How to Reduce Your To-do List To a Manageable Level

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Is your to-do list overwhelming and the cause of a lot of your stress? This week, I answer a question about reducing your to0do list to a more manageable level.

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Episode 86

Hello and welcome to episode 86 of the 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 it’s all about getting overwhelming to-do lists down to more manageable levels. It’s having to look at a to-do list that drops off the bottom of the screen that causes so much stress and ultimately makes us not want to look at our daily to-do lists, which is really not what a to-do list is meant to do. 

Before we get into the question and answer, I would just like to thank all of you who have enrolled in the Time And Life Mastery version 3 course. Your support enables me to keep doing what I do and to help many more people become better organised and more productive and I am so grateful to you all. 

And if you are not ready to purchase an online productivity course, that’s okay. I do have a free basic guide to building your own productivity course that you can enrol in. It is a short, forty minute or so course that will give you the basics of creating a productivity system that will work for you. Remember, any system needs to work for you. This course gives you the foundations on which to build your own system and to help you become better organised and more productive. 

Details for this free course are in the show notes.

This week’s question comes from Claire. Claire asks: Hi Carl. Every time I look at my to-do list I just feel completely overwhelmed and never complete it. Every day I have to move a lot of tasks to another day. Am I doing anything wrong? 

Hi Claire, I'm pretty sure you are not the only one experiencing this. With so much being thrown at us every day from all sorts of places it is very hard to get everything we plan to do each day done. However, there are a few techniques you can use that can help you. 

The first is to get realistic about what you can and cannot do in a day. We often think we can do a lot more than we actually can. 

A few years ago, I did an experiment to find what the optimum number of tasks I could complete each day was—I know, I lead a very exciting life— I monitored my daily task completion for a week and averaged it out. It turned out I averaged twelve tasks per day. That was a bit of a shock. I always thought I was efficient and got a lot more tasks done than that, but there it was, in black and white, so to speak, twelve meaningful tasks per day. 

Now I did not include my routine tasks in that number—you know the little things that just have to be done each day that do not improve your life in any way. Taking the garbage out, walking the dog, doing the washing up etc. 

Having this information was great though. It meant I could plan my days with realism and not optimism. 

You see, our brains have no real concept of time or context when we think about our work. That’s why when we think about a project we would like to complete we sometimes believe we can do it all in one day. The reality is you can’t—not if you want to do the work to a high degree of quality. It is also why a task such as a reply to an email, can often cause anxiety because our brain is telling us it will take hours when in reality it would only take around ten minutes. 

This is why using your calendar to plan out your day is so helpful. Because calendars are organised by time slot you can allocate those slots to the work you have to do. It gives you a realistic perspective on how much time you have available to do your work each day. 

Going back to the number of tasks you complete each day, if you do the same experiment, then average out the number of tasks you complete per day you will find your optimum daily number of tasks you can complete. I would then suggest you reduce that number by two. 

For me, that got me to ten tasks per day. 

Now the beauty of just having ten tasks on your main daily to-do list is it never looks overwhelming. It’s manageable and is based on the reality of the number of tasks I can complete each day. There is no point in me fighting this. Sure, I would love to get more tasks completed per day, but the reality is I cannot. 

Instead what I had to do was become better at prioritising my day—which, when you think about it, is no bad thing—It forces me to decide what tasks are important. The tasks that will move my life and projects forward, and what tasks are what I like to describe as vanity tasks—tasks that feel good to check off, but do not really move anything forward. Things like: clean up my desk, reorganise my notes and clean up my to-do list.

When you develop your skill at prioritising you begin to get much better at moving the right things forward. What I also found was that projects that were not moving forward consistently began moving towards completion much faster. There was a lot of wins in this small, but significant change or approach.

As for your routines, a lot of these don't need to be on your to-do list at all because there are some natural triggers. A natural trigger is something that naturally reminds you to do something. You know when to take the garbage out because the trash can is full. You know when to refuel your car because the fuel warning light will come on and you know to do the laundry because your laundry basket is full. All these are what are called natural triggers. You don't also need a task on your to-do list. 

Look around for these natural triggers. They are your best friend. 

