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Apr 3, 2006

How To Escape To-Do List Hell

Welcome to the 10th circle of Hell … to-do lists. They look all cute and cuddly at first, but then … they get mean … and they get ugly … and there’s a million of them. (10 points to anyone who gets that movie quote).

To-do lists – done wrong – can eat you alive. To defeat them, you need to first master the “art of the capture.”

Here’s what I mean. How many ways do you currently use to capture things to do?

  • Tasks scribbled on Post-it notes?
  • Scraps of paper with to-dos?
  • Phone numbers crammed into your wallet, purse, or pockets?
  • Ideas jotted down on meeting handouts?
  • A pile of paper in an inbox? And on the table? And in your briefcase? And … well … everywhere?

As I said, welcome to hell. Too many people live here (and admittedly, I have fought the battle many times myself), where you make notes of all the things you have to do in so many places that you just can’t keep up with it all.

You’re either scrambling to find your lists, or forgetting to do the things in all those lists that you put … hmm, where did you put them? Oh, yeah, in your briefcase, where you’ll forget all about them until one day they turn up and you feel the incredible pressure of seeing two dozen things you also fogot to do. That’s no way to live. But in this too-fast world it’s all too easy.

But easy doesn’t get you where you want to go. So you’ve got to find a solution to the traditional To-Do List (TDL).

Basically, a traditional TDL has three problems:

  • It prevents you from seeing things in context, thereby creating a false sense of urgency for each item on the list (I’ve got to get all this done now!)
  • It can sap your motivation as you realize you put too many things on the list, and (yet again) you didn’t get all of it done.
  • It’s too hard to manage – having multiple lists means that there’s always “so much left undone” that swirls around your head, creating tension and distraction.

Now you do need a list of sorts to work from to get things done, but it’s not the “traditional” TDL that most people are used to. You need a list that more accurately reflects the truly important things that you need to do next, before anything else. But that’s a topic for another entry – right now we’re going to focus on the first step – cleaning up the way you handle your current TDL.

Now, let’s look at a TDL. Generally, it’s just a list of things you need to do, that’s maybe not organized but represents what seems really urgent in your head at the moment. You make these lists all the time, and you store them in different places, so these lists compete with one another. The list you made in a meeting – all that needs to get done. The list you made on the way to work – that needs to be done, too. That other list you made at home, at lunch, etc. … they all need to get done … and they all fight for your attention … and the seeds of overwhelm and procrastination are planted.

The way to avoid all of this, though, is simple. You need to commit to keeping one – and only one - “non-traditional” TDL. In otherwords, you need to merge all of your TDLs into one list, and do it constantly. Whenever you take notes anywhere that have to be acted upon, you must transfer them to your master TDL, and toss the ‘temporary’ list as soon as you do it.

This will give you these powerful advantages:

  1. Peace of mind – Since you’re not juggling so many lists anymore, you can breathe easy knowing that everything you need to do is ‘captured’ in one place. You won’t be scrambling to figure out where all your to-dos are anymore.
  2. Better project management – As you put all these items into your list, you’re likely to think of a bunch of related (or unrelated) items that you also have to do. You can capture them all in the same place and get them out of your head.
  3. Context - Since you can look at all your tasks at once, you can decide what’s truly your top priority – and make an action list that you can start working on, knowing that each of those actions truly matters in the grand scope of things and are the right ones for this moment in time.

Now, this isn’t rocket science – but it still has to be done right. You have to commit some time – regular, repeatable appointments with yourself – where you’ll take all the to-dos you’ve jotted down everywhere and consolidate them.

Personally, I keep a moleskine notebook (that you can pick up in any Barnes & Noble) to scribble all my to-dos down, and I schedule a regular time every day or two to pull them into my master list to manage later. I’m not a big fan of the PDA, since I like to scribble in ink, but to each his own, right?

So that’s the deal – if you want to reduce stress, make it easier to focus and ensure you’re getting more high-value activities done, make sure to dig yourself out of to-do hell as quickly as possible. You’ll thank yourself for it.

All the best -

Dave Navarro

One Response to “How To Escape To-Do List Hell”

  • Apr 5, 2009 Emily

    Thank you for this information, I’ve been searching for this for a while and you’ve really helped me out.

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