How To Manage a Task List Efficently

This morning, in a fit of self-disgust and angst, I made a long list of all of the stuff I’ve intended to do over the last few weeks and simply failed to accomplish:

I intended to finish two chapters of my book by now – only one is done.
I intended to clean out the garage – it’s still a mess.
I intended to add compost and topsoil to the garden and till it in – it’s still in “winter” mode.
I intended to wash the windows – still covered with two-year-old fingerprints.
I intended to finish up a really cool homemade Mother’s Day gift for my wife and for our mothers – still undone.
I intended to set up a SEP-IRA – the paperwork is still sitting on my computer desktop.
I intended to make some loaves of sourdough bread – the barm is still in the refrigerator.
I intended to deal with a big pile of correspondence – but it’s still left untouched.
I intended to do some serious number-crunching concerning what to do with our excess tax savings – it’s still sitting in a savings account.

What did I do instead?

I spent about three hours more than I intended to at the library doing research for my book.
I took my kids to the park for two hours, long enough that my son was actually getting tired of the park.
I took a two hour nap one afternoon after our children had been awakened in the middle of the night because of a thunderstorm.
I played some online games.
I bottled a batch of homemade beer – and brewed another one.
I spent way too long on the phone talking to my mother one afternoon.
I resorted my book collection and put away several volumes to take to a community book sale.
I did some volunteer work for a community project.
I spent about two hours designing logos and other things in Photoshop.

Obviously, some of these things were worthwhile things to do, but they leave a big problem in their wake: failure to accomplish. And that’s a real problem worth looking at.

A Task List is a Big First Step
One of the biggest steps a person can take towards becoming a more productive person is to maintain a to-do list in some fashion, whether it be simply a sheet of paper listing tasks to be accomplished, a text list on your computer, or an “inbox” in the Getting Things Done methodology. I’ve used such methods for years to keep the tasks I need to do out of my mind but stored somewhere safe so that I can focus on the task at hand instead of wandering mentally to the things I need to do in the future.

For the most part, this works really well. Whenever I have an idea or think of something I need to do, I just jot it down immediately without thinking about it. Then, when I get done with a task, I just go on to the next one on the list without thinking about it all too much. This keeps me moving all the time and it’s really empowering.

Failing to Follow Through Undermines the Value
The problem for me, though, is that it’s often too empowering. To put it simply, I often add more to the pile than I have time to ever accomplish. Right now, my task list has about sixty items on it and even if I worked like a madman on these items over the next week, I’d still end up with thirty or so items left on it.

Here, the problem isn’t the organizational structure – that’s good. The problem is that there’s simply not enough time in the day to do all of the things I want to do and thus things start falling through the cracks.

This is a problem that many people run into no matter how well organized they are. Our interests are so diverse and our ambitions are so large that we end up piling more and more on ourselves. Eventually, it doesn’t matter what kind of system you’re using – there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to get it all done.

That’s where I’m at right now.

Solutions to the Problems
So what can I learn from this?

four hourDelegate One of the first productivity books I ever discussed on this site was The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. In it, Ferriss strongly argues on behalf of delegating simple tasks to others so you can focus on the more complex things or the things you most enjoy.

Let’s look at this from my perspective. Professionally, I enjoy writing and talking to readers but I don’t enjoy some of the professional correspondence associated with it. I can’t tell you how many emails I get a day that are basically from PR firms, from people requesting interviews, or people who are just shilling for a product of some sort. Reading through this correspondence and figuring out what’s worthwhile and what isn’t is a very dull task that consumes probably an hour of my time each day. Hiring someone to do this boring (for me) task would be a way to free up an extra hour each day and, since the job is simple, I could pay a relatively low wage to do it. Is that extra hour worth $8 or $10 to me? You bet! I can transform that hour into something that’ll earn $20 or more over the long haul – and I’ll enjoy it more, too.

A similar logic applies to housework. It’s largely impossible to get any serious cleaning done when the children are around, so I usually burn 2 to 4 hours during the week cleaning when people aren’t around, doing things like dishes, straightening up the kitchen, and so on. If I were to hire someone to handle this task – again, at a relatively low wage – that time would be freed up for more creative work.

Eliminate Another useful option is to simply eliminate some of the areas that I want to follow up on. In essence, this means to de-involve myself from something so that I have time to adequately follow up on other ones.

For example, lately I’ve been making quite a bit of homemade goods – homemade beer, homemade laundry detergent, homemade sourdough bread, homemade wine, and so on. These have been fun things to do and they’ve saved a bit of money, but they’re not entirely high on my priority list. Perhaps it’s time to think about putting that stuff into storage for a bit until I clear out other aspects of my life.

I’ve also been wringing my hands a fair amount about financial decisions, even though I know what the best options are. Instead of sweating about it, why not just sit down and fill out those SEP-IRA forms and invest some of our extra tax money in there? In fact, I’ll do that right now.

gtdBreak It Down One of the major themes of Getting Things Done is the idea that most of our life consists of “open loops” – things that are just hanging out there, awaiting the next step. From page 128:

This is the biggie. If there’s something that needs to be done about the item in “in,” then you need to decide exactly what that next action is. “Next Actions” again, means the next physical, visible activity that would be required to move the situation toward closure.

This is both easier and more difficult than it sounds.

In other words, if there are some big things you need to do that you’ve been avoiding, look at them and figure out very specifically the next action that needs to be done. So, if my task is to clean out the garage, the first action I need to do is figure out what to do with all of the folded-up cardboard boxes still in there from our move last summer and also with the old torn-up junk loveseat that’s still sitting in the garage – it’s in such bad shape that Goodwill rejected it. That action’s easy – I just called our trash pickup service and they’ll take all of it next week for $8, recycling the cardboard for us if we bundle them all together. That means that my task is set – next Wednesday morning, I get out there nice and early, move the cardboard boxes and the love seat out by the curb with our normal trash, and then get to work on the rest of the mess.

Applying the Solutions
Let’s look at the tasks I wanted to get done but didn’t.

Finish two chapters of my book by now
Clean out the garage
Add compost and topsoil to the garden and till it in
Wash the windows
Finish up a really cool homemade Mother’s Day gift
Set up a SEP-IRA
Make some loaves of sourdough bread
Deal with a mountain of correspondence
Do some serious number-crunching concerning what to do with our excess tax savings

Delegation lets me eliminate washing the windows and dealing with the correspondence.

Elimination removes the sourdough bread – it’s simply too much of a task for the benefit. I’ll just add the barm to our composter. It also removes the SEP-IRA task and the number-crunching – I’ll just contribute that tax money to the SEP-IRA.

That leaves the following list:

Finish two chapters of my book by now
Clean out the garage
Add compost and topsoil to the garden and till it in
Finish up a really cool homemade Mother’s Day gift
Send in the SEP-IRA paperwork

Defining the next action for each task is similarly easy.

Outline the next chapter I need to write down to individual paragraphs
Put the cardboard boxes and the old loveseat out by the curb next Wednesday
Get some topsoil at the hardware store and plug in the tiller to charge
Finish that Mother’s Day gift
Send in the SEP-IRA paperwork

That’s my new to-do list. Instead of looking like an impenetrable wall of stuff, it now looks quite doable. In fact much of it can be done this afternoon, leaving me with a sense of actually accomplishing something instead of a sense of feeling overwhelmed.

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