How To Breathe Life Into a Tired Uninspiring To-do List

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Podcast 74

In this week’s episode of the Working With Podcast, I answer a question about getting your to-do list under control and making it more inspiring.

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Hello and welcome to episode 74 of my Working With Podcast. A podcast created to answer all your questions about productivity, GTD, time management, self-development and goal planning. My name is Carl Pullein and I am your host for this show.

This week I have a wonderful question about cleaning up an out-of-control to-do list and how to make it more inspiring—something I don’t think we think very much about when we create our to-do lists. 

Before we dive into the answer, I’d just like to let you all know—in case you missed it—My learning centre is currently having a huge March Madness Sale. In this sale, you can get yourself a 35% discount on ALL my courses AND coaching programmes. 

As we are rapidly approaching the end of the first quarter on 2019, if you are finding yourself a little out of motivation or need a big boost to kick start your year, this would be a great time to get yourself a great deal on a course or a coaching programme. Details of the sale are available in the show notes. 

Oh and if you are in the UK on the 20th April and have some free time, I will be doing a workshop in Scunthorpe with Kevin Blackburn—The Life Success Engineer— called Life and Time Mastery. This is a FREE workshop and we’d love to see you there. Our goal is to help you to create your life’s goals and then show you how you can turn those goals into action steps you can take every day to make them happen. A link to the registration page is in the show notes. 

Okay, let’s get into the question and that means it’s time for me now to hand you over to the mystery podcast voice for this week’s question.

This week’s question comes from Helena. Helena asks; Hi Carl, my to-do list is a mess and I don't find it inspiring at all. I hate going in there. Is there anything I can do to get it under control and make it more inspiring? 

That’s a fantastic question, Helena! And I know a lot of people struggle with this one. In our excitement of getting ourselves more organised and productive we throw everything into our shiny new to-do lists and create a lot of projects—and I mean a lot. On top of that, the way we write out tasks can often be confusing. This means we end up with a to-do list manager that may have felt nice for a few days but now leaves us feeling confused and uninspired to do anything about. 

One of the things I find is, as time goes by we learn the best way to write tasks but in the initial stages of playing around with our new to-do list manager we are less focused on how we write our tasks and more focused on what our to-do list app can do. This is often the reason why we end up with a very complicated hierarchy of projects and sub-projects. We create sub-projects because we can rather than because we need to. 

But the biggest problem we experience is when we go out into the world and begin our new lives as organised and productive people. When we set up our to-do list manager we imagine walking into work, opening up our today list and start doing the tasks from the top. Completing our tasks by the end of our work day and coming home in a relaxed, happy state, ready to do it all again the next day. 

Sadly, the real world introduces email, instant messages, phone calls, bosses and colleagues who think nothing of interrupting you to give you more work. If we are sharp we collect that stuff and add it to our inboxes, if not, we slip back in to old habits and leave it in our heads hoping we will remember to do it later—which we often don't. Pretty soon we are back where we started—a disorganised mess. 

So, what can we do to keep things organised, inspiring and moving forward?

Well, first take a look at your to-do list manager. How many projects do you have in there? Are they really projects or just stuff you hope to get round to one day? How are those projects written? Do you feel excited when you look at those projects? Writing out your summer holiday project as simply “summer holiday” is not exciting. Writing it out as “ Our summer holiday to Prague” is much more likely to initiate a more positive feeling. A feeling that you would like to do something about it. 

The same applies to how you write your tasks. I know this might sound a bit simplistic but if you write something like “buy dog food” that task does not really have any emotional value. Now, if you own a dog, You really care about him or her, I know I do. So if I have to buy anything for my dog, I would always write the task out as “buy Barney some more snacks”. Now when I see that task on my list I also see my little boy in my mind. Much more emotional and it is less likely I will postpone the task to another day. 

Little things like this might seem simplistic and silly, but they can have a very big impact on the way you feel about your tasks when you see them on a list. “Prepare curriculum outline for Jenny” sounds much better than just “prepare curriculum outline” or “pick up prescription for Steve” is better than “pick up prescription” 

When you use a person’s name in the task it gives it more meaning. It’s more human, more intimate than a cold uninspiring task written like “get sales reports”. 

