It's all too easy, when burdened down with work and stressed out, to let your to-do list get a little unruly. A sloppy to-do list, however, is a source of much stress and wasted effort. Whip your task list into shape.
An disorganised and unfocused to-do list is a bigger productivity hurdle than not having a to-do list at all. If you don't have a to-do list at all, you simply do the thing in front of you that is the most pressing. It might not be a stress-free method but it's immediate and uncluttered. A novel sized to-do list however is confusing, it doesn't show you what is important and urgent, and it spreads your time and creative energy thinly over lots of incomplete and unprocessed ground. It's time to take a hard look at your to-do list and do some spring pruning.
Define the Boundaries of Your To-Do List to Find What Needs to Be Pruned
If asked what your to-do list was for, you would likely response "for writing done stuff I have to do". but if asked what it wasn't for what would you say? Everyone has the "put stuff you want to do on the list" part down pat, but by not defining the boundaries and limitations of the to-do list you condemn it to becoming something it isn't and cannot effectively be. Identify the to-do list refugees highlighted below and cut them from your list. Photo by cliff1066.
Your To-Do List Is Not a Dumping Ground: You should not be using your to-do list as your brain storming/thought capturing zone. Ubiquitous capture — writing down all your stray thoughts, bits of information and ideas — is an excellent habit to have, but if you're capturing right to your to-do list, you're throwing yourself under the bus before you even get your sleeves rolled up. Your to-do list must remain separate from whatever capturing process you use. Go through your list and convert the "dumped" items into actions that belong on your to-do list or remove them.
Your To-Do List is Not a Wish List: Don't put things on your wish list that you want to do. You need to contact two important clients before the end of the business week regarding projects you're working on for them? That's an to-do list entry. It needs to be done. You want to landscape your backyard to be butterfly and wild bird friendly? That's a wish, not a necessary task. Unless this is the weekend you're planning on starting the butterfly garden project and you have a concrete task to do — buying native wild flower seeds and planting them — then it doesn't belong on your to-do list.
The issue isn't that you're not allowed to have non-critical wishes and planning; those things are important. The issue is that they don't belong on your immediate list of tasks. Park them in a "someday-maybe" list, write them down on index cards and put them in a recipe box you pull out once a month to review your wish list, but don't allow them on your active list. Your to-do list is not for daydreaming about butterfly gardens, it's about mercilessly attacking things that need to be done in the present so you can enjoy puttering in your garden in the future. Photo by Antonio Machado.
Your To-Do List Is Not for Ambiguous Tasks: Never, ever, put a "task" on your to-do list that isn't something that someone else would have trouble picking up your list and doing based on the entry. "Computer stuff", "clean up", and "email Bill" are ambiguous and not easily converted into action. If your coworker had to take over your to-do list for the day because you were absent, how exactly would they deduce what they were supposed to email to Bill? Absolutely do not rely on your memory for filling in the gaps of your to-do list. Not only is it a bad practice — memory is imperfect — but it's a waste of your time. You shouldn't have to spend 1-2 seconds remembering exactly what you were going to email Bill about every time you look at your to-do list. Your to-do list should only contain items which can be acted on in an immediate and clear manner. "Email Bill regarding the expense reports for the Ming portfolio and request copies of client reimbursements" is a clear task and one that someone helping you could carry out. Go through your to-do list and clarify any ambiguous tasks.
Your To-Do List Is Not for Motivation: Your to-do list is not a motivational tool. Don't put easy tasks on it just to check them off. Don't put vague habit-related tasks on there like "exercise" or "drink eight glasses of water a day". Exercising and staying well hydrated are important, sure, but they aren't critical daily tasks and more importantly they dilute the power of your to-do list. You should feel confident that when you look at your list of tasks you're looking at a list of effective next actions that are efficient use of your time. You want to keep the tasks on your list immediate and important. You don't want any part of your mind to think that the list is fluff, that it's not serious business. You write stuff down because you want to get it done in a concrete and tangible way, not because you like looking at a piece of paper and remembering how you don't have enough time in your work week to hit the gym. Photo by mikebaird.
Your To-Do List is Not a Task Graveyard: Most of all, don't leave tasks on there to linger a slow death while you feel guilty for not doing them. If a task has been on your to-do list for an extended period of time and it hasn't gotten done and nobody has fired you, condemned your house or put your dog down, it's quite probable that the task wasn't important to begin with and it's certainly not getting more urgent. None of us has enough time to get everything done we want to get done. There is little sense in keeping prehistoric tasks on your list to be aimlessly shuffled around. This bit of advice might seem so obvious it hurts, but people that cling to outdated tasks, like crossing them off without accomplishing them, is tantamount to failure. Knowing when something isn't important and isn't worth your physical and mental energy is just as important as knowing when it's time to commit yourself to a task. Photo by Qole Pejorian.
If you take the time to go through your to-do list with the above list hazards in mind, you'll surely find at least a handful — if not many, many, more — tasks that belong somewhere else, aren't tasks at all or have grown so old they desire a retirement. Your to-do list isn't just a simple list — it's a commitment you make to yourself to get things done and to be a productive person. Take the time today to prune your list and make sure your tasks are the important ones that you should be investing your energy into.
Have a favourite rule of thumb or trick for trimming your to-do list? Let's hear about it in the comments.