Are you Wasting 50% of your Time?

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In today’s constant-distraction-and-huge-todo-list culture, it’s extremely easy to get sidetracked by things that aren’t vital to achieving your goals.

Here are some simple tips for making sure you’re not wasting a large percentage of your time on things that don’t matter.

#1 Gather Your Todos

I use Remember the Milk to record all my todos. I group them by projects and then assign due dates and priorities. They also have a great iPhone app which syncs automatically with the web app.

Whether you use Remember the Milk or another tool, it’s super important to write things down as soon as you think of them. If you don’t, then you’ll constantly be plagued by the feeling that you’re forgetting something (I have over 500 tasks currently active in Remember the Milk).

#2 Organize Your Todos on Monday Morning

A sure-fire way to waste 50% of your time is to charge into the week without organizing your todo list and inbox. There will be hundreds of things shouting for your attention and you need to proactively choose which things are important to you – not things that other people say are important for you to do. As someone once said …

Your email inbox is a todo list that anyone can write to.

Here’s how to organize your todo list:

  1. Block off the first hour of every Monday to organize your todo list. Turn off instant messenger, close email and silence your phone. You need absolute silence so you can focus. I tend to do this from 5am – 6am on Monday mornings, before my wife and son wake up.
  2. Go through the todo lists for all your current projects (in Remember the Milk in this example) and pick important things that you need to do this week. Prioritize them and assign them a due date this week, or tag them with ‘thisweek’.
  3. Use a tool like and create a list called ‘This Week’. It’s important that this is separate from your main repository of todos (Remember the Milk in this example).
  4. Take a deep breath and ask yourself “What are the things that I could work on this week that will get me closer to my longterm, important goals?”. (These things may not even be on your Remember the Milk todo lists.)
  5. Put several of these things on your ‘This Week’ list in TadaList and prioritize them by putting the most important things first. Make sure these are atomic, do-able things (not big concepts like ‘Increase signups by 3%’).
  6. Go back to Remember the Milk (or whatever tool you’re using) and filter it by tasks due this week.
  7. Pick several of the important ones and copy them over to your ‘This Week’ list in TadaList.
  8. Close Remember the Milk and only refer to the small ‘This Week’ TadaList for the rest of the week.

What you’ll find is that you had a ton of things that you were supposed to do this week (in your Remember the Milk list) but only 10 or 20 of them are really important. Those 10 or 20 items should be added to your TadaList. At that point, I’d close your Remember the Milk list, and only look at your TadaList for the rest of the week.

Another reason to distill your huge weekly todo list down into a smaller list is that it will keep you motivated and excited, as you’re consistently finishing your todos for the day, instead of having 15 undone items at the end of the day.

Here’s a screenshot of an example TadaList. Note that I’ve created a pretend item called ‘==== END TODAY =====’. This helps me see what I’m supposed to complete today, and feel good about it once they’re all done.

screenshot of TadaList showing todos for this week

#3 Stick to Your Guns

The most important thing is to stick to your simple ‘This Week’ todo list (the TadaList in this example) and not get distracted when new things get thrown at you. Just remember that you have control over what you’re doing and whether it’s helping you move towards your longterm, important goals.

Don’t waste 50% of your time on things that don’t matter.

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0 comments on “Are you Wasting 50% of your Time?

  1. We do this! Making smaller lists seem to make all your tasks a lot more fun and manageable. I use ‘The Hit List’ app. It rocks!

    • Yup – used Things for awhile but found it frustrating they didn’t have a web app version.

  2. Another vote for remember the milk from me. I love Things too, but I need something that can work across multiple platforms and be synced everywhere, only a webapp will do that for me and RTM is the best of the bunch in my opinion.

    I like the tips Ryan, I have a similar workflow but picked up a few tips I might try out. I’m surprised though that you use a totally separate todo list app for your week tasks, couldn’t you create a smart list in RTM for this (e.g. dueWithin:”1 week of today” AND priority:1)? Or is the objective to keep the big list of tasks out of sight, out of mind?

    • Hey Ian,

      Thanks for the comment.