While on the subject of tasks, writing tasks out so they are more clear is important. For example, I often see people writing tasks out like “call Sarah”. Now the problem with writing tasks like this is that “call Sarah” might make sense when you write the task initially, but five days later when the task comes up on your today list “call Sarah” probably won’t mean anything and you have to waste valuable time thinking about why you need to call Sarah. It is far better to write “call Sarah about SWX Conference next year” Now you have the purpose of the call written within the task and you will know immediately why you need to call Sarah.

Moving on to your projects. It’s a good idea to go through all your projects periodically to ask the question “why am I doing this project?” Often I find I created a project and three months later the project is still there with the exact same tasks I had when I first created that project. The project is stuck. It hasn’t moved anywhere. Now after three months if a project has not moved there is something wrong. That’s the time to ask the question “Why am I doing this project”. If it hasn’t moved for three months it’s obviously not important. If the project was meaningful in some way it would have moved somewhere in three months. To me, a project that hasn’t moved for three months needs to be removed. Either I will archive it (knowing, if it is meaningful, I can always re-create it) or I will move the project to my someday | maybe list until I am ready to make it active again. 

Seriously, be honest with yourself. If a project has not moved in three months, will it ever move or is it there just in case you decide to do something with it later?

You can also do this with your work projects. I frequently find a boss will tell her team about a new project they are going to be involved with, and as good organised and productive people we create the project in our work project list and then we wait. And we wait and we wait. Six months later that project is still in our projects list but nothing has happened. Guys… Let me tell you something…. It is never going to move. Your boss has already forgotten about it and it’s off the radar. Remove it. If by some miracle your boss suddenly remembers it, you can always recreate the project later. 

Now if you are in the areas of focus world—that is organising your projects by areas of focus rather than individual projects—you should go through each area asking are they really areas you want to put your focus on? You may have thought a few months ago that you’d like to focus on maintaining a clean working environment, but several months later your enthusiasm for keeping your workspace clean, tidy and organised has wained a little and you are no longer doing anything about it. Either keeping a clean workspace is important to you or it isn’t. If it is, put some life back into that area of focus or if it isn’t, delete the area. Again, you can always recreate it later if you decide you would like to focus on it after all. 

To maintain a functioning to-do list manager, you need to keep it maintained and functioning. Filling up your to-do list manager with “hope to” or “wish to” projects is never going to work well. It will become overwhelming and uninspiring because you will have a lot of dormant projects and tasks in there. Purge and purge again. Never be afraid to purge. You can always recreate your projects anytime if they become active in the future.

Your to-do list manager needs to be a power-plant of activity. Tasks coming in and tasks getting completed. When there’s a lot of activity going on in there it will be naturally inspiring. When there’s little to no activity, and your projects list rarely changes it becomes boring and uninspiring. That’s when you get that feeling you are just going round and round in circles. 

Finally, stop overcomplicating your lists. This really is an inspiration killer. Sure it might be cool to be able to create six levels of child hierarchy, but having a deep level of child projects just makes things complicated. When your brain sees complexity it will resist. Try to keep things as simple as you can and have some hard edges between the different types of inputs you get. A task goes into your task list manager, a note goes into your notes app and an event goes on your calendar. Almost all modern apps will allow you to cross-link these different inputs. For example, you can add a link to a note to a task in your task list manager which will then allow you to click the link and be immediately taken to the relevant note. Or you can add the note link to the calendar event so you can quickly access the note when you see the event on your calendar. 

So there you go, Helena. I hope that has helped to breath new life into your to-do list manager. You are going to need to spend a little time doing some to-do list manager CPR over the next few days, but it will be worth it. Be very clear about why you are doing a project and if you really don’t want to do it just delete it. If a project has been dormant for more than three months either delete it or move it to a someday | maybe file. Don’t leave it hanging around taking up space. And make your tasks more human. Use people’s names and be very clear about what it is you want to do when you do that task. Don’t rely on your memory to remember… It won’t.

Thank you for the question and thank you to you all for listening to this show. If you have a question you would like answering on this show, then please email me at or DM me on Facebook or Twitter. All the links are in the show notes. 

It just remains for me now to wish you all a very very productive week.