How to manage tasks more efficiently

A coworker I know keeps a spiral notebook of their task lists, and it contains one page per day. If an item doesn’t get done that day, it gets moved to the next day.

Is this good or bad? It’s good because you’re writing everything down. It’s bad because you’re wasting time rewriting down items if they get bumped.

In “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity,” David says:

Three things go on your calendar:

  • time-specific actions;
  • day-specific actions; and
  • day-specific information.

Those three things are what go on the calendar, and nothing else! I know this is heresy to traditional time-management training, which has almost universally taught that the “daily to-do list” is key. But such lists don’t work, for two reasons.

First, constantly new input and shifting tactical priorities reconfigure daily work so consistently that it’s virtually impossible to nail down to-do items ahead of time. Having a working game plan as a reference point is always useful, but it must be able to be renegotiated at any moment. Trying to keep a list in writing on the calendar, which must then be rewritten on another day if items don’t get done, is demoralizing and a waste of time. The “Next Actions” lists I advocate will hold all of those action reminders, even the most time-sensitive ones. And they won’t have to be rewritten daily.

Second, if there’s something on a daily to-do list that doesn’t absolutely have to get done that day, it will dilute the emphasis on the things that truly do. If I have to call Mioko on Friday because that’s the only day I can reach her, but then I add five other, less important or less time-sensitive calls to my to-do list, when the day gets crazy I may never call Mioko. My brain will have to take back the reminder that that’s the one phone call I won’t get another chance at. That’s not utilizing the system appropriately. The way I look at it, the calendar should be sacred territory. If you write something there, it must get done that day or not at all. The only rewriting should be for changed appointments. (David Allen, 40-41)

When something comes up, figure out if it has a deadline before writing it down. Does this have a due date?

  • If so, write it in the calendar!
  • If not, write it in your Next Actions list. It’s just something you need to get done as soon as you can.
  • If you have one or more physical items (i.e. letters to reply to, bills), and it’s day-specific, it should go into a tickler file as long as you check it everyday.

I love digital over analog because the moment something in my Next Actions list gets day-specific, it’s simple to convert that item. However, if you like having things on paper, you can always print it out at the start of the day, make changes in pen, then make the updates at the end of the day within whatever program you use. (e.g. Palm Desktop, Outlook)

Bottom line: Daily to-do lists stink. Time and day-specific actions or information goes on the calendar, and everything else goes into Next Actions. If you have a lot of Next Actions and want to take it a step further, use contexts. (See “One task at a time“)

Note: Projects are a monster topic I’m aware wasn’t included here. They do consist of multiple Next Actions, but I track those in a different way. That’ll be in a future post.

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Bryan Villarin

Bryan is a Happiness Engineer at Automattic. He's also a photographer, card magician, and cat whisperer. (Thanks to my friend and colleague Steve Blythe for the sweet photo!)

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