How to Effectively Manage Your (Huge) Todo List

We live in hectic times. As information professionals we regularly have to battle overflowing email inboxes, monitor a flood of Tweets, craft attention-grabbing blog posts and on top of all that, remember to buy some milk on the way home.

I’ve developed a pretty effective methodology for making sure you stay focused on the important stuff. Grab a cup of coffee and let’s begin …

Organize Your Todos

The first thing you need to do is get all of your todos in one place. Gather them from all the various places you store them (sticky notes, notebooks, your brain, etc) and write them down in one place. I use Things, but anything will do (even pen and paper).

Once all your todos are in one place, group them into projects. Make sure to only use projects that you’re currently working on right now. Things that you’d like to do someday, but aren’t important at the moment should be filed away in a ‘Someday’ folder.

You’ll notice in the screengrab above that I’ve got ‘Active Projects’ and ‘Areas’. The basic difference is that Projects are discreet projects that will be finished at some point in the future, whereas Areas are general things that won’t ever be complete.

The Monday Morning Roundup

I wake up at 5am every Monday morning, stumble downstairs and fire up Things (my todo list program). I go through each of my ‘Projects’ and ‘Areas’ and tag things that need to be done this week with ‘This Week’. I also tag anything super important with ‘Important’.

When I’m done, I have a big list of things that need to be done this week. I then select about five of them that are tagged with both ‘This Week’ and ‘Important’ and I put them in the ‘Today’ list.

I repeat this each day, moving a few items from ‘This week’ to ‘Today’.

The key to the ‘Morning Roundup’ is that it’s done in a quiet place where you can concentrate on what’s really important. This is why I do it at 5am. My wife and 14 month old son are fast asleep and the house is absolutely quiet – it’s perfect for focusing and determing what’s really important.

Another benefit of this ‘quiet time’ is that it gives me some time to examine my life and ask questions like “Am I being a good father and husband?”, “What’s the big picture for where Carsonified is heading?”, “Am I happy with where my life is heading?” etc. We all need time to reflect on stuff like this – and it has to be done before the hectic activity of day-to-day life sets in.

Evil Email

The biggest killer to your productivity is email. Here’s the trick to making sure you don’t get sucked into the email blackhole:

Don’t check your email until you’ve ticked off at least two important things on your ‘Today’ list.

This is vital to making sure you don’t get distracted by what other people deem to be important for you.

As a wise man once said: “Your inbox is a todo list that anyone in the world can write to.”

Of course, if your boss emails you and asks for something to be done ASAP, then it’s best to listen. However, most everything else can wait until you knock out a few of your todos. This will leave you feeling refreshed and empowered.

A great tip is to tell your co-workers that if they need you to do anything urgently, then calling you is the best option, as you only check email occasionally.

Summary Tips

To sum up, here are few vital takeaway pionts:

  1. Spend time every Monday morning to organize and prioritize your todos for the upcoming week. You have to do this before you get into the office and everyone starts asking for your attention.
  2. Organize and prioritize your todos for the day before you do anything else.
  3. Knock out at least two todos before checking email.

Good luck! Please share any tips you have in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/dieselbug2007

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Comments

0 comments on “How to Effectively Manage Your (Huge) Todo List

  1. Funny… I did this for the first time this morning (admittedly, I slept 'til 5:15). I found it to be a fantastic way to start the day without feeling overwhelmed.

    For four or five years, I've used the HiveMinder (http://hiveminder.com) web service as my todo list manager. The benefits of the RSS feed, Google calendar integration, and universal access make it a good fit for my workflow.Also, it has a task review feature that basically does the "walk through" part for you: you are presented with each task you have entered and asked to re-assign/confirm due dates and priorities.

  2. Funny… I did this for the first time this morning (admittedly, I slept 'til 5:15). I found it to be a fantastic way to start the day without feeling overwhelmed.

    For four or five years, I've used the HiveMinder (http://hiveminder.com) web service as my todo list manager. The benefits of the RSS feed, Google calendar integration, and universal access make it a good fit for my workflow.Also, it has a task review feature that basically does the "walk through" part for you: you are presented with each task you have entered and asked to re-assign/confirm due dates and priorities.

  3. i like the get two done before you read your email. I tend to use gmail tasks.. Organise on th train on the way to work on my phone.

  4. Thanks for sharing the tips, will try them next week :-)

    I currently use todoist.com, simply because I'm not on a Mac at work (otherwise I'd use Things).

  5. Excellent post Ryan, the tip about email is very true – try not to check it first thing in the day (its hard to resist). My tip is to turn email checking to once per hour, Tim Ferriss has some good tips about reducing email in The Four Hour Work Week.

