Updated on 09.17.14

How To Manage a Task List Efficently

Trent Hamm

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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  1. Lisa says:

    I smiled at the list that you did. You lived! You played with your son, brewed some beer, talked to your mom… I am working on a graduate degree and feel the same frustrations. I keep saying “if it weren’t for LIFE, I could get this done more quickly!”.
    My dad always prays that God will give him enough time in the day to do what He wants him to do.

  2. Jason says:

    While I have been reading your blog for the past 2 months this is my first post, I am 24 and working for an NFL team, and have extra time on my hands. If your looking for someone to go through your emails let me know. Thanks for the financial knowledge, and keep it up. Look forward to the book!

  3. livvy says:

    I don’t see anything wrong with any of your lists. So long as bills are paid on time and the household does not turn into a pigsty, everything else can eventually be done and will eventually be done. I find that if I have finished ALL my tasks on my list, the day of relaxing is nice, but the following days with nothing to do can be boring. At least when you have things to do, you feel challenged during the day/week/month to get them accomplished.

  4. I totally thought this post would have a different conclusion… All of your “timewasters” seem like pretty decent ways to spend your hours! (Even playing online games, since it’s like a form of meditation when you’re very into it…). Great ideas, though, and totally motivating. Time to suck it up and get more pages written, bake that cheesecake, and clean the toilets!

  5. Andy says:

    You should take a look at some no-knead bread recipes. They may not be as good or challenging as a sour dough, but they are incredibly fast concerning time you have to spend working on it. It is essentially dump stuff in a bowl, stir, let it rise, then put it in the fridge until you are ready to bake. Here is one I just tried , I let it rise to long which made for a small, dense loaf, but it tastes great. And your active time spent on it literally is not more than 10 minutes.

  6. Frugal Dad says:

    I’m just now wrapping up the book The 4-Hour Workweek and have enjoyed Ferriss’ ideas on delegation. Most people think they cannot afford to delegate, but they fail to think of what they could be doing with their time to earn even more. You’ve provided a real example of that. I did not catch in the post above whether or not you have decided to delegate those tasks you identified proper for delegation. Are you still weighing your options?

  7. Great piece. We all procrastinate endlessly. I’ve found that a simple step makes it much easier for me to be productive every day – I make a short, hand-written to-do list every day and keep it in my front pocket. It is a constant reminder that I have things I need to accomplish every day and it has worked wonders. Good luck, fellow lazy folks out there.

  8. trev says:

    Awesome post. Keep up the inspiring work!

  9. Kalieris says:

    Dude, there is NO such thing as spending too much time talking to your mother. :) (Yes, I am one. Does it show?)

  10. Saving Freak says:

    There are so many tasks that I cannot wait to be able to afford to delegate. The first is going to be yard work and then cleaning the house. After that I would be so much better off.

  11. imelda says:

    Wow, this could not have come at a better time. I have been having EXACTLY the same kind of week as you. Not only that, but when I slack off like this, I then tend to let other things slide…like sleep. I don’t know if I’m sort of punishing myself or just hoping I’ll get to the tasks eventually if I stay up all night, but I end up being less productive the next day, and progressively so as the week goes on.

    Ugh. Vicious cycle! I am going to pore over every word of this article. I’m also inspired to pull out my Covey again, which I abandoned a couple of months ago but have been thinking idly about lately. Now I’m really inspired.

    It’s nice to know I’m not alone!!

  12. Chris says:

    I had no idea you were a home-brewer, maybe I just missed it earlier. Congratulations on bottling and brewing a new batch in such rapid succession, I’m jealous.

  13. I think sometimes it can be valuable to limit the amount of time you work on your “list”. Tell yourself you will work focused for 2 hours each day on your list and really put your nose to the grindstone during that time. After that it doesn’t mean you just goof off, but you give yourself the luxury to work on what you want–maybe somethings on your list, maybe going to the park with you kids.

    Those two hours can be extremely productive if you are focus–especially if you know you can quit in 120 minutes.

  14. A.M.B. A. says:

    What works for me is to keep separate hours. How about doing all writing/business related tasks early in the morning, take 3-4 hours to do family stuff (no cleaning!) in the afternoon (doesn’t have to be EVERY day), then back to writing/business in the evening/night? Leave your weekends (no writing stuff!) for the garage, etc., which can involve your wife and kids. Delegating/hiring out is a great idea. That will certainly free up time to do the things that only you can do. It’s always very tempting to do non “work” stuff when one works from home. Relax, the truly important, must do things WILL get done!

