You mind is for having ideas not holding them - david allen quote

Who doesn’t want to be more productive?

I have the tendency to forget things if I don’t write them down, so it is super important to me that I have a system to manage all the balls in the air. This need has become more pronounced as I become responsible for more things, both at home and at work, so finding a good way to organize my thoughts has been a priority for me recently.

Many busy people struggle with maintaining their “to do” lists. For some, it’s an issue of organization, while for other it’s the actual completion (or lack thereof) of items on their list that causes problems. It’s easy to feel frustrated when it seems like tasks are continually added to the list, yet managing to carry out fewer items than the ones you’ve added.  And with all the churning on tasks, still feeling like your bright ideas are getting lost in the daily shuffle.

Luckily, an effective task management strategy can change all of that. By making some key decisions about how to organize, prioritize, and execute the tasks you need to accomplish every day (or week, or month) you make it possible to get them all done.

Everybody’s brain works differently, so what makes sense for me might not make sense for you. However, the right combination of strategies will help make sure you are achieving the goals you want for yourself.  There are books written on these topics (and my system definitely leverages parts of Getting Things Done).  This post is filled with a few of my favorite ideas for jumpstarting your personal to do list; feel free to share and add your own in the comments!

You mind is for having ideas not holding them - david allen quote


Focus on action items.

A good to do list is clear and actionable. If you can make your to do list specific, you’ll have a better idea of exactly what you need to do, when you need to do it, and how long it should take.

For example, “prepare for meeting” is probably a common entry on a lot of people’s to do lists. On a really effective to do list, though, “prepare for meeting” is actually broken down into items like:

  • Email admin to confirm meeting time and location
  • Find images for 5 remaining slides
  • Send meeting agenda to exec team
  • Research how to solve weird IE layout issue

Breaking down major tasks into smaller, actionable tasks enables you to see the full scope of the work. Cross off each action as it is completed, so you always know what’s remaining and what’s already been done (and I love crossing things off because it gives me a sense of accomplishment).

This tip was critical for me to make progress on bigger work items.  For example, I am participating in Sys Advent this year – and instead of “Write Sys Advent Blog Post” which is doable, but quite large, I represented that work item as 4 tasks on my list: pick topic for blog post, research other blog posts on that topic, come up with an outline for the post, and write the post.


Combine and batch similar tasks.

Look for ways to save time by combining tasks that require similar actions, even if they’re for unrelated projects.

For example, if you have emails to respond to for an upcoming event, consider blocking out that same time to also answer emails from blog readers and respond to LinkedIn mail. Setting aside specific times to deal with your emails and communication means that (ideally) you won’t be interrupted throughout the day as new messages come in.   After all (and I forget where I heard this) email means you are working on someone else’s priorities and schedule – not your own.

If you can plan to focus your energy on one task at a time, you’ll do that task more effectively than you would jump from one task to another.  Be strategic about how you schedule your time.  Block time off on the calendar like you would any other appointment, it is amazing how much progress can be made with a little discipline.

You can also use this strategy to get weekly or monthly goals accomplished in one go. Whenever possible, it’s almost always easier and more efficient to do a multistep task all at once and not spread it out across a few days, or weeks.


Make a list that’s practical, not optimistic.

How many times have we all written out an overly ambitious to do list the night before, only to run around like crazy the next day feeling like catching up is nearly impossible?

This happens because most of us don’t really know how long it takes us to do things. If you estimate how long it takes you to, say, type up your meeting notes into a Word document, your estimate is probably way under the real time. Start using a timer to clock yourself doing regular tasks today, and incorporate this information into future to do lists.

Take note of how often you feel like you need a break too. Planning a day without allocating any time to stop or eat creates a schedule that is going to be impossible to adhere to. If you set unrealistic limits for yourself then you are setting yourself up to fail.

Instead of cramming in as much as you can every day, plan for fewer activities with more high quality cycles devoted to them. Your output is better when you have time to breathe (and actually gets worse as you exhaust yourself).

One great tip from GTD is to create a someday list.  That way you have a place for your ideas or things you want to find time to do, but the extra items don’t clutter or distract from your key priorities.  I find this is crucial for me.  Every month or so I go through my someday list and I find all these good ideas and things I just need to make time for, and some stuff I may never get to doing, the key is having a place to put these items.


Seek opportunities to delegate.

Making a to do list that’s realistic doesn’t mean you have to start slashing projects to make time for others. Instead, look for items on your daily list that don’t need to be done by you. Focus your energies on the places they are making the biggest impacts and outsource as much of the rest as possible.

Delegating is a key tool for professional success, but it’s often ignored as a tool for personal success. What I mean is the power delegating has to make you a happier person by eliminating a task you don’t like or which isn’t a good use of your time, and freeing you up to pursue activities that utilize your best skills or just bring you the most pleasure.