    In Things, I try to keep my 'Today' list quite small, and use the schedule feature a lot (instead of using iCal alarms which you always end up delaying) so things pop into my 'Today' list the day they need to be done. Push things into 'Next' or 'Scheduled' often and then review your 'Next' frequently i.e. daily or every other day. I don't use tagging, I find my tags get quickly outdated!

    Oh and the iPhone app for things is great – sort out your thoughts on public transport.

  6. Ryan can you post your tag list, please? I am also a Things fan myself(the iPhone app dominates!), but I don't quite get tags.

  7. Excellent post! I also love Things for managing my Todos, however I use the "Scheduled" feature instead of the "This Week" tag…

  8. Thanks for the article, some good tips there!

    However, I think the summary is lacking one key point:
    4. Focus on today's todos only.

    Just like Joe suggested above, "use the schedule feature a lot so things pop into [the] 'Today' list the day they need to be done." This is crucial to avoid getting overwhelmed by all the stuff you need to get done!

    Once again managing todos is not a tools issue, it's a working habits issue. It doesn't matter where your todos reside if you don't complete the work and knock 'em off. Just moving items from one software to another won't get things done.

    In fact, this appears to be a key issue with the whole "Getting Things Done" methodology – it's easy to get carried away with the process and tools rather than *actually* getting things done :) Just have a look at http://lifehacker.com/tag/gtd/ for example…

    If you're serious about managing your todo list I highly recommend Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload by Mark Hurst, http://bitliteracy.com/

    Cheers!

  9. Thanks for the article, some good tips there!

    However, I think the summary is lacking one key point:
    4. Focus on today's todos only.

    Just like Joe suggested above, "use the schedule feature a lot so things pop into [the] 'Today' list the day they need to be done." This is crucial to avoid getting overwhelmed by all the stuff you need to get done!

    Once again managing todos is not a tools issue, it's a working habits issue. It doesn't matter where your todos reside if you don't complete the work and knock 'em off. Just moving items from one software to another won't get things done.

    In fact, this appears to be a key issue with the whole "Getting Things Done" methodology – it's easy to get carried away with the process and tools rather than *actually* getting things done :) Just have a look at http://lifehacker.com/tag/gtd/ for example…

    If you're serious about managing your todo list I highly recommend Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload by Mark Hurst, http://bitliteracy.com/

    Cheers!

  10. I do recommend some of these productivity tools – for example, I find Google Docs useful for students teams working on a termpaper. I am more cautious about relying yet again on an electronic device to organize my family and personal life: my brain and a paper checklist can work just fine, thanks!

  11. Things is really a great way to keep yourself organized. I'm also synching it with my iPhone (there's also an iPhone Things app), so I can check or alter my todos even when not sitting at one of my macs.

  12. OMG!!! How did I ever manage without this. I tried it this morning and I've manged to get almost everything i need to done already. I think i'm actually gonna be able to finish early today… rather than working into the evening like i do most nights.
    Kim

  13. OMG!!! How did I ever manage without this. I tried it this morning and I've manged to get almost everything i need to done already. I think i'm actually gonna be able to finish early today… rather than working into the evening like i do most nights.
    Kim

  14. I find that taking breaks when I've acheived something good or reached a target, rather than at set times during the day, keeps my motivation levels up and enables me to return to the task list refreshed.

    Nice little article Ryan

  15. I find rather than having set times for lunch or a coffee, taking breaks when I have acheived something good or reached a target much more motivating. It allows me to return to my job list refreshed and ready to start on a new task, rather than return to one with dread.

    Nice post Ryan

  16. Very similar approach but with a bit better design (and ability to delegate/receive tasks with others) using ActionMethod.com (and the iphone app for me – it works wherever i am, not reliant on internet connection.

    Great post and thoughts.

  17. I use things for my to do list. Here I know many features in 'things' and also I know many other related to do sites. Thank you to all for sharing your thoughts here.

  18. Great tips Ryan. Things.app is the leader in the to-do market, pure and simple GTD principles, and a killer iPhone app. It would be interesting to hear how you, and the commenters, mix this with team delegation and collaboration, through tools such as Basecamp and 5pm, and how this works with the GTD policy.
    Having worked with both tools, and spoken to Tim Ferris about it, it's hard to pick the line between personal GTD and business collaboration.

  19. Also, another thought, this would make a great screencast. Using Screenflow it could be done really easily and quickly, and would be a very effective demo.

    I, for one, would love to see more of this on sites like ThinkVitamin.

  20. Also, another thought, this would make a great screencast. Using Screenflow it could be done really easily and quickly, and would be a very effective demo.

    I, for one, would love to see more of this on sites like ThinkVitamin.

  21. Also, another thought, this would make a great screencast. Using Screenflow it could be done really easily and quickly, and would be a very effective demo.

    I, for one, would love to see more of this on sites like ThinkVitamin.