      Yes, the reason why I think it’s important to have a completely separate program for the two lists is that there isn’t the temptation to click around on other todos that you shouldn’t be working on. It also feels cleaner to me, but it’s just a personal pref :)


  3. You know I really don’t waste any time at all but sometimes it feels that way, especially when I’m planning a project. Like researching, drafting, communicating with a client, I try to put a deadline but I always feel that if I put more time in researching I’ll get better results.

    Anyways I use Chandler, a free tool to make sure I meet deadlines, I personally love it because I put everything in there, notes, ideas, to do lists, set up schedules, there’s even a timer too.


    • Hey Yung – I think you’re right: sometimes it’s easy to feel like you’re not accomplishing things when you’re researching, drafting, etc. I tend to put things like that in my todo list as ‘Spend 2 hours researching project x’ and then I can dedicate that time and feel it was valuable.

  4. I use a project management script. Not only for todos, but for storing information, fixing bugs and to keep my work clean and organized. There are a few dozens of scripts like this, but I use Collabtive (google it). It has an AMAZING User-Interface, it’s Open-Source and GPL licensed.

  5. Wonderful article. I have a similar method using Mac Journal for my todo lists (have an old habit of calling them tickler files) organizing each project as a journal and keeping an active todo entry in each journal. I then create a separate “this week” entry for each project that allows me to filter results quickly. Of course a great way to make sure you don’t waste time is to turn off email and instant messaging all but a handful of times during the day, I can’t believe how much time I waste if I forget to quit Mail throughout the day.

    • Totally agree about turning off email programs like Mail. I usually bang out some emails, then close the tab (I use Google Apps for email). That way I don’t keep switching back to it.

  6. Hi Carson, Great Article!
    I remember the days when I was doing my primitive TO-DO list by sketching on paper… making the tables, etc..etc….then…. spreadsheet apps came and helped …. until those well done Action sheets ( ).
    Will give it a try on Remember the Milk!
    By the way…additionally I’m using KLOK to time track my work. Great app.

    Until FOWD’10 … keep writing!
    All best!

  7. Decent article. Although you could have covered even more. To do lists and what not are a great start. What about other methods to help the work day flow more efficiently?

    • Thanks – I’ll try to blog about a few more methods in the future. Thanks for stopping by!

  8. Great article!

    I’ve been using Basecamp’s for all my business projects and good ol’ Moleskine notebook for daily activities that have to be accomplished by the end of the day.

    And this goes hand-in-hand when you say: “Make sure these are atomic, do-able things…” — I think that’s key in setting up tasks and getting them done.

    I wasn’t so sure about your suggestion of using two various web-apps to accomplish one thing, but I than I realized I’m doing the same thing using Basecamp for ‘global’ and Moleskine for ‘daily’.

    Thanks for sharing Ryan.

  9. Hey Ryan, liked the article, but I’m surprised you didn’t tell us what todo list app *you* use to organise yourself.

  10. Hi Ryan,
    Great article – very interesting idea of using two todo lists!

    Doesn’t it freak you out that you’ve got so many open todos on your RTM site?

    Also, I’ve looked at RTM but have been a bit confused about the bazillion ways you can catergorise tasks etc – what approach do you take to organising RTM please?

    I tend to use Highrise, a 37 signals tool, which is a simple CRM but also handles simple task lists.


    • Hey Joel – That’s why I don’t keep RTM open during the week – it would stress me out :)

  11. Hi Ryan,

    A great article and somewhat similar to what I do. I assume you’ve heard of the Pomodoro Technique. I use a variation on that in that I have a master list of various To-Do’s relating to projects and non projects. Each morning I take 25 mins to pick out the important tasks for that day. I start work on each task in turn and have a seperate sheet for things that come up during the day that aren’t planned for. I then decide whether these are things that should be added into my ‘To-Do Today’ list or whether they’re added into my master To-do list for another day.

    I like your idea of having an overall To-Do This Week list. If I was to start to use this I would use it to populate my To-Do Today list. Yes it adds an extra layer to my overall process but I see no problem with this as it just makes things more granular.

    Thanks for the advice!

    • Hey Gareth – I haven’t tried Pomodoro, but it sounds really interesting. I like your idea of a separate list for things that come up. Thanks for stopping by!