Now for the routine tasks that do need to be on your to-do list, then these can be tagged as routines so you can filter them out. Again, this depends on the app you are using, or if you are a pen and paper person, you could have them listed in your notebook on a separate page and you can go through them one by one to make sure you have done them.

When I add my routines to the ten tasks I have committed to, I find I am completing on average fifteen to twenty tasks per day and I am not having to reschedule many tasks at all. A lot of my routine tasks are optional, but I often find at the end of the day, I only have three or four of these left to complete so I just get them done. 

Another way to help reduce overwhelming lists is to make full use of tags and filters. Now, this depends on what app you are using. If you use OmniFocus, you can create perspectives which allow you to filter out tasks you cannot do or do not want to do right now. Likewise, with Todoist, you can create filters to remove tasks you do not want to see first thing in the morning. 

I filter tasks by the time of day. I use the flags in Todoist for this. Red flags are the objectives that must be completed that day. I limit these to just two per day. I use orange flags for my morning tasks and blue flags for the afternoon. 

For those of you not using Todoist, you can use tags. Just create a tag for AM and a tag for PM and when you plan your day... you do plan your day don't you?— you can add those tags based on where you are going to be that day. This way, when you start the day because you have already decided what you will do in the morning you can just open up the tag, filter or perspective for the right time of day and get started. If you have prioritised your day and limited the number of tasks you commit to for that day, then this list is going to be much smaller and ultimately much more motivating. 

Finally, plan your day the day before. This for me is a no-brainer. When we process our inboxes, we often add dates to tasks that are not really based on the day they really need to be done. We tend to date things wishfully. We date tasks for dates we “wish” to complete them. The problem with this approach is that often we end up with days—towards the end of the week funnily enough—where we have far too many tasks. If you sit down for ten minutes or so at the end of the day, look at your list for tomorrow, check your calendar to make sure you have the time available and make a decision on what tasks you will complete and when you fill always start the day with a rock solid, achievable plan for the day. This is what I call the 2+8 prioritisation technique. Ask yourself what are my two objectives for tomorrow—the tasks I will complete whatever happens and what are the eight other tasks I would like to complete? 

Once you have that done, you can go home, relax and know your day is planned and you have set yourself an achievable amount of work for the day. No more overwhelm no more stress or anxiety. Just that great feeling of knowing you have everything under control. 

Thank you very much, Claire, for your question and thank you to all of you for listening to this episode. If you have a question about productivity, time management or goal planning, then just send me a quick email, or DM me on Facebook or Twitter. 

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

The Working With… Podcast | Episode 57 | How To Stop Procrastinating.

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In this week’s episode of the Working With Podcast, I answer a question about how to stop procrastinating and get the work done.

You can also listen on:

Podbean | iTunes | Stitcher


Hello and welcome to episode 57 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, the question is all about procrastination and how to overcome this real productivity conundrum. It affects us all and it can do a lot of damage to our careers, relationships and goals. 

But before we get into this week’s question, I want to tell you all about my fantastic Black Friday / Cyber Monday sale. There are some fantastic offers available for you and I would love you to get yourself a bargain while you can. I have bundles of courses, including the brilliant Pathway To Productivity, AND… I am also offering 12 Months of weekly one on one coaching with me personally at half price. Those places are very limited, so if you want to get yourself in, you need to go to my website right now and book yourself a place and save yourself $600! 

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

This week’s question comes from Tim. Tim asks, Carl, I really struggle to get things done. Whenever I sit down to do some work I find myself procrastinating by flicking through Instagram or watching your videos on YouTube. Do you have any advice on stopping this? 

Thank you, Tim, Not sure I want to stop you watching my videos though! Anyway, to answer your question this is something I know many people have difficulties with. I too, from time to time, find myself procrastinating and it can really hinder the work I want to do for the day. The good news is there are a few strategies you can use to stop you from flicking through Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. 

The first one is to have a plan for the day. We often find ourselves procrastinating when we have unclear plans for the day. If you turn up to work with no plan you will spend the first part of the day thinking about what to do and that is when social media and unimportant work shouts the loudest. It’s human nature to turn away from the hardest work and move towards the easier work. If you have no plan, the unimportant will be shouting at you and you will not do the important. This is one of the many reasons why I recommend you do the Golden Ten at the end of the day and not in the morning. When you wake up in the morning with a clear idea of what you want to accomplish that day you are much more likely to get it done. 

