Battle To-Do Debt

My colleague, Alex Gustafson, recently wrote about To-Do Debt, and I’d like to dissect his post.🙂

Reminder: I try to practice the methods described in “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” by David Allen.

I’m one of those people that uses a full to-do list as motivation to keep the day moving. Left to my own devices I can sit quietly in my chair and let hours float by while I just think. There’s lots of thinking to do. But when I have a full list, it’s a lot less likely I’ll waste my time this way.

The end result is that I add a due date to almost everything in my Wunderlist so that I can stare at the “Today” smart list instead of into my own mind. The other result is that a lot of my recurring events will go red (i.e., late) and stay red for great lengths of time.

I think you’ve gone numb to a few areas in your task manager. The edges of your system are fuzzy from missing proper categorization, and you have too many items scheduled to be completed each day.

Confession: I do the latter often. It’s a work in progress.🙂

If you ignore the red text (time-sensitive to-dos), the system breaks down from lack of trust, and reduce the chances that you’ll take those to-dos seriously. Don’t set unnecessary due dates on to-dos.


David Allen suggests using your calendar for items due on a certain days.

I use my calendar for timed events and informational items (a.k.a. FYI), but I’m cool with due dates in my task manager, Things, where to-dos or projects appear in red on the day they need to be completed.


I spot an Automattic and Ingress list in your sidebar, and suggest creating folders and/or more lists. (e.g. DnD, Draw, Read, Blog/Main, Blog/Baby, and Someday.)

Glancing at the lists in your sidebar can help with a trigger to review the to-dos in each list, and keep you accountable to move items forward to completion. (Or, help you realize you should move a list/to-do to your Someday folder/list.)

Sort the to-dos into lists when you determine where they belong, rather than staying there indefinitely. If a to-do isn’t in a list, I feel it has less importance because I haven’t fully determined how and why it needs to be done.

Add tags (context) to to-dos in your Inbox. Tags allow you to reduce the number of displayed items appropriate to your current context.

Here are some example tags:

  • Time (5m, 10m, 15m, 30m, 45m, 60m, 90m)
  • computer
  • home
  • errand
  • call
  • iPhone
  • internet
  • write
  • read
  • book
  • buy
  • car
  • Energy (low, medium, high)

In practice:

  • 07:30 — I’m inspired to write! I’ll view the “write” tag.
  • 11:45 — I have 15 minutes at work before heading out to lunch. In the Automattic list, view the “15m” tag.
  • 16:00 — I’m tired. I’ll wind down by catching up on reading P2s threads by viewing to-dos with the “read” tag in the Automattic list.
  • 20:30 — Are there five or six quick to-dos around home I can complete within the next 30 minutes? View the Home list, then search for the “5m”, “10m”, “15m”, or “30m” tags.

For instance, learning to draw is a hobby right now. I want to do a little bit everyday, but it’s much lower priority than finishing my work tasks or chores at home. So it hasn’t happened in almost a week.

Is it a priority, would you like for it to be a priority, or will it be a priority at a later date? This is a great exercise, as I sometimes find myself inadvertently embracing guilt, rather than punting something to my Someday list, or scheduling the to-do to resurface on a later date.

At least once a week, review all your lists — to-dos and projects — in order to:

  • Add new items.
  • Add context to items that have gone stale.
  • Add subtasks to stalled to-dos. Don’t forget to add tags to those subtasks.
  • Check completed items.
  • Delete irrelevant items.
  • Punt items to a Someday list.

While the features and terminology might differ, the concepts are similar from Getting Started with Things:

Great titles for your to-dos make a big difference. […] Be crystal-clear about the real action you’re going to take, so that when you see the to-do again later you won’t have to think twice about what you meant.

Using your screenshot, here are some examples where I combine the above concepts (descriptive title that conveys action, plus tags):

  • “Blog post” vs. “Blog post: Read and scoff at Bryan’s post about To-Do Debt” (Tags: read, 10m, computer, internet)
  • “Read” vs. “Read GTD: Chapter 1” (Tags: read, 30m, book)
  • “DnD Writing” vs. “Write about x” (List: DnD. Tags: 30m, write)
  • “Drawing” vs. “Start sketch of y” (List: Draw. Tags: 30m, write)

Mowing the yard is important, but I hate doing it and I’m only willing to bother under the right weather conditions and time. So it will probably stay red all the way up until there’s a jungle in my back yard.

Let’s apply some a couple minutes of thought to the to-do “Mow the Yard” as an exercise.

  • Do you need to prepare anything before you can start mowing the yard? If yes, add subtasks.
  • How much time will it take? Add tags!
  • Do you and your wife care if it’s a jungle in the back yard? If not, move it to your Someday list or folder to get rid of the guilt. You’ll come across it when you review your lists weekly, or when you see a jungle in your back yard.🙂

At what point do you declare to-do bankruptcy to get rid of all this to-do debt?

I don’t; that’d entail nuking the whole system and starting from scratch.

Throw Simba

Instead, I employ the above techniques to renegotiate my agreements to eliminate any guilt.

I can work very hard all day, cross lots of items off my list, and still feel like I’m not getting traction.

Traction on what? Try adjusting your Smart Lists so Completed is visible, and review it daily for a confidence boost — or reality check if you’re doing to-dos that aren’t relative to your goals.

I’m one of those people that uses a full to-do list as motivation to keep the day moving. Left to my own devices I can sit quietly in my chair and let hours float by while I just think. There’s lots of thinking to do. But when I have a full list, it’s a lot less likely I’ll waste my time this way.

The end result is that I add a due date to almost everything in my Wunderlist so that I can stare at the “Today” smart list instead of into my own mind.

Takeaways

  • You already have a full to-do list in Wunderlist (and your calendar). Both are technically groups of organized sublists in various designs and layouts. Review both when you have discretionary time, then work off those tasks.
  • Limit your Today smart list for to-dos that need to be done today.
  • Pat yourself on the back! Review your Completed smart list regularly.
  • Allow yourself to “punt” items to a later date, into your Someday list, or into the trash.
  • Bonus: Read “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” by David Allen.😉

Thanks for the prompt, Alex!

Published by

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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