In Monday’s reader mailbag, I answered a question from Marcus about how I manage my time these days. Here’s the question from Marcus, as well as my answer.
I enjoy your occasional articles on time management and the new strategies you are figuring out and utilizing. I thought I would share my simple strategy for managing time and to-dos.
On Sunday night or Monday morning, I make a big to-do list for the week. I make it in Todoist and I have an iPad Mini and an Android phone. So during the work day I keep Todoist open on my iPad Mini on my desk and I check off items as I do them. If something comes up I add it to the list. I tag everything as “work” or “personal” or a few other tags like that so I can see just “work” tasks if I want.
At the start of each day, I make three or so work tasks and three or so personal tasks have a top priority so that they rise to the top of the list.
The weekend free time usually revolves around emptying items off the list so I can have a fresh start on Monday.
That’s a pretty solid way of doing things. In fact, it’s not all that different than how I do things myself these days. I have something of a running to-do list – not a weekly one, per se, but a running one with everything I need or want to do on it – and then each day I pick a handful of items and make them high priority. Usually, a few are work related, a few are household related, and one or two are fun tasks that I’ll enjoy.
Like you, I use Todoist for this, but I have two monitors on my desk. The one on my right always has Todoist open with my to-do list showing. I usually keep it sorted with the high priority stuff on top.
I do a weekly review and delete some items and usually add a few more to it.
However, one thing that’s really useful for me is that I always have a piece of paper and a pen on my desk for jotting down notes and thoughts while I’m working. That kind of free form note taking enables me to jot down almost anything that comes to mind. Then, I deal with what’s on that sheet when I have some downtime and my current task is completed. That strategy just seems to work really well for me.
Several people have sent me follow-up questions related to this question-and-answer with Marcus, so I thought I’d provide a more detailed look at how I manage my time so that I can get as much done as possible.
Not only am I a self-employed writer who is contracted to write tens of thousands of words a week, I’m also a father of three children, a husband who wants to have a strong marriage, a president of a civic organization, a member of the board of other civic organizations, a participant on multiple podcasts, a fledgling entrepreneur, a friend to many people, and I have several hobbies that I want to find time for as well.
That eats a lot of time. I can’t possibly juggle all of those balls without being very careful about my time management. It just doesn’t work without some kind of system in place.
Without a good system, something is going to fail. I’ve been there. During the early days of my professional career, I found things constantly falling through my fingers, just because I didn’t have a good system of keeping track of what I need to do. I failed at entrepreneurship. I failed at being a good husband. I even sometimes failed at work responsibilities.
Those mistakes cost me time, cost me money, lost some opportunities, and damaged relationships, and they all could have been avoided with a good system in place for keeping track of all of the stuff I need to be doing.
To put it simply, time really is money, and making sure you’re using that time effectively ends up equating to money in the bank. A good system makes you more effective at work, more effective at your side gigs, more effective in your personal life, and even makes your social life and hobbies more enriching.
Over the years, I’ve tried many different systems for keeping track of all of the things I need to do. Some work well; others not so much. I find that I’m continually trying new things, reading new articles, and keeping elements from previous systems that have worked for me.
In detail, here’s the system that works for me.
Todoist has become my to-do list manager of choice, supplanting my standby for many years, Remember the Milk. They honestly do mostly the same things – I just find Todoist to be a bit friendlier for the specific features I use.
So, here’s what I do with it.
Whenever any sort of task that I need to complete pops into my mind – no matter what it is – I either jot it down on paper or directly enter it into Todoist. Adding a task to Todoist is really easy: I just switch to the Todoist window on my computer, type “q”, and start typing in the task, hitting return when I’m done. I can enter a new task in a second or two, which is fast enough to keep me from being distracted from my work.
In general, if I’m at my computer, I just enter the task directly into my Todoist app on my computer. If I’m playing with my phone, I enter the task directly into Todoist on my phone. Otherwise, I’ll usually jot it down in a pocket notebook.
Once or twice a day, I’ll page through my pocket notebook and take care of tasks that I’ve jotted down. This usually just consists of moving them into Todoist.
