ball in someone else's court? Think of a date by
which you expect to have them accomplish their part, and write yourself a note
to remind the other person on that date if you haven't heard back. Is the next
task your own? Write it in your to-do list immediately.
Many existing organizing tools are
not well-suited for this sort of follow-up, though the salesmen's PIM software
like Goldmine and Act! do manage it. Still, it's an important concept even for
those of us who aren't in sales. Many of your to-do list items are part of a
sequence. If you take the time to think for a few seconds about the sequence
when you complete an item, you'll be much less likely to drop the sequence, and
get more done in a timely way.
We can help.
Efficiency Consultants can help you sort out what you need to do and when you need
to do it. Please feel free to get in touch with us. We work with you to devise
strategies that work for you and your unique circumstances. We don't just find
methods that could work in theory, we find methods that you can actually enjoy,
so that you will succeed with them in practice. Get in touch with us. We can
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