Years ago, I used to feel constantly frustrated with myself that I wasn’t cleaning my house enough. It was always on my to do list, but I always procrastinated and didn’t do it because I just hated that chore. I was stuck in this terrible cycle where I was frustrated living in a dirty house (no one will notice the crumbs under the toaster, right?) but I also wasn’t cleaning because I didn’t like it.

Then I hired a housekeeper. Suddenly, I didn’t have to feel frustrated that this task wasn’t getting done and I allowed myself to focus my energy on work that I really wanted to do.  And she does a better job cleaning than I could ever do (yay for having a clean fridge even on the inside!).  What are you frustrated by that someone can help you with? Find ways to make your life easier and prioritize.


Write a long-term to do list, too.

I have a million ideas for things I want to do, but when they’re all just whirring around my head it’s completely overwhelming to imagine myself actually achieving all of them. That’s why I like the idea of making lists of goals in a long-term to do list as well.

Writing down your goals makes them concrete and real, and real goals are achievable. I like the technique described in this post for creating long-term lists of goals:

  • Capture how you spend (and how you want to spend) your time. Make three lists: what do you want to do, what would you like to do, and what are you doing now?
  • Analyze for critical mass. Your lists are probably pretty long and your goals probably need a lot of focused effort to achieve. (Meaning: you probably don’t have time to be working on every single one every day.) Identify what you can work on today, and what you can put off.
  • Put some ideas in the “icebox”. Odds are, the list of things you want to do or would like to do are pretty long lists of disparate goals. Look for goals with common threads, and brainstorm ways to focus your energy. What items on the “doing now” list can you rework today to put one of your “want to do” items into action?

I even take this one step further by putting dates and deadlines on my goals too. It’s a great way to ensure I give priority to things that mean a lot to me, since it is so easy to push things to the back burner as daily life happens.

Try to find ways to incorporate progress towards these goals into your daily and weekly to do lists too; if one of your goals is to run a marathon next spring, make sure regular workouts and runs are part of your daily to do lists right now, for example. Setting deadlines helps you put goals into action by keeping them at the front of your mind when you’re making daily decisions in your life.

Deadlines also give you a reason to check back in with your long-term to do list. As you make progress, it’s important to revisit your list and see what new goals you can leverage as you accomplish old ones.


Tips for creating a better to do list:

  • Revisit. This is a big one. If you put an idea on your to-do list but never go back to it, you probably won’t get to it. A good to-do list is where you dump all your plans, but it should also be where you go first when you’re ready to take action.
  • Prioritize. Putting tasks in a logical order will help you accomplish tasks efficiently. Schedule high-energy tasks for the times of day when you have the most energy, and look for ways to combine activities. Don’t be afraid to re-prioritize during the day if situations change.
  • Manage your incoming tasks.  Have a plan to manage incoming items.  Whether you use Evernote, email (hello, Inbox Zero – which I also use for managing my email but not tasks), OneNote, Things (this is what I use, but there are free options like Wunderlist that are almost as good) having a strategy that works multi-device (since you won’t always be at your computer), or that you can take with you everywhere (i.e. a notebook),  to collect ideas and tasks as they come to you is key to not losing track of all those great sparks of inspiration.
    BTW – If you want more suggestions on tools to manage your list check out this great post with 20 different methods to tackle to dos.
  • Estimate. Accurately estimating how much time your activities take you is essential for creating a productive to do list. If you cram in too many things, you’ll get frustrated when only one or two get done or worse, get lots of things done very poorly. Time yourself to see how much time you really need to, such as, write a blog post. 🙂
  • Subtract first, then add. If all you do is add new things to your list, you’ll never feel a sense of accomplishment. Before you add something new to do, look over your list and see if there isn’t a priority already there you should carry out. Can the new task be delayed or combined with an existing to do?
  • Try a not-to-do list. Knowing what you want to accomplish every day is good, but so is knowing what tasks and obligations waste your time. Identify them (constant email-checking, attending meetings with no agenda, etc.) and add them to your not-to-do list; then avoid them at all costs.
  • Notice your successes. To do lists seem never-ending for a lot of people, but you’re probably accomplishing more than you’re giving yourself credit for. Take a moment every once in a while to cross things off your list and remind yourself of your progress. 🙂

For me staying productive is always a challenge.  Moving from being a programmer without many meetings to a manager with lots of meetings, I had to learn to be productive and make tactical progress in 15-minute margins.  Tracking my work and being consistent and diligent has helped me devise a strategy where I can process 300-500 emails a day, complete my tactical work on time, and make progress on more strategic work (like this blog post).



Are you getting everything on your to do list done? What strategies help you keep your to do list manageable? Share your tips and advice in the comments!

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