Managing our tasks lists (to-do lists) is one of those things that everyone knows they should do but seldom do. A lot of the time, this is because of the perceived complexity of task management – how to decide what should be due when, or what is more important in the given moment.
Here are three simple ways to manage your task list. These are all systems that I have personally used, and simple systems that I would recommend to anyone who doesn’t need a full-featured task manager like OmniFocus.
What is a Task
There are a number of ways to define tasks. Most simply, it is an actionable item that needs to be done in the present moment, or at a later date. By exclusion, a task is something that you have to do that doesn’t occupy a specific time slot on your schedule.
It is important to not confuse tasks and information. The act of filing information or organizing it is a task, but the information itself is not.
An interesting aside is that our ability to describe tasks has evolved quite significantly over the last decade or so. What used to be single-sentence descriptions in numerically ordered lists have become much more. Thanks to the influence (and popularity) of organizational systems such as David Allen’s Getting Things Done, we now have the ability to describe tasks in terms of the projects they belong to, the contexts they sit in, as well as the actions they encapsulate. This way of looking at tasks has allowed us to increase the amount of traceability in our to-do lists, and to see the relationship of individual actions to our different goals and parts of our lives.
Why Task Management
Task management is important. If for the simple reason that success in this world (however you wish to define it) seems to be the result of knowing what you want then directing action towards it. And without a clear list of tasks, there can be no directed action.
At the most basic level, tasks allow you to put down on paper the ideas and thoughts you have floating in your mind. We all have thoughts and ideas that in the moment we think are fantastic, and tell ourselves “I’ll remember that later”. Well, maybe you will, and maybe you won’t. Writing them down and turning them into actionable items guarantees that you will.
Having actionable items down on paper also allows us to utilize our organizational skills to decide what’s important and what isn’t. Is watching reruns of Lost more important, or is doing your laundry?
Actively managed tasks lists also create a certain degree of accountability in ourselves. It very clearly indicates where we have fallen short in terms of directed action, and is a good (if somewhat pressure-free) wakeup call to get more done.
A Simple Rule
From Getting Things Done:
“If it takes less than 2 minutes to do it, do it now.”
If you think of something to do and it takes less than 2 minutes to handle, do it now. Don’t put it on your task list.
This is the most complex part of this guide. Most people have different ways of organizing the different parts of their lives, but the one that I have seen the most often and found the most useful is the division of life into:
- Wealth (including career)
- Relationships (friends, family, significant other)
- General Happiness (catchall for everything else)
It would therefore make sense for our tasks to fall into these categories too. Sure, there will be the everyday mundane that doesn’t really sit inside that hierarchy. Things like going to the bank, doing the laundry, doing the grocery shopping. For this reason, I also recommend a general “Everyday” category for such things.
Now for some people this is too structured. In which case I would recommend:
- Projects: personal projects you have that you want to complete, like redecorating the living room, cleaning out the garage, or finishing a certain book.
- Events: e.g., planning a dinner party, organizing a family trip out of town.
- General Errands: same as the “Everyday” list above.
- Things For Later: ideas that you want to revisit one day, just not at the moment.
Pen and Paper Task Management
Pen and paper is the simplest form of task management, and the one that most people use (to varying degrees). The biggest problem with pen and paper is actually that most people start to develop a great task management system, then they stop using it or maintaining it due to the busyness of their lives.
The benefits of paper are many. It is very simple – you don’t need any complicated or expensive equipment, and it’s something you could easily teach to your mom/dad/family or any non-technically-inclined friends.
That’s not to say there aren’t downsides compared to other task management systems, the biggest probably being that you have to copy tasks over to the next day every single day to maintain a functioning system.
With that out of the way, here’s what you’ll need:
- Paper. Preferably in the form of a notebook (I recommend letter or A4 size).
- Post-it notes.
- At least 2 different colored pens – one for writing, one for highlighting.
Getting this system started is straightforward. Sit down, and take the time to write down everything on your mind. Write down all the things you have to do, all the random thoughts you have – everything. Grocery shopping for this week? Write it down. Doctor’s appointment in 2 weeks? Write it down. Call Jean back about that party next week? Write it down.
You should end up with a large list of unorganized thoughts and actions the first time you do this. Now you need to sort. In general, there will be three types of items you have listed: tasks, appointments and information.
You want to separate these out. Appointments will go in your schedule or calendar (we have a great piece about that here). Information should technically go into your personal wiki, but if we’re being simple here, transfer it to another notebook for the time being. Tasks are what you want to focus on for now.
Taking this list of tasks, start ordering them – start at 1, and go through to x, where x is the number of items on your list.
There’s no real need for categories with a paper system, it just tends to complicate things. You may find that certain tasks group together well around events or projects, and if they do you can list them that way.
Now that you have your initial list of tasks, it’s time to learn how to use the system effectively. You’ll have two lists: an “immediate action” list, and an “everything else” list.
At the start of every day, pick a new page in your workbook, put down today’s date, and list down all the “immediate action” items on your task list. These are tasks that are due today, or overdue, or will be completed in the next couple of days. Usually about 5 items is right for most people. All the other tasks, should sit in a separate notebook or in a page at the back of your notebook – we’ll come back to this second list later.