  15. From the looks of it, you have too much on your plate and the fact that you are thinking of delegating is probably the right thing. it appears to me that you should spend the bulk of your time writing your book.

    Things like cleaning your windows, cleaning your garage will not add to your bottom line (other than keeping the house clean).

    I personally find that I can only accomplish three things for the day and not anymore. But that is simply my make up. I personally would never be ablt to complete the task list you have.

    Would like to know when you actually hire someone to shift through your mail.

  16. George says:

    Trent, the task list idea is very important. However, I think the tasks have to also be realistic. I see you have clean the garage out. That is not something most people enjoy doing and it frankly can take all day or several days. Perhaps a more realistic goals would be spend one hour cleaning the garage. . . etc. Goals have to be realistic so that when we check them off our list, we feel a sense of accomplishment.

  17. Asav Patel says:

    dear sir,

    today i first time visit your blog.
    its amazing.
    my blog is also on financial literacy.
    after reading “Building a Better Blog” i m really impressed.
    i will read whole the content your blog. but it will take a time.

    without taking your prior permission, i have added your blog’s link on my blog… i apologize for that…..

  18. Kris says:

    Thanks so much!! I’ve been feeling very frustrated with my lack of progress on many things. It was just good to hear somebody else goes through exactly the same thing I do, and feels the same frustration. I’m going to review my task list and put some of your suggestions to work.

  19. My Small Cents says:

    I agree with commenter number 7. I have a small house that quickly gets over run with clutter, three small kids who seem to want to pass quality time with me, a blog, an Etsy site, a husband who also wants to pass time with me, and oh yeah, a need for sleep. I find that naming chunks of time to take care of certain tasks is the best solution for me- if I don’t finish something during the time I set aside for working on it I can put it aside easily, knowing that in one or two hours or one or two days I have a designated time to come back to it.
    Otherwise I find myself literally turning in circles.

  20. Mark Krusen says:

    My Small Cents I can relate. I’m in the spinning in circle Phase right now. What with the blog and my Bi-polar acting up, there is know way I can concentrate enough to work on another blog I’m starting on. Little lone the book that I think I want to write. Thanks for writing this post Trent. I now feel safe writing another to do list.

  21. Greener Pastures: Responsible Personal Finance says:

    This is the story of my life. I always “overbook”-never allocate enough time for each task.

    And I lose focus- get distracted and do things not on the list. Sometimes I’ll add them later, just so I can cross them off!

  22. Peter says:

    Trent, Nice description of the process you use to tackle this problem.

  23. Maybe this has already been said… I didn’t finish the whole article because this just really jumped out at me, but playing with your kids and talking to your mom are way more important than getting the windows clean. Also, you can’t be all work and no play… if so what is the point of life? So brewing your beer is not such a bad thing. That said, lists work wonders for me. Also a Nintendo DS game helped me out a ton too. Sims Castaway has this thing where you get a percentage of stuff, so like if you have found 5/10 items you have 50% of that done. I use this with my lists. I figure out what percentage I have done (usually I make sure there are 10 things which makes it really easy) and I go until I am satisfied with my “percentage complete”. Just something goofy I started doing to motivate myself. However, I also read that on weekends you should make a to do list then cross off half the items and enjoy your weekend. So, enjoy your weekend, lol.

  24. jennifer says:

    If you have a local Freecycle.com chapter, your old moving boxes might be able to be re-used instead of recycled. We’re moving next month and I’ve found some perfectly good moving boxes this way.

    I’ve been enjoying your site for almost a year now — you really are an engaging writer!

  25. durendale says:

    Dude, “in a fit of self-disgust and angst” relax!!! You should love and respect yourself, for all of your accomplishments the least of which is this blog.

  26. Ripley says:


    Your post touched on something from when I once attended a session with a professional organizer: Often, when we are procrastinating on something on our to-do list, it is because it is a project and not a task.

    The difference? A project is made up of individual tasks. In my case, I have been putting off cleaning up my bedroom and closet for a long time. It just looks huge. That is because it is a project, and an all-day (if not two-day) project. If I break it down to its individual tasks, it is not so daunting.

  27. JB says:

    Wow. How can you spend “too much time” talking to your mother? My mother is now 82, and she is more important to me than fingerprints on the window.