For me, one of the most useful features of Todoist is tagging. Tagging simply means that you can add a “tag” to any task that you add and then, later on, look up tasks by that tag. You can add a tag to any task by simply typing @ followed immediately by the tag you want to add.
So, for example, if I want to tag a task as being something I’m going to do at a computer, I would add @computer. If I want to tag something that I need to pick up at the store, I would add @fareway.
Tags aren’t perfect for every task, of course, but they’re useful in a lot of different ways. I use the tag @waiting on tasks where I’m waiting for something from someone else. I use the tag @ames if I have to drive to Ames for a task, or @desmoines if I have to drive to Des Moines for a task.
Let me give you an example. I know I’m going to have to pick up a prescription for my daughter, but it hasn’t been called in yet. We usually get prescriptions at Target in Ames, so I might add “Pick up prescription. @target @ames @waiting”
That way, the next time I go to Ames, I can easily see all of the tasks for Ames by looking at all of my tasks tagged with “@ames.” If I happen to go to Target, I can look at all tasks tagged with “@target.” If I see the “@waiting” tag, then I know I’m waiting on something before I can do it.
I don’t like to interrupt the thing I’m working on to take care of super-quick tasks – things that take just a minute or two – so I add them to Todoist with the tag @quick. So, I might type in “@quick See whether we need more dog food and add to grocery list if needed.”
Whenever I’m done with a task, I’ll just look at all other tasks tagged with the word “quick” and blow through them all in five minutes or so.
Each morning, one of the first things I do is pick out about three professional tasks and three personal tasks and mark them as “Priority 1,” which marks them with a red flag. Then, I’ll sort all of my tasks by priority, meaning that the Priority 1 tasks are at the top.
My goal for a given day is to knock out those Priority 1 tasks. A good day occurs when I take care of those tasks.
Professionally, the Priority 1 tasks are usually things with a fairly tight deadline. They’re articles I need to write for the next few days.
Personally, the Priority 1 tasks are usually things that truly are both important and urgent, positive habits I’m trying to build, or things I’m really excited and motivated to move forward on personally.
Most of the time, I have the Todoist window open on my right hand computer monitor on my desk, displaying the Priority 1 tasks I have going on. Those are the big things I want to achieve today. When/if I manage to complete all of those things, I’ll usually look at my list of all tasks and then try to find ones I’m personally motivated to do right now.
Many of the to-dos are just the current step in a bigger project of some kind. For example, one task might be to edit a chapter in an upcoming book’s manuscript. That’s a healthy task on its own, but it’s really only a part of a bigger project.
For each of those bigger ongoing projects, I create an actual “project” within Todoist and add tasks related to that project in there. That way, I can kind of brainstorm upcoming tasks on those projects in advance, even if I might not be ready to take step 5 when I’m still waiting on completing steps 2-4.
Thus, future steps in a project beyond what I’m working on right now usually get a “@waiting” tag.
If the task is a specific appointment – say, a meeting at a specific day or time – I add that to my calendar instead. Virtually everything that goes into my calendar is also listed with a few reminders that alert me to the upcoming event so that I’m aware it’s coming days in advance. That way, if it’s appropriate, I can add specific things to my to-do list to prepare for it.
The End Result
The end result of all of this is that I have literally hundreds of tasks stowed away in Todoist. On good days, I knock off a lot more tasks than I add; on slower days, the opposite tends to be true.
Many of these tasks are “someday/maybe” tasks. In fact, I often tag some of those things as “@someday,” like building new shelves for my office (I have become less and less of a fan of my office shelving over the years).
How do I keep them all straight, though? How do I really know what needs to be done next?
Daily and Weekly Review
One of the key parts of making everything work is the daily and weekly review. The daily review is simple, takes just a few minutes, and helps me prioritize my coming day. The weekly review… is a bit more complex.
Each day, either in the evening or early the following morning, I look over the tasks I’ve completed that day. First, I check and make sure there aren’t any quick tasks that I missed and I take care of them. I also make sure that I didn’t miss any high priority tasks for the day.
