In my first job at a tech startup, I used to manage my tasks in a very liberal way: my to-do list was scattered across countless post-its, my journal, Google calendar, Evernote, Excel Sheets and Wunderlist — basically whatever was available when I needed to note something down.
On these lists were tasks like “integrate payment options in the app”, “grow user base to 50K” and “hire customer service staff”.
Big things were on my plate. I loved it.
So much that I didn’t feel the need to plan my day — everything I was working on was important and I was staying in the office until 10 pm anyway.
I was doing great…until I wasn’t.
The more responsibilities were added to my plate, the more messy everything got. My head was constantly spinning, trying to keep track of all the things I had to do.
I frantically grinded away on my never-ending to-do list that just growing bigger and bigger.
And even though I was working 14 hour days, I never felt I got much done during the day. Where did all the time go?
To say the least, I was stressed out, anxious, mentally exhausted and tired. Very tired.
But worse, I was unproductive. I was failing my goals and procrastinating on my most important projects.
I knew something had to change. So I started with the one thing I could control: myself.
I made a commitment to fundamentally change how I was managing my tasks and thus ultimately transform how I manage myself.
Here is the radical changes I made to stop failing my to-do list:
1. Manage all Tasks in ONE PLACE
When your to-do list is everywhere, it’s actually just in one place: your head.
But the entire point of a list is to download your thoughts so they don’t keep taking up mental operating space (the very mental space you need to solve all these real challenges in your business).
Thus, my first commitment was to pick ONE SINGLE tool as my external brain to manage the storage and organization of ALL my responsibilities. I started out with Wunderlist but soon felt limited by its features. I now use Amazing Marvin, a complete productivity solution which acts as my second brain.
But, honestly, it is really not about the tool you use, it is much more about staying consistent with your system. This means:
- Taking your to-do list wherever you go (e.g. as a mobile app) and immediately adding any tasks as soon as they come up. In rare cases where I don’t have access to my list, I allow myself to write it on a post-it which I keep in my handbag until I have added the task to my list.
- Using it every single day to keep it up-to-date at all times. Because the truth is: any tool is only as good as the habits you built around it. And when we don’t have effective practices to keep our list up-to-date, we end up feeling overwhelmed by everything that’s on our list and quit it entirely by starting a new list — which kicks off the vicious cycle again all over again.
- Finding a way to store, organize and plan your tasks in a way that works for you on a daily basis. Set up your main categories and projects and add deadlines, priorities and notes to your task if necessary. But be careful not to overcomplicate it: designing your own, complex productivity system is useless if you fail to stick to it in every day life! The structure of your to-do list should be simple, yet powerful.
2. Add Tasks the Right Way
The quality of your to-do list is all about how you treat each single task.
Each task you add to your list should be:
- Organized in a category or project: Don’t let your tasks float around without their parents or their tribe. If you put every task where it belongs, your list will no longer be this never-ending messy catalogue of things to do but a well-structured overview of your responsibilities.
- As specific as possible: When looking at a task, you should immediately know what to do — even if it’s weeks later. Instead of calling a task “Website Content”, name it “Write Content for About Page”. That way, you can start to work on it with a clear idea of the outcome. A great way to add more details to your task is to create sub-tasks (kind of like a checklist of all the things you need to do to complete that task).
- Doable in one sitting: There is another problem with tasks like “Website Content” — you most likely won’t finish them in a few hours or even in a day. And deep down, you know that and it makes you feel overwhelmed and dreading the task. So you start pushing that task further and further into the future! Adding way too big tasks to your list is a sure-fire recipe for procrastination! Instead, break down bigger tasks into chunks that can be done in one sitting. The key here is to pick a length that feels natural to you — some people need to switch tasks after 30 min, other people can sit for 3 hrs straight. Find your sweet spot and break down all your tasks into the same time chunks.
- Unique: Duplicates on your to-do list are usually a sign of inconsistency in using your tool, spending too much mental operating space on storing tasks in your head and not having your tool set up in a way that works for you (categories, projects, labels).
