Don’t organize your todos by project, organize them by mental state

Listen to an audio version of this article »

When it comes to doing a high volume of creative work with ease, mental state is critically important. You want to do the right work for your given mental state in any given moment.

This is why I’ve started organizing my todos by mental state. I put the labels in Todoist, like this:

Yes, some of my tasks are assigned to projects, but I rarely view tasks in that way. As long as you have the proper due dates attached to your tasks, it doesn’t matter what project those todos are for. What matters is your ability to do those tasks in an energy-efficient way. Productivity is about mind management, not time management.

These are the mental states I use to optimize creative output.

  1. Prioritize: Decide what needs to be done, and what can’t or shouldn’t be done.
  2. Generate: Generate creative products, such as writing a blog post or brainstorming a podcast conversation.
  3. Explore: Collect raw materials for creative insights. This may be reading about a topic that interests me, or listening to past appearances of potential podcast guests.
  4. Research: Research to answer specific questions for a project, such as the year an event happened, or reviewing a scientific paper.
  5. Polish: Refine a product and get it ready to ship. For example, editing a book.
  6. Administrate: Take care of the pesky details of keeping my business running. This may be reviewing finances, or tweaking ad campaigns.
  7. Recharge (not in Todoist, but maybe it should be): Rest, relax, and disconnect.

I’ve chosen these mental states to maximize my creative output with minimal effort. I find that these are the perfect mental states for guiding creative projects through the “Four Stages of Control:”

  1. Preparation: Creative insights are made up of your existing knowledge. In the Preparation stage, you’re collecting information about the problem. Exploration, Prioritization, and Research are done during the Preparation stage.
  2. Incubation: Times of rest, after collecting information about a problem, have been shown to make creative insights come more easily. Recharging—and to some extent Exploring—help with Incubation. So does simply working on a different project for awhile, no matter the mental state.
  3. Illumination: Illumination is the “eureka” moment of creative work—when you finally have that creative breakthrough. Sometimes these moments come out of nowhere, such as when you are Recharging. But when you Generate, you’re rolling the dice over and over to make insights happen.
  4. Verification: Verification is when you take care of the details to make your final product ready for the world. When you Research and Polish, you’re Verifying your work. When you Administrate, you’re putting it out into the world.

The amount of time it takes to get a product through the four stages and the speed at which you must switch mental states depend upon your skill level in the activity, and your prior knowledge of the background material.

If you’re highly skilled and already know a lot about the subject, you may shift amongst these stages and mental states without even noticing. Maybe you write a blog post in one sitting, going through all four stages, and various mental states.

But for big and tough creative projects—especially “front-burner” projects—you need bigger blocks of time dedicated to particular mental states.

Ideally, you can work with the ebbs and flows of your creative energy, so that you can predict what type of work you’re best equipped for based upon time of day, or even day of week.

I personally find a weekly routine to be more powerful than a daily routine. Here’s generally what my work week looks like, according to mental state:

I use my freshest energy on Mondays to work on my most important creative projects, in the Generation state. I also use that fresh energy to evaluate my Priorities. In late afternoon, I have less discipline, and am well suited for Exploration.

By Friday afternoon, my creative energy is tapped out. But I’m still able to handle Administrative tasks.

Note that these aren’t hard borders, but rather cues that help me manage mind state. For example, I’m writing and publishing this blog post in one sitting on a Monday morning. I’m going through the Generate, Polish, Research, and Administrate mental states all in one go. But the session is dominated by the Generation mental state.


The beauty of having your todos organized by mental state is that it keeps you from getting sidetracked during task transitions.

For example, after an intense Generation session such as the one I’m spending writing this blog post, I’ll be low on self-discipline.

Without todo items organized by mental state, I would struggle to find my next task. I’d stare at my todo list and spend some time in the Prioritize mental state trying to decide what to do next. I’d be a few finger flicks away from a social media or email black hole.

But with todo items organized by mental state, I can quickly find some looser Generation work to do. I can take advantage of the momentum I’ve built in this mental state, and save myself from the energy-hungry state of Prioritization.


The better you can manage your mental energy, the better the insights you’ll have, and the more easily you’ll stay on track. If you organize your tasks according to mental state, you can focus more deeply on the task at hand, and prevent getting distracted when switching tasks.

Want to 4x your creative output? Get your free toolkit »