Thursday, July 29, 2021

Is your task list a repository of stress?

"My to-do list is a repository of stress," Julian announced in his first coaching session.

I was taken aback because my own to-do list has been my life-preserver for over 20 years. But then I thought about the many workshop participants and clients who have said the same thing, albeit not so memorably.

Why was something that worked so well for me failing so many others?

I re-wound the mental video of my own productivity journey back to the beginning, 20 odd years ago.  One of the first books I read was Jeffrey Mayer's 1990 book, If you haven't got the time to do it right, when will you find the time to do it over? #BestBookNameEver.

His recommendation: Use a "master running task list."   

I adopted this approach then, and have continued it ever since, through four different jobs, and several "tool" changes.  

And, I realized that very few people have this kind of list.  And thus, this post, to acquaint you with the basics of such a list.

Key features of  a master running task list
  • This list contains tasks, that is, things you plan to do.  It's not a 5-year goal list, bucket list, or Netflix series you might binge-watch list.
  • The list is called a master list because it contains all your tasks. Some tasks are "stand-alone" (call the dentist for an appointment). Others are part of a project (email Molly to schedule a meeting to plan our research project). They are all on the same list. #RedundancyIsSometimesHelpful
  • The list is "running." Add new tasks and cross them off when completed. No need to re-write the list. (The only exception is periodic "compression" if you have a paper list, as described shortly.)
As Mayer says, the master list is "an inventory of all your unfinished work." 
A master running task list solves two common todo list problems:
  • Multiple lists in different locations. The results? Lost or ignored lists. Not having the "correct" list when you need it.
  • Incomplete lists. You record some of your tasks and depend on your memory for others. The results? A pervasive feeling that you are missing something. And, indeed, you will!
As David Allen reminds us, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”

 When I started, I followed Mayer's instructions to the letter:

  • Use lined paper. (I used an 8/11" legal pad; I've since switched to an app.)
  • One item per line.
  • Use every line.
  • Draw a line through completed tasks. (Wimpy marginal checkmarks not allowed!)
  • When you get to the last line on a page, go to the next and continue entering new tasks.
  • When half or more of the tasks are completed, "compress" the list. Tear out the page and add any undone tasks to the end of the list.   (If using a digital app, just delete, or, "hide" completed tasks.)
Note that the list does not need to be prioritized - you set your priorities when you plan your weeks and days.

Quick FAQ:  Does having a "single" list mean you have to mix personal and professional items?

Only if you want to!   (In the sample list above, I marked the Home items with an "H.")

If you want to keep them separated - which most people prefer -  you have two options.
  • Use a single tool (e.g. one notebook or app), but divide the items into two categories.
  • Use different tools. The risk with this approach is that you may work on the items on one of the lists and ignore the other. A solution is to always have both tools in front of you when you do your weekly review and your daily plan.
Your list has to meet your personal needs, functionally and aesthetically.  
  • First, pick a "tool." Paper or digital? For either, which of the many options? If you have a tool you like, use that. If not, I recommend starting with a lined paper tool. 
  • Then you need to develop the habit of recording every task (that can't be done immediately) in that tool. 
How to use a master running list:

  • Update the list. Cross off tasks that you have done and tasks that no longer need to be done. Add new tasks that you forgot to add. Compress as described above if most of the items on a page are complete. 
  • Identify priorities for the coming week. Mark those tasks in some way. For example, add a checkbox to the margin, or use a highlighter. 

  • Select your 3 most important tasks (MITs).
  •  Pick a short list of additional tasks you will do if you have time. 
I'll close with a confession.

Over the last few months, I have had a nagging feeling that my list system had become difficult to use. As I wrote the first draft of this post, I had an "Aha!" moment. My system no longer had a single running master list. I had instead "tweaked" into a collection of lists. 

I stopped working and immediately fixed the problem. 

Now every task is on a single list. My "life preserver" is re-inflated. My system is once again humming along, doing its job of supporting my "getting things done."