      • Like all productivity methodologies it’s well worth checking out if nothing more than out of curiosity. The concept itself revolves around working blocks of 25 minutes which are referred to as Pomodoros. The technique involves dealing with distractions which is where I ‘borrowed’ the idea of having a list to capture things as they come up. I struggle to implement the full concept of the technique but cut and paste the bits that I need. It’s been a great addition to my productivity workflow!

  12. I really should use to-do lists more often. I usually make on when i feel like there’s just too much do to. I use windows 7 and remember the milk doesnt seem to have a feature for me? Suppose I could use the gmail-version tho. What I’d really want is kind of a gadget to keep on the desktop. Any suggestions?
    Thanks for a good article, made me think twice about these sorta things.

    • Hey Jonathan – You can use the web based version of Remember the Milk on Windows 7.

  13. Great post. Never heard of but will be looking at it. I do need a strategy that works for my tasks especially with clients sending in requests all the time.

  14. Hi Ryan,

    Here at Imulus we had a same issue of task management across the team. We tried using different types of applications such as Things, Ta-da list, etc., but we still found loopholes that end up costing us more time in the end. I’ll have one task item that I’m concentrating for that day or week, but another team member would have no clue of my workload and assign me with an urgent task that would need to be completed by the end of the day, when in fact I already had two other urgent tasks due that day. Time for some hair pulling? To resolve that problem, we developed Stacks ( that visually represents individual workload and has been of great help for our team. Nothing gets in the way anymore.

    As far as my personal to-do tasks, I’ll use The Hit List or Simplenote for jotting down notes.


  15. I’m old school. I use a pen, a legal pad, and my brain. Hasn’t failed me, yet.

  16. Thanks for the great software tips. I just finished reading Michael Linenberger’s latest book, “Master Your Workday Now!” and it was pointed out to me that there are a lot of great ways to organize your time better. I found out, for instance, what a huge time waster email is. Love your idea of turning email and instant messenger off for one hour while you organize your tasks.

  17. Hi Ryan,
    I’m a little disappointed in this blog post because it sounds like a bit of a rehash of the one you wrote less than a year ago (which is also showing up as ‘related’) – but now you’re using a different app. I found that original one really useful, as you might be able to tell from my essay length comment on there (!) so I was surprised in reading this one to find that you don’t mention the earlier blog post at all, or how you’ve tried other apps in the past.

    I’d be super interested to hear in detail about why you’ve switched applications, a comparison piece kind of thing. This would be so valuable because it takes time to get to know an application well and since you obviously knew Things pretty well, I’d like know what it did do well and what it didn’t do so well.

    By not referring to that blogpost or your GTD app usage history at all, I feel like you are not acknowledging us regular readers and this leads me to think that you’re more interested in driving new traffic to your website rather than engaging in an ongoing discussion with your community.

    • Hey Emily,

      Thanks for the comment, and for being interested in the community here at TV (we appreciate it! :D)

      You’re right – it would be useful for you guys as readers to see why I’m moving away from Remember the Milk and towards a simpler solution. I didn’t think about that when I wrote this article, to be honest, so thanks for pointing that out.

      If I have time, I’ll try to do that in the future.

      Hope you’re well!

      – Ryan

  18. I’m using and since adopting it, I haven’t missed a single deadline nor forgotten a todo.

    One of the nicest features is that it has a gmail addon that allows you to attach emails (with link) to your items so I get email requests, “add email”, set a date and when it’s done, I can click on the link, then reply to the person and say “done…”.

    Works for me :)

  19. Hi,

    very nice article!

    I’m already practicing this way of todo listing, but on paper. A have a huge list of overall todos. Every day in the morning i mark the items to be finished that day.

    After reading your post i’ll try to switch to your tool based weekly variant.

    Thanks and best regards
    Jean Marie

  20. Very interesting post! I didn’t know before, just signed up some minutes ago and already like it. I also like the function to share the list with someone else – will help in projects you work with several people.
    Great, thanks for the insights!

  21. Klok is an amazing program, I’ve used it for a long time now. The UI is incredibly friendly, and it only took me a few minutes to figure everything out. I wrote a review on Klok from a self employed game developers perspective, give it a read if you get the time. Glad to see the developers getting the attention they deserve, they’ve worked hard on giving us a great, free program.