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How To Ensure To-Do Lists Don’t Overrun Your Life

Dear Justin,

I have always been a list maker. This has served me well over the years. I’m getting older now and find that I make lists over and over and tend to have multiple lists—on my desk, in my pockets, etc. What can I do to either organize my lists or keep just one list that has it all?

List Of Lists

Dear List of Lists,

You know you’re busy when your lists have lists—or you have sticky notes to remind yourself to look at other sticky notes.

I suspect you’re mixing up the tools you use to “capture” new inputs and the tools you use to “organize” the actions you want to take. This may be why you are losing tasks and actions on many different lists. Here are some insights to consider.

1. Have Capture Tools

You need some tools where you can capture and record ideas, tasks, commitments, insights, etc. These tools do NOT comprise a to-do list. They work more like nets. If you’re on the run and need to capture an idea you want to take action on, but don’t have the time to think about the first step or when you want to start, you need a tool to capture that idea. Capturing allows you to go on with your day and be present, and at the same time not lose track of something you may want to act on later. This “capture tool” can be a notepad, the notes app on your phone, or an email you send to yourself. Those are just a few examples. Have at least one capture tool you keep with you always.

2. Have Just a FEW Capture Tools

Most people have fifteen to twenty tools where they receive or capture inputs. They have multiple email addresses, piles o’ junk on their desk and kitchen table, a purse, a wallet, several apps, in-trays, sticky notes galore, and voicemail. With so many tools capturing inputs, it’s no wonder people drop balls and miss details. There is no way that you could remember to process all the inputs in every one of those tools on a regular basis. So, things get missed.

Try this challenge. Limit your number of capture tools to fewer than five. As you do, I promise you’ll stress less about missing things and have a clearer view of your FULL inventory of commitments. There are several ways you might reduce your number of capture tools. For example, you could automatically combine inputs (auto-forward emails from a few inboxes to one); you could direct inputs yourself to a chosen tool (after you get a business card at a conference, write a quick note on it and then email a picture of the card to yourself rather than dropping the card in a briefcase, bag, or purse only to get lost); or you could let others know where to leave inputs. As a case in point, my voicemail was once a place where people would leave inputs for me. But I rarely checked it. It was frustrating for them and stressful for me. So I changed my voicemail message to say “Hi, this is Justin. I don’t check my voicemail often, but I’m happy to help. If you could email me at ### I’ll get my attention on your request in the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours.” By doing this I was saying, “This voicemail inbox is not one of my chosen capture tools, but if you put your request in my chosen capture tool, I am much more likely to help you—and help you more quickly.” It was better for them and me.

3. The Right Lists

Once you’ve reduced your number of capture tools, consider your number of to-do lists. I often advise people to have as many lists as they need to reflect the complexity of their lives, but no more. I also suggest people keep lists according to context—where the action needs to happen. So you might have a list for actions that can only be completed @home, and a list of actions that can only be completed @work, or a list of things you want to buy @grocery store. For every context, have a list. Separating your to-dos this way can make life easier. To address your original concern, I would suggest keeping all these lists in one location. The lists are separate but the location singular, so you don’t have to look all over to find them. Maybe you use an app that keeps all your lists. It doesn’t mean you look at personal stuff at work. You only look at the lists related to where you are or what you need in a given moment. Consider context, then act from the corresponding list.

Bonus Tip—for those going crazy with oversized lists. One way to simplify things for yourself is to do what I call an “agreement audit.” Take a moment and write on one large sheet of paper every single agreement you’ve made (work and home). Knowing you can’t bend time and do everything in the short term, go through each task and ask yourself, “Is this something I should DO, DECLINE, or RENEGOTIATE?” Make a decision about each, then take action. If you’re skeptical of this approach, let me ask you which is worse: not doing the tasks while pretending you might, or proactively getting in front of them and working on a plan?

Bonus Video—for fun. About this time last year, my team went out and asked people to share what pressing to-dos and tasks held their attention most. The answers we received are quite funny and relatable. Enjoy the video here.

Best Regards,

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4 thoughts on “How To Ensure To-Do Lists Don’t Overrun Your Life”

  1. Karen Wells

    Super helpfu. My best tool for last year was the To – DON’T list.

  2. Laura G.

    Your response was a good start, but I’d also add that there are some great apps out there that can be used for list making and even some that can be shared with others, to make those to-do lists even more useful. For example, my husband and I use the Keep Notes app for grocery lists and lists for certain stores (like Walmart) so that we can both add items to those lists and whoever goes to that store next knows what they need to get there. I also use Keep and another app, ColorNote, to keep track of errands and chores I need to accomplish.

    On more of a work note, I keep my main work to-do list in Excel. My spreadsheet has seven columns. The first column is for the things I need to do. The next three columns are columns I use to help prioritize my to-dos — in each column, I rate each item (on a scale of 1-3) by how urgent it is, how important it is, and how quick it is to do it. This is followed by a Total column that adds up the values from the previous three columns. (I then sort within each “tied” total by ranking the quick-to-dos first, followed by the urgent, then by the important, but sometimes I’ll change the order around manually, if I don’t think the result reflects the actual order I need to do the stuff in well enough.) The sixth column is where I put the completed date. The final column allows me to add any comments I might have about the to-do item. I know this all sounds kinda complicated, but it really isn’t, once you get the hang of it. I also have a Completed tab in that workbook, to which I transfer items once they’re done. This makes for an easy place to check for my accomplishments when performance review time rolls around!

    Finally, I recently found a Chrome browser add-in called Momentum. Each time I open a new “blank” tab, I get a nice, varying, background picture with a place for me to type in my main focus for the day and another place to put a little mini to-do list (which I use for more immediate to-dos). It also displays the time, temperature at my location, and a daily quote. (I think all of that is configurable, if you don’t want to have all of those things.)

    The nice things about using technology to keep to-do lists is that a) they’re less likely to get lost, b) they can be shareable, and c) it’s easier to move items around and/or change them.

    Oh, and here’s one last tip that my husband taught me….when making a to-do list, put “make to-do list” on the list so you have something you can cross off right away when you’re done making the list, lol! 😉

  3. Anita L.

    I’ll investigate the tools Laura G. suggests, but does anyone else have some suggested tools to help organize? I need something where I can organize My To-Do’s (and see them by project category OR priority OR due date), My Ideas (by project category), My items to bring up with others (by person or by meeting title). I’ve tried OneNote, but with no success and haven’t found any other online tool that isn’t calendar based. All the notebook-like planners I look at are calendar based and not what I can use. Perhaps I just have to invent the ultimate app!

  4. Bernd C.

    I want to re-emphasize Justin’s point: It is about how you process all your inputs and how you transform them into actionable items (only a handful of capture tools to make sure you captured everything, process them regularly into your action lists by context and use those lists to guide your actions).
    Technology comes second! While it has all the advantages Laura mentioned, it should serve you and not the other way around.
    As an example, I do use a combination of a paper-based planner (where i physically write down what i want to do daily and weekly) and the Task list in Outlook (we use it in our company, so i did not want to have my to-do lists somewhere else), categorized by context and role.
    To Anita’s question: You can have your “items to bring up with others” as separate contexts in your To-Do list.
    This approach works rather well for me both privately and professionally, while I know i can improve on that.

    And on Laura’s final comment (Have an action “Make To-Do list” on your to-do list): That should be part of your Weekly Review and i would put this as a recurring meeting with myself on my calendar.

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