12 Tips to Keep Your To-do List Short, as Well as UsefulAUTHOR: Francisco Sáez
The main function of a to-do list is to get you organized and easy, knowing that you do not forget anything. But if you let it grow without care, it can produce an entirely different effect. A long list can ruin your sense of control and become a source of stress and frustration.
It is very difficult for you to focus on what you have to do when your to-do list is endless. Selecting the next task to do among hundreds of possible next actions is a rather overwhelming experience and, in these circumstances, it is likely you do not choose the most desirable option. Let’s face it, if you have a hundred tasks in your to-do list, you are not going to get them all done. You will do a few, and probably not the ones you should.
The shorter your next actions list is, the easier it will be for you to get focused on what you really need to do. Also, keep in mind that leaving every day a long pending to-do list has a negative psychological effect that will prevent you from fully enjoying your leisure time. It will seem like you have no right to have fun knowing you still have so much to do.
Therefore, in order to be really productive and keep stress at bay, you need a next actions list as short as possible. Here are a dozen tips that will help you achieve this in a smart way.
1. Do not be afraid to use the trash
Clearly, to have the security and peace of mind that you will not forget anything, you must somehow capture everything that comes to your mind. But that does not mean that everything that you capture is necessary, interesting or actionable.
When you are processing the material you have collected, ask yourself if it is something really necessary in your life or in your work, and if you want to make a commitment in this regard. If in doubt, trash it! If it turns out that eventually it was something you had to do, it will return later, in a more obvious way.
Do not accumulate meaningless tasks. When you review your list of next actions and realize there are some tasks there forever, consider again their necessity. Use the trash.
2. Use another list for uncommitted actions
There are tasks that you do not yet know whether you are going to do them or not. If you include them all in the same list, they will distract you from what you really need to do. Move those tasks that you still have not committed to get done to another list for “uncommitted actions” (if you practice GTD, that will be the Someday/Maybe list).
Review this list weekly. If something does not longer make sense, delete it. If you have acquired the commitment—internal or external—to do any of the actions that are there, move them to your next actions list.
3. You do not need to have all the actions of a project at sight
Ok, you have already realized that, to achieve a certain commitment, you must do several actions. Let’s call a project to this set of actions that will lead you to achieve a particular result. As you may not be doing all the actions of a project at a time, it does not make sense to have them all in your next actions list. They generate too much noise.
You only need to include the first task of each project in your to-do list. When it is done, remove it and add the following project task (always indicating the project to which it belongs). Logically, this means having an additional list of projects, with information about their tasks.
4. Live in the present
Surely, a good part of your next actions—already committed—do not need to get done within the next weeks, or even months. These future actions also add unnecessary noise to your to-do list, so you should hide them for now.
David Allen proposes an elegant solution for this: keep your future actions in a Tickler File sorted by date, so you can easily activate them when the time comes. You must review this place weekly and move the new activated tasks to your next actions list.
5. Separate actions from non-actions
Your to-do list should contain only actions. Everything else—ideas, information, reference material, etc.—should be elsewhere. Use other lists for these things (if you practice GTD, use the Reference Material list for further information, and the Someday/Maybe list to keep your ideas alive).
6. Actually, your to-do list is a subset of your to-do list
Say you have a list of 30 tasks and are in a cafe with a notebook and an iPad with internet access. How many of these 30 tasks are “eligible” in these circumstances?
Label all your tasks with the context in which they can be carried out. When you need to pick one, filter your list with the context in which you find yourself. That shorter and more focused list is, actually, your real next actions list.
7. Make a simple estimation of times
Let’s go back to the previous case, and now add the constraint that you will stay in the cafe for just 30 minutes, because then you have to go to a meeting. If you marked your tasks with an estimated time (not always possible, but you know how long some recurring tasks will take), you can further reduce your list, filtering out those that need more than 30 minutes to get done.
8. Mark the tasks that require low energy
You can still refine further when you are tired at the end of the day or simply do not find the energy needed to run complicated things. In these cases, you could filter only the actions that require low energy (replying to an email, making a call, reading an article…) and take advantage of those moments.
As in previous cases, think that, in reality, your next actions list is usually a subset of the actual list.
9. Label your tasks well
Besides contexts, add to your tasks any tag that will allow you to sort and then filter them, by any criteria that is useful to you.
10. Use MITs (most important tasks)
A productive way to prepare your day is by selecting the most important tasks (MITs) that must be done in the day. Normally they will be one, two or three tasks. Since the beginning of the day until you have completed those tasks, your list of MITs becomes your to-do list.
11. Remove the tasks already done asap
Once you have completed a task, check it off and remove it from your list—or archive it. In addition to reducing the size of the list, finishing tasks is the ultimate purpose of your personal organization and, therefore, it generates a positive reinforcement in your productive habits.
12. Choose the right tool
Unfortunately, it is too hard to carry out all these things with just paper and pencil. You need a good tool accessible from any place that allows you to have the necessary lists and make the necessary movements among them. Your tool should allow you to assign contexts, tags, estimated times and energy levels to your tasks, and filter through all these concepts. It would also be interesting the ability to mark important tasks.
Your tool should help you manage your projects in combination with your lists of tasks, and it should activate automatically the new tasks, not only coming from projects but also from the Tickler File.
In short, your to-do list needs a good dose of realism and precision to be useful. With the right attitude and the right tool, your next actions list can be the key to a more relaxed life.