Next, I look at my long to-do list and try to identify six things that I want to do tomorrow. I usually pick three professional tasks and three personal tasks. I mark those as “Priority 1″ so I can easily see them tomorrow. If there are some I’d really like to do but I’m not sure if I’ll have time, I’ll mark those as “Priority 2.” I usually see if there are any undone “Priority 2″ tasks from the day that’s passed and make any of those left undone into “Priority 1″ tasks for the following day.
I also look at my calendar. Is there anything I need to be doing tomorrow?
Finally, I usually take 10 minutes or so and reflect on the day. What was the best thing that I achieved? What was the biggest mistake I made today, and how can I rectify it or avoid repeating it? Did I take care of my body today, and what can I do tomorrow to do a better job? I try not to just dwell on what I did today, but what the events of the day can teach me about my life going forward. I usually write down my thoughts in Evernote. I find that by actually making this a part of my routine, I find myself slowly ironing out some of my worst tendencies and amplifying some of my better ones.
Overall, this takes about 15 minutes, but it puts me in a great position to have a very good and very productive day for the following day.
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Once a week, usually on Saturday afternoon, I set aside a bigger chunk of time for a weekly review.
The biggest part of this review is simply going through every item on my overall to-do list and ask myself whether this is something that still makes sense for me. Do I really want to still do this? Do I need to do this?
Basically, I’m just verifying that all of the stuff on that list is still genuinely important in some way. If it’s not… why is it on my to-do list? I delete those things. Believe it or not, I purge 10-20 things from my to-do list per week due to this review.
While I’m doing this, I’m usually mindful of not just what I want to be doing right now, but what I want to be achieving in my life as a whole. Quite often, things that just sit around on my to-do list don’t get done because they honestly aren’t in line with the big things I want to be working on in my life.
Along the way, I often find tasks that are fairly short – five- or 10-minute tasks – that I simply take care of immediately. Things like changing the furnace filter or calling someone or doing a bit of basic research. I’ll often check off five or six things while doing this kind of review.
I also usually find several things that I really want to achieve in the next week. I set those to “Priority 2,” which is where I put tasks that aren’t absolutely urgent today, but need to be done quickly. As I mention above, one of the first things I do when picking my “Priority 1″ tasks for the coming day is to look at my “Priority 2″ stuff. I also often tackle “Priority 2″ stuff if all of the “Priority 1″ stuff is done.
After those steps, I usually find that my to-do list has gone down by 20%-30% throughout the week. I also usually have 15-20 things set up that I really want to achieve in the coming week – articles for The Simple Dollar, personal tasks, and so forth.
The other part of my weekly review is that I go through those little “journal” entries that I wrote each day during the week and review them. I look at my reflections on the key things I achieved in the week, my biggest daily mistakes, and what I want to change to overcome them. Looking at these in a batch is really valuable because I often see patterns in those entries. I can clearly see the things that are consistently bothering me and recognize that I need to be doing something to fix those problems. Those usually turn into a “Priority 2″ task or two for the coming week.
How This Saves Time
This process saves time for me because it gets all of the ideas and to-dos and appointments out of my head and into a trusted system. I don’t have to try to remember some specific thing I need to do or some specific piece of information I want to investigate later. It’s out of my head and stored in either Todoist or Evernote or a calendar or a pocket notebook and I know I’ll see it again later on when I can deal with it. I don’t have to remember it or think about it right now. Instead, I can focus on the task at hand, and over and over again I’ve seen that focusing purely on the task at hand with minimal distraction gets the task done better and faster than anything else.
Thus, the time I spend keeping this system going is repaid (and more) by the time I save due to more efficient tasks and knowing exactly what I need to be doing next without having to think about it. Not only that, I get the tasks done with a higher quality result, the tasks are more in line with what I want to get out of life, and I can usually get more done, too.
This system has been honed by me for years. It borrows heavily from Getting Things Done by David Allen but simplifies some of his system while adding a few additional things that I find really valuable, like a brief daily journal.
The key thing to remember with all of this is that it’s all about serving one central goal: I want to be more efficient with my time and use it in ways that are more central to what I want out of life. The steps in this article really don’t take very long at all, but they go a long way toward making my time use more efficient and, in the end, making me much more successful in the areas of my life that I care the most about.
That makes the time and energy I invest in this system – which really isn’t all that much, to tell the truth – well worth it.