3. Separate the Daily List from the Master List
A great way to start your day with anxiety is to look at your entire to-do list. You see everything you have added the last week and before. You see the big projects and the small annoying stuff. And the list is f*cking long. And you feel like there is no way you could ever do all these things.
Of course this freaks you out. Because you don’t even know where to start and because you know you can’t possibly do all these things.
And you shouldn’t! In fact, you shouldn’t even think about your entire to-do list!
The only thing you should think about is this: What are my most important tasks for today?
To do that, you need to separate your daily list from your master list. Your Master List is your entire to-do list containing everything you need to do, organized by categories (e.g. work, household and health) and projects. And your Daily List is a sub-set of your Master List with the tasks that you want to get done today. Important: The key here is understand the difference between adding a deadline to a task and scheduling a task. Just because a task is due on Friday, doesn’t mean you do it on Friday, right?
Here is how the separation between Master List and Daily List looks like in the tool I use, Amazing Marvin:
If you are working with other tools like todoist, you can create a separate daily list by adding the label “today” to your tasks. That way, they will show up in a separate list.
Here are some more tips to manage your daily tasks effectively:
- Plan your day the night before when your head is still in your work. This will save you time in the morning trying to figure out what to do.
- Always add generous time estimates to your tasks to avoid over-scheduling yourself which leads to that nagging feeling of “not having done enough”. A great way to do this is to block out the time in your calendar. That way, you will see quickly how much you can get done in a day. Also, it keeps you from making the mistake of not accounting for the time spent in meetings, at lunch etc.
- Plan important work first: When you plan your day, don’t just look at your to-do list and pick things. Look at your goals and objectives for this month and ask yourself: What is the ONE THING I can do today that will bring me closer to that goal? More often than not, this task will actually NOT be on your to-do list because we tend to fill our to-do list only with urgent things. Schedule your most important task first and then add everything else!
4. Let the External Brain Take Care of Recurring Tasks
No matter how advanced your task management tool is, it is not really an external brain unless it automatically reminds you of the tasks you need to do regularly.
Whether it is washing your sheets once a month or updating the weekly report, you shouldn’t need to add these things to your to-do list every time they come up.
Instead, create recurring tasks in your tool that will automatically be added to your daily list when they need to get done. If you don’t do that, you will either forget things or spend lots of mental space on making sure you remember them.
Here is an example from my Daily List with recurring tasks in Amazing Marvin:
- My Morning Ritual is set as a daily recurring task so it shows up automatically at the beginning of my daily list
- Every morning I take 30 min to reply to my emails. This is added as a recurring daily task as well.
- Since it is Monday, my task “Weekly Reporting” is automatically added to my daily list as well.
- The rest are one-off tasks that are scheduled for this day (create job posting, write blog article).
5. Review the Day
Just as planning your day should come before starting your day, reviewing your day should come after it. If you do these two things every day, you set yourself up for task management success and you will become the master of your to-do list (instead of the other way round!).
Here is what to do at the end of each day:
- Review your daily list: Tick off everything that is done, delete tasks that have become obsolete (especially recurring tasks — they pile up fast) and reschedule everything that is left (but do this strategically — don’t just add it to the next day, think when you can really get it done!).
- Honor your Achievements: Look at the list of completed tasks and tap yourself on the back for it.
This way, you will leave the office feeling accomplished and knowing that your workload is under control.
To this day, I still follow these 5 commitments and as a result:
- I no longer feel overwhelmed by a my to-do list because I have a system that keeps me organized, focused and always on top of things
- I am able to focus on what is most important on any given day without being distracted by all the things I should be doing and thus make real progress on my goal every single day
- I leave the office at 6 pm with a sense of accomplishment because I finished the tasks I set out to do
- I can focus my mental energy on solving the problems in my business and creating new opportunities instead of wasting my mental space trying to keep track of everything
What is one thing from this list you can implement today that will have a big impact on your productivity and well-being? Let me know in the comments! :)