How do you keep track of everything you need to do? This seems like a simple question, but the truth is there are many different answers. They range from using task management software to ‘keeping it all in my head.’ While this may seem normal to many of us, there is a problem. The problem is that our fluid task or to-do lists are failing us. Often times, it is because we don’t stick to our lists or do not clarify them.
Now, I know what you are thinking. Your system works great, so why should you make any changes to it?
That is a good and honest question. After all, it was the same question I asked myself when someone presented the idea to me that I was terrible at keeping track of everything I needed to do. Yet, when we ask this question of ourselves and answer with honesty, we find that we just might be lacking.
In this article, I will bring an in-depth look at task lists and how to create a system that will help you get everything you need to do done. It will also help you learn how to process your tasks more effectively with a higher level of clarity. Most importantly, it will be simple and practical so you can start making changes today.
Why We Need Task Lists
We need to understand something. We are talking about task lists, no to-do lists. The language matters because to-do lists remind me of something we will do, but not something we are doing. The future tense of it makes it easier for some of us to procrastinate.
So, for the sake of this article, we will be talking about task lists. Current tasks we need to do. While to-do and task might be interchangeable in our world, this will not be the instance for where we are going.
Here is the important question: Why do we need to keep task lists?
Let me start by telling you a story. When I was first married, I worked for a non-profit organization. During the first year of our marriage, I was raising the funds to work for this organization. I was the main driver of my success or failure.
If I did all the things I needed to do, I would typically see funds raised. If I did not, I wouldn’t see any funds raised and would be easily discouraged. Over the course of that first year of marriage, I also had new responsibilities. My wife and I worked together to take care of our bills, and other tasks around our apartment.
This may not seem like a lot, but the problem was that I tried to keep track of all these things in my head. It took me a long time to raise the funds I needed to start working the job I was actually meant to work. Along the way, my wife and I had lots of discussions about the tasks I was supposed to have gotten done during the week.
It was around this time that I realized I needed to make some changes.
Our Brains Aren’t Meant To Keep Everything In Them
Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” — David Allen, Getting Things Done
While I think I am pretty smart and can hold a lot of information in my head, the truth is that I cannot. In fact, I will forget more than three items if I go to the grocery store. This is why I struggled to get things done for my job and failed to keep up with my household responsibilities.
Turns out, I’m not alone. All of us have finite abilities within our brains to store information. According to a research study at Florida State University, people tend to forget things because they have too many open tasks. It’s based on something called the Zeigarnik effect.
The Zeigarnik effect says:
We all have ‘mental interruptions’ that we experience because of open tasks, even simple ones, that we are trying to keep track of in our minds. As a result, we fail to remember things we had gotten done and struggle to complete the things we need to do.
Looking back, this is what I was experiencing when I couldn’t raise the funds I needed or do household chores when I was first married. I was mentally interrupted by every little thing I needed to do.
This is why we need task lists.
Why Your Task List Is Lacking
While it might seem like there are a lot of reasons your task list works well, it also could be better. I have found through years of practice, experimentation, and research that there are three reasons why task lists are ineffective.
- It is incomplete. You have extra stuff you haven’t written down.
- It is unclear. You wrote down ‘dad,’ but didn’t write down why or what you need to do.
- It feels overwhelming. Your list is a mile long and you don’t know how to manage it.
I first started keeping task lists using David Allen’s Getting Things Done methods. I would keep my tasks too simple. I created a lot of tasks that didn’t make sense and I never really put them ALL in my system. These incomplete and unclear tasks grew on my list and started to overwhelm me. Ultimately I would fail to complete them.
How To Create Task Lists That Actually Work
The basis for everything I do comes down to simple lists. That’s right lists. But I also break this down even further. I started with using David Allen’s methods found in his book, Getting Things Done. Over the years, I have adapted these methods to what you will find here.
The following are the steps to take to update your task list system and then maintain it on a regular basis.
№1 — Where will you keep your list?
Before you do anything else, decide where you will keep your list. Will it be on a notepad/journal/notebook? Or will you use a digital tool like Reminders, Asana, or Google Tasks? No matter what you want to do, you need to start here. I personally use Apple Reminders because of its simplicity.
№2 — Create your lists.
There need to be five main lists: Today, Next Action, Someday/Maybe, Waiting On, and The Tickler. The idea for these lists is as follows.
- Today is the few tasks you will focus on today (no more than 5 to 10).
- Next action is for the next actions for any open project, or tasks you need to do (This can be very full, but they should only be next actions).
- Someday/Maybe is for items that you may do sometimes, but they aren’t a priority right now (this too will be a long list).
- Waiting On is for things you are waiting to do either because of someone else, or because of a task in your next action list (this will be a long list, but not as long as Someday/Maybe).
- The Tickler is a list full of things you want to do, but it isn’t essential you do them now and you may not know if you will ever do them. (This can be a long list too, though mine is shorter because I tend to trash can a lot of things on this list)
№3 — Empty your mind and capture tasks.
For this to work, you literally need to get it all out of your head and on the table. This means getting every task and idea out that you have swirling around in your head. At first, it will feel like a lot of information in your inbox. But, what you do next will help with all of this clutter.
№4 — Triage everything into the appropriate list.
Now that you have everything, it’s time to put it into the appropriate task list. This is actually far simpler than you would think. It really focuses on answering the following questions:
- Is this the next action for me to do? If so, put it in the next action list.
- Is this something I will have to wait for someone else? If so, put it on the ‘waiting on’ list.
- If it isn’t something you have to wait on and it isn’t a ‘next action,’ then put it in your Someday/Maybe list.
- Is this something I want to do? If so, put it in the Someday/Maybe list.
- If it isn’t something you are sure you want to do, put it in the Tickler list, and you can review it another time.
№5 — Review your task list regularly.
I look at my task lists every day, and it doesn’t overwhelm me at all. The key to checking your task lists early is to make sure you move tasks around each day for what you are doing that day.
If you complete tasks on your next action list, then move new ones into there as you can start working on them. The idea looks like this:
Tickler List to Someday/Maybe List to Next Action List to Today’s List
Also, during your daily review of tasks, this is a good time to capture any other tasks you might have come to mind. Dump those tasks first into an inbox and then triage them out to the different task lists. Then go about your day.
An Objection To Multiple Task Lists
Some people have an objection to having multiple task lists because it feels overwhelming and complicated. However, when you keep them clearly defined and focus on moving through a few tasks every day, these lists actually shrink because you are getting things done. In fact, you will start to get a lot more things done.
This is an objection many people have had for a long time. In fact, this article from David Allen shares two of the highlights. One specifically is the overwhelming fact that some people have task lists a mile long. Yet, when you start to work your way through some of these tasks, they are quite simple.
However, it’s like Allen says, “Either keep them or don’t.”
I honestly think that simple is best when it comes to task lists.
The key to making a task list simply though is making sure that you are keeping it clear and concise. It doesn’t need to have thousands of layers to it or be kept in one space so it is longer than your arm. What it does need is order. That’s why having a few focused lists with clear tasks helps you get through things fast.
Now, there are other ways to keep track of your tasks. However, I am convinced that this is the best way possible.