  22. "The biggest killer to your productivity is email. Here’s the trick to making sure you don’t get sucked into the email blackhole:" – why?

  23. Thanks for sharing how you manage your to dos Ryan. I've been using Omnifocus for the last year or so and I don't know how I'd get anything done without it now! I had just made an assumption that it somehow knocked all the other apps (like Things) out of the water, but I can already see some places Things might win over Omnifocus just from your post and the screenshots: the Areas grouping is an example – I just have projects that are never ending, but it would be nice to be able to differentiate between those ongoing and those that will end someday soon!

    You talk about tagging things as This Week and Today – can you not set date deadlines? That is how I schedule my to dos. I use OmniFocus to log any task that comes in via email or from elsewhere that I can't do immediately, using a quick shortcut so I don't have to leave the application I am working in. In combination with Mail.app I clip parts of emails that are actionable tasks and again send them over to Omnifocus (assigning project, context and due date). This way I can keep my inbox down to zero as I can file emails away without worrying that I will forget about what I need to do. I think of it like my personal assistant – I tell it to remind me to do things by a certain time and then can 'forget' about it until it alerts me nearer the time, or until I next review my tasks.

    One general point I think worth adding and emphasising here is allocating a decent amount of time to do the review. It will take a while -i'm curious to know how long you spend?- but less time if you do it regularly. The weekly review is SO important, but it is something I struggle with -I have a habit of overlooking it- and then your whole task management system becomes redundant without this.

    I'd also recommend an end of week review. Save some time at the end of the week to review what you did, and didn't get done. Congratulate yourself for your achievements and ask yourself why you didn't get those other things done – perhaps you were unrealistic about how much time some things would take? It's only with taking stock of where you might have gone wrong that you can learn how to improve your system.

    I'd suggest you should be allocating *at least* 30 mins at the beginning and end of your working week to review your projects, and don't forget to keep checking in with the list and managing it as you go along, which will also take up some time.

    like @jussi said it's "a working habits issue" you really have to make a habit of keeping to a system to be effective in your task management.

  24. Great post Ryan. I'm always getting distracted by emails that just happen to pop up and once you've read them you kinda feel obliged to make that small tweak or send across the quote the client is asking for, next thing you know is it's 5pm and you've spent all day stuck in outlook/thunderbird/generic email client.

    Personally I think having a white board is a good way of organizing things if you're not the sort of person who likes using a to-do list on your pc/mac or just because you like to keep track of the bigger to do items. Or is this just me being really really old skool?

    I do also keep track of things using 37 Signal's base camp and tasks within Thunderbird on my mac, but I do like being able to write quick notes on the whiteboard next to my desk and add small tasks. :)

  25. I find that sometimes you can afford to 'cut corners' and also It's OK to sometimes leave other things to the last minute.

    Also consider simply not doing some things on your to-do list.

  26. Great advice and daily follow up to make your life more productive. If you want a similar software that is free and helps you plan your day, check out Simpleology.com or Google Mark Joyner. This is a free item that gives you a clear focus on finding what is important in our daily lives and helps us to curtail or streamline the non-essentials.

  27. Most of the time results come from proper use and understanding of 80/20 rule. Ant the fact what gets measured gets done. Nice post. Last but not least don't spend too much time on Facebook;)

  28. I belive the best way to tackle your "huge" todo list is just to make it shorter, by identifying what on the list aren't that important, won't move you any closer to your goals, then just remove those.

    You may want to check out http://www.GoalsOnTrack.com, a very nicely built web app designed for tracking goals and todo lists, and has time tracking. It's clear, focused, easy to navigate, worth a try.

  29. I belive the best way to tackle your "huge" todo list is just to make it shorter, by identifying what on the list aren't that important, won't move you any closer to your goals, then just remove those.

    You may want to check out http://www.GoalsOnTrack.com, a very nicely built web app designed for tracking goals and todo lists, and has time tracking. It's clear, focused, easy to navigate, worth a try.

  30. yah, email sucks when you do your listings of to dos. especially when you used the email sites that are usually used by many people.

  31. These are great tips to getting organized. It's like I know what to do, but am just reluctant to take the time to do them or I get distracted doing something that should be on the list. Anyway, I think I will definitely work on getting more organized, so I don't feel so overwhelmed.

  32. I just go from one item to another. Crossing them off one after one works more effective than starting couple at once and then doing everything at the same time.

  33. Hmm.. You can manage it by making a complete list of the things that you wanted to do then, done! just yo it!

  34. Hey Marc,

    I've seen Todoist.com but I decided to steer clear of a browser-based solution as I'm not always online (like on a train or plane).

    Best,
    Ryan

  35. no it has its own mobile web page (my mobile home page)

    Use google crome to make it a desktop application.

    Pretty handy all round