The Best Way to Organize Your To-Dos
Dear Crucial Skills,
I’ve been following your advice and keeping an inventory of all my to-dos and tasks somewhere not in my head. The problem now is how to organize them. I feel a little better now that I can see everything on a list, but I still don’t feel organized. What is the best way to organize all this stuff?
First of all, congratulations on your progress. If everyone did what you’ve been doing, they’d experience a lot more clarity and a lot less stress. That said, it’s time to take the next step.
Many people I work with find relief from clearing their minds. But then over time some of their stress returns. Why? Because they get those items off their minds only to turn them into big long lists. Any time they glance at their list, they feel overwhelmed. Yet it’s not the size of the list that is the source of stress. It’s actually the nature of the to-dos and the way they’re organized. If you follow these next two tips, I promise you’ll feel more organized, procrastinate less, and save a ton of time.
First, clarify your projects. So many people try to organize unclear stuff—you can’t. If you had a pile of documents on your desk and I said to you, “Please organize those quickly.” You’d probably say, “Well . . . I can’t do that until I look at each paper first.” Exactly. People try to “get organized” when the stuff they’re trying to organize is still in a vague and unclear form. You can’t prioritize a mess.
If you look at most people’s lists, they say things like “Paint wall,” “Mom birthday,” “Oil,” “offsite,” and “Cat Video Conference.” It’s great to have identified something you need to give time and attention to, but if the meaning is vague your mind will just spin when you look at the list. Instead of being able to do, you have to figure out what to do. It’s the difference between writing “Off-site” and writing “Email meeting invite to marketing team to brainstorm plans for 2021 off-site.”
Remember this: everything on your to-do list is either attracting you or repelling you; there’s no neutral territory. You’re either looking at something and saying, “Awesome! When can I do this and mark it off?” or, “Yuck! I don’t even want to think about this because there is so much involved it’s overwhelming.”
The solution is to decide on stuff only once. That means when you put an action item on a list, clearly identify what the next action is—the very next physical, visible activity you need to take to move things forward. Your to-do list should be only next actions, so that when you decide to do one of those actions, you can be confident it’s the right thing to do. And make sure your items start with verbs like these: Call, Read, Draft, Email, Text, Download. And so on.
Second, organize your tasks so that you can start doing and stop analyzing. The way people typically organize to-dos and tasks is either in one big list or by topic. The problem with the first approach is that it results in huge lists. I’m guessing you don’t just have 25 to-dos. If you did, then one list would work. I’m guessing you have 100 to 150 to-dos in your personal and professional life—maybe more. So, when it’s time to get things done, you end up spending more time sifting through the massive list to figure out which task to do.
Then if we do segment our lists, we tend to group them by topic or project. The potential problem with these approaches is that we often run into issues related to context and resources. Here’s an example: if you’re jumping on the train and the only work you can reasonably do is make a few phone calls, you’d have to sift through all your different topic or project lists to see what calls you could make considering how much time you have before you reach your stop. No matter what your priorities are in a given moment, your context and resources will often trump them. So, one of the best ways to get organized is to arrange your to-dos by context.
Here’s the principle: Make it easier for yourself to see the tasks you need to accomplish, when you can accomplish them. Here’s how you do that: Organize to-dos according to the location you need to be in, or the resources and people you need to be connected to, in order to complete the action. For example, you might make a list of calls to make. That way, the moment you jump on that train, you can glance at this list and know what you can accomplish in the time you have available. A few of my own lists that fit this structure are @Home, @Errands, @Calls, @Christina (my wife), @Work Computer. Other helpful lists might be things like @Grocery store, @Offline, @Mushybrain (for tasks that require very little mental energy and can be tackled easily at the end of the day). I like to use the @ symbol to suggest “when I’m in this location or with that person.”
This approach allows you to get the right things done when you have the time and resources available, and the right people present. That way you don’t have to waste time trying to remember why you’re on that specific errand or what you wanted to talk with your partner about. Instead, when you have your weekly one-on-one with your boss, for example, you can open your list @Manager and address all the items you want to discuss with her.
Organizing by context was initially counterintuitive for me, but once I tried it out with “both feet in” I became far more productive and focused, and with less effort. I’m convinced I’ll never go back to organizing by project, topic, or one big list.
When you organize by context or resource, your focus is on the actions you can take, not on sorting and sifting. And that’s really the point of Getting Things Done.