To do list or not to do list was never a question!

As such, our working memory is too shallow to hold all that we must be doing and wish to do. To worsen the matter, the world around us keeps changing faster than we can cope with, in both predictable and unpredictable ways. A well-maintained to-do list only can get you an up-to-date snapshot of your rapidly changing work universe!

To-do lists are not new. I have been seeing my dad using it since I got senses! He always carried a small diary to keep adding and striking off the items on his list. What might have changed since then is that today one could use Apps to manage the to-do list.

But then, or now, to-do lists have been largely useful as a one-off phenomenon. As soon as you start using a to-do list as a system for work management over the long term you would face several troubles with it! Let’s see which of those you could relate to:

1. You end up with multiple to-do lists –

This is the most common scenario. You end up having several of them and since you don’t know which one of them is fit for use, you start fresh, and uh-oh, you added fuel to the fire!

2. All to-do lists even when put together you are sure it doesn’t cover 100% of your work –

This is the most serious issue. One needs to have confidence in their to-do list to rely on it and use it. A partial list will never give that confidence.

3. Your to-do list is a crazy mix –

It could have very small tasks and very large tasks as well. Too small items just bloat your list and make it difficult to work with. On the other hand, too large tasks typically lack clarity on what needs to be done and so they linger around leading to procrastination.

4. Your To-do list has become too long to review and use meaningfully –

Working with a small to-do list can even be fun, but as your to-do list grows, you start missing your items in the nooks and crannies of your long winding to-do list.

5. Your criteria to pick a task from the to-do list is ad-hoc –

It’s one thing to pick a task from your to-do list and get busy with it and it’s another to pick a task that could be called the best usage of your that time slot.  You need a mechanism to choose a task by keeping the size and quality of the time slot at your disposal, which a vanilla to-do list may not offer.

6. There is no way to track delegated tasks that are struck off from your list –

Another peril of having short working memory is that your delegates forget the task assigned by you to them. And, now that you have struck off that item from your list you don’t have a way to track the progress.

7. There is no way to track completed tasks for reflection –

When you finish something worthwhile, it’s always good to do a reflection on the process and quality of the deliverable for optimizing for the future. Again, a vanilla to-do list does not offer any mechanism to do this.

If you are abandoning your to-do list for one or more of these problems, you are throwing the baby with the bathwater. There is no alternative to a to-do list till either humans evolve to get better working memory or Singularity arrives!

Meanwhile, you should build a little system around your to-do list to overcome the limitations. Here are the complete details:

  • To establish an effective task management system, begin by creating a comprehensive Master to-do list. Choose a single location, such as a notebook or spreadsheet, to maintain this list, ensuring it remains updated at all times, regardless of its size.
  • Employ the 2-minute rule for tasks that require less than 2 minutes to complete. Instead of adding these tasks to your to-do list, promptly finish them right away.
  • When adding large tasks or goals to your to-do list, avoid including them as they are. Instead, break them down into smaller, manageable subtasks and then add these to your list. Additionally, consider attaching a relevant category name to each granular task to maintain contextual clarity.
  • Regularly review your Master to-do list over the weekend to extract relevant tasks for the upcoming week. Focus solely on this extracted subset, creating a dedicated weekly to-do list for the week ahead. Each day, review your weekly to-do list and compile a concise DAILY to-do list, concentrating solely on the tasks outlined for that specific day.
  • Any new tasks that arise should be promptly added to your Master to-do list. If they are pertinent to the ongoing week, include them in your current week list as well.
  • Rather than striking off delegated tasks, maintain a separate section to track these tasks until they are returned to you. Additionally, consider keeping a journal to document completed tasks. Utilize this reflection time to improve and refine your task management system.

The best utilization of your time is not just for productivity, but for also staying stress-free and healthy and enjoying that precious life beyond work!

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(Originally published in Times of India on Oct 23, 2022)