Now as you start your day, look at task number one, and start doing it until it’s done. Then onto task number two, and three and so on…
As you complete each task, tick it off or cross it out using a different colored pen. You can also reorganize the order of tasks on-the-fly if necessary.
At the end of every day, transfer everything left over to the next day. Now is also the time to take a look at that second “everything else” list, and see what needs to brought into your “immediate action” list for the next day.
If you have random thoughts or ideas during the day, grab a post-it and write it down. At the end of the day, the content of these post-its should either go into your “immediate action” list or “everything else” list – the post-its themselves should go in the bin.
As an example, here’s my own task list on pen and paper:
Notepad, Textedit or Microsoft Word Task Management
Digital text or what I like to call “Microsoft Word Task Management” is the next logical step towards more easily automating and managing your task list.
It is essentially the same as pen and paper task management, except everything is stored as files on your computer rather than in a notebook. This system is best used in an office environment, and where you don’t have the ability to mix your business and personal tasks together onto one list.
Starting to use the system is the same as with pen and paper – begin by typing out everything you have on your mind. Sort out the appointments and information, and the organize the remaining tasks into a hierarchical order.
You will likely want to use categories here, especially in a workplace where things are completed based on projects.
Using the system is a little different.
You will have one new document per each day. The filename should be something like tasklist-20101012.doc. This document will have both your task list (at the top), and at the bottom, it should have your “everything else” list – your items for later action.
At the beginning of each day, sort your tasks into relevant order (under projects if necessary) and begin working through them. At the end of each day, use the “save as” function to create a file with the next day’s date. As with pen and paper, move items into or out of the “everything else” section as necessary. Any random notes and ideas you accumulate throughout the day should go at the bottom in the “everything else” section.
While this system works best in the workplace, you can adopt it for personal use at home. Simply replace your work projects with a list of your personal projects, events and errands.
Here are some example text documents showing the progression of tasks over a few days, and how the system is used to manage them.
Things (for Mac) Task Management
Of the three systems that have been outlined here, Things (for Mac only – if you’re on Windows, I recommend starting with the digital text system above, there are no equivalent programs on a Windows platform yet), is the most complex yet the most elegant. It’s also my recommended choice for learning how to use tasks to boost your personal productivity.
Things has a distinct hierarchy built into the software. There are:
- Areas of Responsibility.
These should equivocate to:
- Tasks – individual actions.
- Projects – sets of tasks that have a finite limit. i.e., after a certain number of tasks, the project can be considered complete.
- Areas of Responsibility – ongoing activities that are never complete.
If we look back on our task hierarchy, we see that Areas of Responsibility match up well to the areas of Health, Wealth, Relationships and General Happiness. They also serve well as a “Things for Later” list and an “Everyday” list.
If you use Things, it is highly recommended that you use this particular hierarchy. If you choose instead to go organize around personal projects and events, that is also possible. You will likely not use Areas of Responsibility in that case, except for your “Things for Later” and “Everyday” lists.
As with the prior two systems, begin by collecting all your thoughts and actionable items in one place. In Things, this is called the Inbox and can be found at the top of the sidebar.
The next step is to establish your task hierarchy. Everyone should create an “Everyday/Errands” Area of Responsibility. The “for later” area found in the prior two systems is replaced in Things by the “Someday” list.
If you choose to use structured categories, set them up too:
If not, then you will create appropriate projects as you sort the tasks now collected in your inbox, which is the next step.
Take each of the tasks in your Inbox, and put them into projects as necessary, and put those projects (or tasks) into the appropriate Areas of Responsibility.
One of the great benefits of a task manager like Things is that you can due dates to individual tasks (and projects) in a useable fashion. So, be sure to assign due dates, and appropriate notes and tags to each of tasks as necessary. As a general rule, it is best to have a due date for every task.
Using this system is as deceptively simple. Use the different views in Things to see your tasks through different perspectives and filters.
The Today view lets you see everything immediately due – similar to the “immediate actions” lists from the pen and paper and digital text systems.
The Next view lets you see the next available actions across each of your projects.
The Scheduled view lets you see items set to start at a later date.
The Someday view lets you see items that are actionable later.
I suggest starting with the Today or Next views at the beginning of the day, and switching back and forth as necessary. As you complete a task, simply check it off your list (you can always review what you’ve completed in the Logbook).
At the end of each day, review what you’ve done in the Logbook, then look at the Someday and Inbox views and move items into projects as necessary.
Any thoughts or ideas you collect during the day should go into the Things Inbox, for categorization at the end of each day.
The main benefit of using a dedicated task manager like Things is that there’s no need to create a new list for each day – the list is always active, and automatically carries onto the next day. The other big benefit is the ability to synchronize with your iPhone and have your task list on-the-go all the time.
All these task management systems are easy to use and apply with a tiny bit of effort. They are all built on solid principles that should be in every task management system, namely:
- Easy to maintain.
- Sequential order of tasks.
- Ability to capture new tasks.
- Recognizing that not everything is immediately actionable.
You can start with these and make them as simple or complex as you like.
Pick a system and start using it. If you find it helpful, share it with your friends and family – everyone can be better organized!