Not all task lists are created equal. Yes, it’s great to get thoughts out of your mind and onto the page. But there’s so much more to it than that. Read on to find out how you can create a task list that makes life easier. One that will make sense no matter when or where you look at it.
Why write a todo list anyway?
Daniel Levitin makes a very important point in ‘The Organised Mind‘ – that our ability to externalise information from our minds to the physical world is one we need to leverage.
The most fundamental principle of the organized mind, the one most critical to keeping us from forgetting or losing things, is to shift the burden of organizing from our brains to the external world. If we can remove some or all of the process from our brains and put it out into the physical world, we are less likely to make mistakes.
Daniel Levitin, ‘The Organised Mind’
In other words, rather than trying to remember everting that’s important or meaningful to us, as well as all the little tasks and errands we need to do, can easily lead to overwhelm, forgetting and stress. It also means that our future selves can pick up this externalised information and make use of it, weeks or even years later.
From this perspective, writing down a list of things we want to get done in any given day is more effective than hoping we’ll remember everything. A simple post-it note will do, won’t it?
Yes and no.
To be able to make use of information we value, we need a way to package it up and send it through time to our future self.
Tiago Forte, ‘Building a Second Brain‘
I like this concept from ‘Building a Second Brain’ as it speaks to the benefits of getting thoughts and ideas out of our head, but also considering the needs of our future selves. This means the difference between finding a post-it note with a telephone number on it and picking up a note that has the number, but also the the context in which it was collected and why you need it.
Super-charge your task list
We can super-charge our list-making with just a few simple principles, which will make future you very happy that you bothered.
1. Specific tasks
As the above example clearly illustrates, jotting down a phone number makes sense in the moment. But it means nothing a few days (or hours?) later. Think of your future self and add enough detail and specificity to your tasks. That way, you’ll know exactly what to do when you look at the list next week. Imagine you’re delegating the task: is there enough detail to ensure anyone would know what to do?
This means the difference between a task that reads ‘Airport transfers’ and one that reminds you to ‘Research the last train leaving Osaka airport at the weekends’.
2. Prioritised tasks
Not everything we need to get done is equally urgent. Or important. You don’t neglect importance, do you? Effective prioritisation brings clarity to our tasks and allows us to invest our limited time and attention with maximum impact. To learn more, check out this blog post about how to use a simple prioritisation matrix to bring clarity of priority to your task list.
3. Actionable tasks
If you take a look at your list of tasks, some might feel a little overwhelming or difficult to start. There’s a good chance this is because they’re not tasks – they’re projects. Working to David’s Allen’s definition, projects are just collections of tasks.
Make sure you’re listing tasks that can be completed in one sitting – otherwise add it to your list of projects and add the next practical step you can take to the task list. This is the difference between ‘Sort out this summer’s holidays’ and ‘Research traditional onsen experiences within an hour’s travel from Osaka’ (can you tell I’m in holiday planning mode?).
4. Context-specific tasks
While it can seem like everything we have to do is achieved through a computer (at least if you’re a knowledge worker), it’s still important to consider context. You need to consider ‘how’ you’ll get something done, what you need to get it done or where you need to be. In my own task lists, I use contexts like ‘Home’, ‘Office’, ‘Computer’, ‘Online’ and ‘In transit’ – for things I can do whether I’m on a plane or train or in the back of a taxi. Your own job and home life will dictate the contexts that bring maximum clarity to your list.
This allows you to ‘batch’ tasks that are similar and ignore the tasks that it’s simply not possible to do in the moment.
What else do you think you could add to your task list to make it more meaningful, actionable and helpful to your future self? Let me know in the comments below!