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Building a Smarter To-Do List, Part I

Since new folks visit 43F each day, I thought it might be valuable to return to one of our most popular evergreen topics to review some "best practices" for keeping a good to-do list. While a lot of this might be old hat to some of you, it's a good chance to review the habits and patterns behind one of the most powerful tools in the shed. Part 2 appears tomorrow (Update: now available). (N.B.: links to previous posts related to these topics are provided inline)

Why bother?

In my own experience wrangling life's entropic challenges, some of my best gains have come from maintaining a smart, actionable, and updated accounting of all the things I've committed myself to doing. While the quality of that list may vary from day to day, it's the best place to train my focus whenever things are starting to feel out of control. In fact, the health of my to-do list usually mirrors the health of my productivity (as well as the barometric pressure of my stress). On the good days, my to-do list has a living quality that helps guide my decisions and steers me through unexpected changes in priority or velocity. And on the crummy days, it becomes the likely suspect when I need to quickly reassess the state of the union and make changes.

While you can argue for the flavor and approach to task management that best suits your style (and your personal suck), it's hard to disparage the benefits that come from getting task commitments out of your brain and into a consistent location. One list scribbled on one busy day is not necessarily the answer (although it can be a lifesaver). Try thinking of your to-do list as an evolving plan for responsibly focusing your effort and attention in the near future.

Anatomy of a To-do

The primary idea of a to-do is that it's a task that can and should be done--a point that might seem obvious until you start uncovering how many of the items on your to-do list may not belong there (or, conversely, how many uncaptured items do). The best and most useful to-dos share common qualities:

  • it's a physical action
  • it can be accomplished at a sitting
  • it supports valuable progress toward a recognized goal
  • it's something for which you are the most appropriate person for the job

Glancing at your own to-do list, do you see any potential troublemakers? Notice any items that make you squeamish? Any mystery meat tasks that seem "un-doable" as is? Don't sweat it. We're going to have you shaped up in no time.

Break it Down to the “Next Action”

In Getting Things Done , David Allen introduced his notion of the “next action,” which he defines as “the next physical, visible activity that needs to be engaged in, in order to move the current reality toward completion.”

For example, a classic old-school to-do might be something like “Plan Tom's Surprise Going-Away Party,” “Clean out the Garage,” or “Get the Car Fixed.” But, as Allen cannily notes, these are each really small projects since they require more than one activity in order to be considered complete. Learning to honor that distinction between a task and its parent project may, in fact, be the most important step you can take toward improving the quality and “do-ability” of the work on your list.

So, in our example of beginning to organize for Tom's big party, we first want to learn when exactly he'll be leaving town. But to obtain that information, we'll first need to call his housemate, Sue, for details. But before we can call Sue, we'll have to remember where we jotted down her new work number last week. (Project managers call these kind of linked tasks “dependencies,” but you knew that.)

Suddenly our focus has narrowed from the ginormous and ultimately un-doable “Plan Party” to the entirely manageable “Find Sue's work number.” While this is far from the only task we'll have to complete for our party planning, it's clearly the next thing we'll need to do before proceeding. This is the bona fide “next action,” so it's earned a place on our to-do list.

By always breaking projects of any size into their true constituent next actions--and it's definitely okay to have several at once per project--we're making it fast and easy to always know what should be happening next.

Let's Get Physical

Articulating your to-dos in terms of physical activity--even when they require only modest amounts of actual exertion--has a variety of benefits.

Most importantly, it ensures that you've thought through your task to a point where you can envision how it will need to be undertaken and what it will actually feel like once you're doing it. This means you can easily visualize the activity, the kinds of tools you'll need, and perhaps even the setting where the work should take place; It's not just a bunch of words you've written on a page.

All in how you phrase it

Framing your work in the physical world is easiest when you imagine what's being done, and the best trick here is to simply phrase your task in a form like: “verb the noun with the object.” That means instead of reminding yourself with the mystery meat of “Year-end report,” you'd more accurately first “Download Q3 spreadsheet from work server.” And, instead of “Get with Anil,” you'd probably want to “Email Anil on Monday to schedule monthly disco funk party.” Get specific in whittling the task down to one activity that you can accomplish completely at a sitting. “A sitting” will vary for you, but I try to never plan a task that would take more than ten minutes (your level of busy-ness might command even smaller-sized tasks).

Consider, for example, how an oversized to-do like “Prepare the big presentation” might be improved upon by zeroing in on the physicality of a first step like “Draft four ideas for our presentation's theme.” Where the former task provides no purchase for a sensible ascent, the latter gives us a fat handle for getting started with something that already feels familiar: we know how to type, and we definitely know when we see four of something. So, this is a sensible chunk of work that can be done.

Get the verbs right

Notice how we're breaking these Big Nouns into little verbs? That's deliberate. With that original to-do for your presentation, you might theoretically just keep “preparing” your presentation until some arbitrary alarm bell goes off in your head, saying “Yeah, okay, that looks like a fully-prepared presentation, so you can stop.” But a better-defined chunk of activity suggests a task with clear edges; it has a beginning and an end. This enables you to keep putting one foot in front of the other, ensuring that you always know what to do next, instead of half-assing your way through a badly-defined pile of fuzzy nouns.

This physicality and functional piece-work act in concert to make the planning and execution of your tasks as stress-free and unintimidating as possible. Knowing that every item on your to-do list is a familiar task that can be accomplished before lunch can be wildly empowering. It's just up to you to ensure that all your work is segmented, shaped, and stacked into units that can fit through the windows that are available to you.

Your work is what you make it

The trick is that these jobs can be made easier long before they're undertaken by framing and naming them properly and in the right-sized units. As early as the capture and planning phases of this cycle, you hold the power and responsibility for defining your work. Failing to do that well and thoughtfully is a primary cause of hang-ups further down the line. In other words, your work often isn't difficult because you're necessarily all that busy, but because you hadn't taken the time to list it all out in a way that makes it clear and “do-able”. This is so important as you begin actually working on your tasks, when the last thing you want is to wonder whether you're doing the right thing at the right time.

As we’ll see tomorrow, to have any use beyond a handy brain dump, your to-do list has to stay current and reflect your realistic commitments in the world. Otherwise you’re studying documentation for a product that may not exist any more.

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toby's picture

Thanks Kat! I was wondering...

Thanks Kat! I was wondering if it was inappropriate to mention my own project in response to this post, but you did it for me :) tasktoy also lets you set up a project and put the tasks in order and have each one only appear as the others are completed. I've found it much less demoralizing to only have to look at one at a time.




An Oblique Strategy:
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