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10 Tips For Managing Your To Do List

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To do list

To do lists can be a great source of empowerment. Or a big source of frustration. The meaning to you really comes down to how you manage your to do list or task manager. Are you afraid of looking at your to do list? Does your to do list frustrate you from time to time? If so, you need to address this as soon as possible. Here are our top 10 tips for managing your to do list.

1. Clear your inbox every day

Your inbox for tasks is a great place to collect things you need to do and process, but don’t forget to clear it at least once a day. The digital version of clutter is an inbox too big to handle. This does not only apply to email, but also your inbox for which you process tasks. Set aside a time of the day where you clear your inbox. As you capture notes and things to do, clear your inbox before it becomes a big pile that frightens you which in turn makes you more likely to procrastinate. So before the end of the day, try to have your inbox at zero.

2. Get rid of junk

We all have times when we come up with a great idea or something we need to do, so we note them down. Sometimes days, weeks or even months later, we have never acted on those thoughts and they just fill up space on your to do list. If an item has been on your list for too long, delete it. If it is truly important, it will find a way back on your to do list. Till then, out of sight, out of mind.

3. 80/20 your active projects

There is no point in having over dozens of active projects in your task manager, because you cannot work on all of them at the same time. You have to focus on your most important projects, or in other words apply the 80/20 rule. Keep 3-5 active projects and focus on those.

4. No more outcomes

Stop writing down outcomes and start writing down actionable steps. When you read your to do list, you should be able to figure out right away what you should be doing next. What a lot people often do is that they write down the outcome they want, but the problem is that they often don’t know how to get started which leads to procrastination.

Instead of writing down “fish oils”, write down “Go to the pharmacy and buy fish oils”.

Instead of “boxing”, you write “Order the PPV package for Saturday’s match”.

You get the idea.

5. Start your tasks with verbs

To follow up on the previous point, to make your action items actionable you should start all of them with a verb. This is really simple trick and it amazes me most people don’t use it. For example:

  • Email John about the Q2 reports
  • Text Gina for availability for a date this Saturday
  • Call Alan and ask which car mechanic he uses
  • Take the trash out

By starting your task with a verb, you know right away what to do. This also helps you avoid writing down outcomes. One verb to avoid using is “contact” because it is too ambiguous; it could mean texting, calling, emailing, and so on. When you read your action item, there should be no ambiguity on what you should be doing.

6. Why?

We have written before on the power of having a why. When you deal with your tasks, ask yourself these questions:

  • Why am I adding this to my to do list? – If you don’t plan to act on it, don’t bother to even add.
  • Why do I need to do this? – If you are not the best person to do this, outsource it.
  • Why is this important? – If it is not, delete it.

7. Add a time estimate

Not all tasks take the same amount of time. By adding an estimation to your tasks you will see if a task is too big to handle. When a task takes longer than an hour, that is a sign that the task is too big. Break it down into smaller tasks, because if the task is too big you are more likely to procrastinate.

An example of a task that is too big is “renovate the living room”. This will definitely take more than an hour to complete and it involves a lot of other tasks, so it is a good idea to break this down and maybe even make this a project.

In the beginning you will be horrible at estimating, but as you continue to practice you will get better at it. You will build an intuition for how long something will take which in turn makes you even better at managing your time.

8. Have next actions ready

Popularized in the book Getting Things Done, next actions are tasks that are needed to be done to move a project forward. You can also look it at it from another perspective: what is the bottle neck of a project? By removing the bottle neck, your project isn’t stalled anymore and you can start working towards completing it.

If you ever feel like you have some free time and you don’t know what you could be doing, that’s a red flag. You either are overwhelmed by the amount of things you can do or you haven’t setup your to do list properly. If the latter is the case, get out your next actions list and start working on them.

9. Review once a week

Reviewing your to do list is the process of going over every project and making sure everything is in order. To keep your to do list in order, you need to at least review it once a week. Just like you should go see a dentist every six months for an inspection, the same idea applies to your to do list but on a weekly basis.

If you tend to procrastinate on your weekly reviews, that’s a sign that you have too many projects going on. A review shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes.

10. Have reference materials ready

To avoid procrastination you want to make it as easy as possible for yourself to get started (that’s why we recommend the habit of clearing to neutral). Any friction can to lead to procrastination. For example, if you need to call your local Costco but you don’t have the phone number within reach, you will have first search for this number. This extra step, or barrier to what you want to achieve, is a waste of time and if you’re not in the right mood or state of mind you will procrastinate.

If you need to call someone, have the phone number as part of your action item. For example, instead of writing “Call Costco and ask for availability of Dutch peanut butter” you would write down “Call Costo (123-555-5555) and ask for availability of Dutch peanut butter”. If you need to go to a store, have its address attached to your notes of your action item. If need to access a document, attach the document to your action item.

Make it easy for yourself to get things done straight away so you don’t waste time looking up reference materials.

Photo by purpleslog.

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Posted by Adi  | July 6, 2015 at 2:28PM | Reply

Hello guys,

A very interesting article about the to-do-lists you can find here. It could be an extension to points 2, 3 and 7 from your article.
It seem to me as a next step in planning my work.

All the best and you are doing a great job.


Posted by James Meuwissen  | November 22, 2014 at 2:20PM | Reply

I am with Steve, and going to print this one out and pin it to the wall in my office.
Thanks again, Aaron

Posted by Steve Koterski  | January 10, 2013 at 9:58AM | Reply

I am going to print this one out and pin it over my desks — home office and client office. This is all common sense. But you compiled it so concisely and eloquently that it stands as an essential cheat sheet for to-do lists. Great job.

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | January 16, 2013 at 5:16AM

Thanks Steve!

Posted by Niko Apostolidis  | September 24, 2011 at 8:04PM | Reply

I receive 200-300 emails daily and I still go to inbox zero and keep up with my action item list.  I started with 111 active projects, now I usually float around 30, plus my teams action items that means at any one time I keep tabs on 50 projects.

I use every single piece of advice on this post.  If you have a busy life and / or you have a team under you, do yourself a favor and make all of these your daily habits.

Posted by Thanh Pham  | September 25, 2011 at 1:20AM

Hi Niko, great to hear these tips have been working for you. Seems like you got your hands full with that many projects. Out of curiosity, what type of job requires that many projects? I can imagine you must have your own little management system going on if you can keep track of that many moving parts. I would love to hear how you do that.

Posted by Niko  | March 27, 2012 at 9:35AM


I never replied to your question.

I work in the video industry, I am in charge of a team that makes sure video is broadcasted to all our customers. As such there is multiple things happening at the same time from customer issues, to upcoming upgrades to video providers like ESPN changing something in their system. Which is why so many projects exist.

For example right now I am using Agile Results, I have 27 MUST outcomes in the list, that does not take into account SHOULD / COULD / Personal and my Queue (aka Someday) or Waiting…if you can’t tell I am using GTD + Agile at the same time. It would be too long to type in a comment. If you want I can write a guest post. I can send it to you, and if you like it you can post it, if not no worries I can use it for sending it to my team internally so it will not go into waste.

Posted by Triple  | September 23, 2011 at 8:25AM | Reply

Great list guys. I’m guilty of not clearing my inbox every day and having next actions ready. Will need to work on that.

Posted by Thanh Pham  | September 23, 2011 at 8:28AM

Yeah I would set aside a specific time of the day to clear your inbox. Preferably twice a day if you can.

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