Eric Karjaluoto

A Simpler To Do List

A To Do list/app is useful for collecting all your tasks in a single spot. The downside to such a thing, though, is that it often becomes an unmanageable catch-all. (You might have noticed that the tasks in your To Do list rarely goes down in number—even when you work harder.)

The unshrinking nature of To Do lists has something to do with activity begetting more activity. So, when I complete an article for our startup’s blog, I then need to format it, prepare an illustration, tweet it, and so on. This might not be the greatest example, but you likely catch my drift: doing stuff leads you to do more stuff. This is difficult to get around.

The other, more addressable issue relates to organization. Most tasks fall into one of a handful of categories. These include: Critical; Moderately important; Less important but necessary; Unimportant; Aspirational; and, Doesn’t belong here. Determining which tasks belong in which categories involves substantial cognitive load. Plus, tasks are often interconnected. This requires you to make decisions individually—while considering other ramifications.

If you don’t sequence items in your To Do list by their importance, you’re likely to do the wrong things. Most commonly, this involves working long hours on tasks that just aren’t important.

Over the past months, I tried some new approaches for managing my To Do list. These are easy mechanisms to put in place—but not always easy to keep up. But, they seem to be working, so I thought I’d share them.

The first is a directional planning document. I work on mine once a week. It’s a simple list (three items) noting what I want to focus on, and why. The shorter it is, the better. This helps me remember why I’m even bothering with the tasks in my To Do list.

The second is a Don’t page. Mine is here. In it, I note the things I intend to avoid doing. Some of these points are goals more than absolute statements. For example, one of mine is: I don’t use social media. (Truthfully, though, I haven’t made this happen, yet.) Nevertheless, a Don’t page can help you determine which tasks should never find their way to your To Do list.

The third are Could Do lists. If you run a startup, or are building something that never really ends, these are useful. Could Do lists might contain lists of potential articles. Or, they might house marketing options. Alternately, they could be ideas for new paintings you might create. Regardless, keep these possibilities off to the side, perhaps in a Notes application, so you don’t see them too often. You reference these lists when you need something to do, not because they need to be done.

The point of a Could Do list, is to have a container for all your (likely many) ideas—knowing that you can’t possibly act on every one of them. By having a catch-all for these, they’ll no longer clutter your To Do list. This single change can make your To Do list feel surmountable.

We often ask tools to do more than they’re built to. Maybe you tap a nail in with the back of a screwdriver—because you don’t feel like walking upstairs to get a hammer. Or, you might hate email, because you expect it to do things it wasn’t built for. The same happens with a To Do list. Although it can be useful, it’s not for everything.

A To Do list should contain things you can complete and cross off. Tasks in it shouldn’t remain there for more than a month or two. And if your items in it number more than 25, you might need to give the whole thing a rethink.

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