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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 plate.

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, Routines

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 generated.

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.

Ducks-in-a-Row ® 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 help.

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