Quickly jotted or carefully plotted out, to-do lists are a staple of many productivity methods. Yet in the wrong hands, these lists somehow morph from helpful road maps into overfilled energy-wasters. Could it be time to dump the to-do?
Photo by *_Abhi_*
Maybe you were lazy, maybe you had to emergency stop your week in its tracks. Either way you haven't kept up on your to-do routine for a few days and now you're repaying every precious second with interest. If you use something similar to the Gmail GTD Inbox, your whole inbox might be experiencing post-holiday email buildup. If you stick with pen-and-paper for your to-dos but let things pile up on your desk for a couple of days, it feels like you've been ignoring the mailman. Except that unlike your email or snailmail buildup, you can't simply take your whole to-do list and dump it into the trash...can you?
As Gina once said, successful to-do list requires purging:
Just like you should be able to see what tasks are top priority on your to-do list, you should be able to see what items have been on your list the longest as well. Chances are you've got some mental blockage around the tasks that have been sitting around forever, and they've got to be re-worded or broken down further. Or perhaps they don't need to get done after all. Deleting an item from your to-do list is even better than checking it off, because you've saved yourself the effort.
Today I'm taking Gina's advice to a bit of an extreme and encouraging you to try the same: Rather than spending the day sorting through a flood of tasks drowning every category to find the ones which can go, I'll be dumping my inbox-based to-do list entirely and taking a completely fresh start:
That is my moment of bliss. By tomorrow, a new to-do list will be taking form gradually and I'll add the important tasks in, but today I'm saving myself a hell of a lot of time by starting off fresh. Am I running the risk of missing a task or to-do item? Yes. Will that task have been significant? Most likely not. The productive time I'm gaining by taking the risk of skipping the tasks which would be purged in a few days to begin with is worth it. And there are always e-mail archives for reference, just as there are filing cabinets for physical to-do/GTD materials.
Since I'm the kind of person whose to-do list almost always hits the over-filled, under-processed stumbling block, dumping my to-do list will become an occasional to-do from now on, as a clean starting point can turn into a productivity booster and give a productivity method of choice the power up it needs. In a perfect world I'd always keep a pristine to-do list, but I'm realistic, and every now and then, this dump is exactly what I need.
If you're not ready to follow my potentially crazy approach and dump your to-do list, despite the safety net of archival methods, then keep in mind that you can at least tweak your routine to be more effective by incorporating could-do lists, did-do lists, or maybe even some paper and sticky pads. No matter which route you take, try to stick with one task at a time in order to actually get through your to-do lists.
Whether you are in fact taking the "dump the to-do" approach, just plain tweaking your routine, or not doing anything at all, I'd love to hear your to-do list methodology or general productivity horror and success stories in the comments. How do you get back into your routine after vacations, emergencies or planned breaks? Do you start with a clean slate or do you stoically battle your way through all the build up? Does it work?