  28. yvie says:

    I teach and therefore have the summers off. I always put off many household and other jobs off until the summer, thinking that I have an infinite amount of time. But it never works that way. Just because you don’t go to work everyday doesn’t mean that you will have that much extra time.

    I’m sure after a few months of working from home you will find your rhythm and you will know at what pace you can realistically expect to get things done. You will alter your list accordingly.

    Usually I find that the male of the species seem to be much more laid back than the females, but in your case it is the opposite. Don’t worry, be happy!

  29. MoneyBlogga says:

    Procrastination is not my friend, either. Today, the college Honors club is holding a big garage sale on my driveway and I had fully intended to sort through my house and sell everything I didn’t use or want. Did I do it? No. I didn’t. We have loads of people outside and still carloads more pulling up – I could’ve made some substantial money today if only I had just done what I had planned to do. My problem is laziness combined with a need (almost) to live on the edge – any kind of edge will do. This one character trait alone has cost me literally thousands of dollars over the years but I’m working on it.

  30. Faculties says:

    You know, you can wash the windows *while* talking on the phone to your mother.

  31. ericabiz says:

    Hi Trent,

    I’m really glad you wrote about this. The exact same topic came to my mind recently and it’s why I ended up hiring a personal assistant. You can see my results and “how to” here:


    I’d love your feedback on this…sounds like we are going through similar thoughts/actions.


  32. J. says:

    I loved reading that!
    Recognized every step.
    I can procrastinate for Holland, but I also have bouts of productivity, so in the end I usually get most things off my list.
    C’est la vie.

  33. KJ says:

    I agree with the comment about free cycle: there are those of us who are perfectly happy to have junky furniture, since our pets will just wind up puking on it or tearing it up anyway.

  34. Tziporah says:

    I am genuinely happy for Trent that he can afford to hire someone to do housecleaning and other necessary, time consuming tasks, but how do you delegate when you are single on a low income?

  35. Maggie Shaw says:

    Do not be so hard on yourself. You accomplished some worhtwhile tasks. Your in-box will always be full. You don’t always have to get things done in a certain order.

  36. Ryan McLean says:

    I use a to do list on my mobile phone which I find is very helful in minimising the things I need to get done.
    That way they are always in front of my face (as I use my phone everyday) and I have to get them done in order to get rid of it

  37. Gayle RN says:

    Welcome to the world of the average woman.

  38. NP says:

    I long ago delegated major house cleaning to a cleaning professional who works for a pretty low rate. She is like a member of our family! As a teacher, I’d love to delegate some of the mind-numbing paperwork to an assistant–maybe when my ship comes in….

  39. Marcie says:

    You can never talk to your mother for too long :)

    You’ll miss those conversations some day…

  40. Sheryl says:

    Literally two-year-old fingerprints? Or, fingerprints of a two-year-old?

  41. kz says:

    I agree with Marcie. I’m 27 and my dad just passed away two weeks ago, rather unexpectedly. I would give away every asset I own, cash and otherwise, just to have one more conversation with him.

  42. Well, its such a relief you know. Knowing that someone as organized as you has some task left half done too. Knowing you from your blog, it felt that you always ( but always) stay on top of the things. Now I feel I’m not the only one, which truly ( *sheepish grin* ) feels good :D

  43. Mikke says:

    This won’t work for everyone, but my husband and I stay on top of many, and proliferating, chores by pausing to remind ourselves and each other that we are doing them TOGETHER.

    While the dollar value of our time to clean the toilets or dig into organizing the garage may be “higher” monetarily than “paying someone else to do it,” if we paid someone else to do it, we’d miss the chance to do it ourselves TOGETHER.

    It’s funny how, in the day to day, we come to see that although we complain sometimes, we really dearly love the humble work of life, the frustrating little tasks that have to be done every day, or ten times a day. When we do that work of sustaining life, we realize that the TOGETHERness in it is more valuable than, say, working more hours or more jobs for more money to pay for it.

    One day we were hand digging new garden beds. We were muddy, cold, damp, and tired. My husband paused and said, “Remember that trip to Hawaii that we took?” That was many years ago, before we’d joined our lives. Yes, I said, I remember it. I thought he was going to say something like that he wished we were on the beach, or atop the mountain, or walking in the rainforest.

    He smiled and said, “At the time I would never have believed it. But it wasn’t as fun as this. I’m glad we’re here. Together.”

    Also, working TOGETHER with someone you love, two people’s work yields the outcomes of four or five, in terms of effectiveness! It’s a TOGETHER thing!

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