And that leads me on to the second tip. Don’t set yourself too much to do. Another reason why we get drawn to procrastination is because when we look at our to-do list for the day it is too long. It becomes overwhelming and overwhelm often leads to procrastination. I have been recommending that you do not have more than ten things on your daily to-do list each day for a long time. Now that might not seem very much, but every day you are going to have crises, demands from bosses and customers and you are going to have to deal with them. If you only have ten or fewer items on your to-do list you will have time to deal with the crises as well as get your planned work done. That creates a circle of success. The more days you complete your planned tasks, the more focused you will become on completing those tasks. It’s a case of you not wanting to break the chain and you become determined to get your work done. 

How you write out your tasks is also a way to prevent procrastination. If you write tasks out that are unclear, such as, “Shopping”, “dog food” or “Wife’s birthday”, you will procrastinate. Sometimes you will remember what it was you meant when you wrote that task, other times you will not. If the task is something like “write report” that will guarantee you will procrastinate because although it is just two words, the work involved is unclear and you will resist. Far better to write tasks such as “Buy dog food for Barney” or “research gift ideas for wife’s birthday” for the report break it down. You could create three of four tasks such as: 

  • Write introduction to report

  • Prepare charts for report

  • Ask Jane for report template 

These tasks are easy, clear and manageable. You are much more likely to get them done rather than waste time thinking about what to do next. 

Another way to help stop you from procrastinating is to make good use of labels or contexts in Getting Things Done terminology. What this means is you label each task according to the tool, place or person required to do the task. For example, if you need to be at your computer to do a task, you would label it @computer. Likewise, if you need to be with your colleague to find something out, then you would label the task @colleague’s name. Shopping tasks can be labelled @supermarket and so on. This way, when you find yourself in front of your computer you pull up the list of tasks you need your computer for and get started. Now of course if you are using my Golden Ten system you would move on to your labels AFTER you have completed your ten tasks for the day. 

Another trick I’ve used in the past that works well is to schedule breaks between the work I am doing. For example, I know in a morning I am good for around two hours. So, every two hours I will get up and walk around. Refill my water bottle or check my email. I limit these break times to ten minutes and if you are a serial procrastinator I would suggest you set yourself a ten-minute alarm. You can check your email from your phone, so you can walk around and check email via your phone. If you want to scroll through your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram feed during these times then do so. It’s a break remember. BUT… After ten minutes get back to work. In the afternoons, I find my attention span reduces so I take breaks every hour or so. This really works, particularly if you are following your plan for the day. When you have a plan you know exactly what you will get to work on once your break is over. 

Having all your information organised is another way to avoid procrastination. When the information you need to do your work is scattered all over the place you go in search of it. This will take you down avenues you do not want to go down looking for files. I group reference materials and files in project-specific folders (or notebooks in Evernote) I also copy and paste website links into the project note for the project in Evernote so I don’t have to open up my web browser blind. All I need to do is click on a saved link and it will take me to the page I need to reference. Not only does this save a lot of time it also keeps me focused on the task at hand. 

Turn off your notifications and silence your email when you are doing your important work. This one is a biggie. If you are working on a report, presentation or design and you keep getting pop-ups telling you-you have new email, or a new Twist or Slack message you are going to be tempted to look at it. STOP! No, No No! - This is going to cause you a lot of pain AND you WILL procrastinate. Turn them off and focus on the work. You can check your messages and emails between your work sessions. Seriously, no one is ever going to get upset with you if you don’t reply for an hour. If something was very urgent, they would call you. So there’s no excuse at all not to turn off your notifications. Do it… Just do it. No excuses. 

There’s a couple of other ways to stop procrastinating. The first is to gamify your work. Give yourself a reward for focusing on your work for an hour (or ninety minutes if you prefer) Allow yourself ten minutes on Instagram if you complete a piece of work or spend two hours on focused work. Gamification is fun and you not only get to check your social media feeds you also get a lot of work done. After all, work doesn’t have to bring and serious all the time. 

Finally, if you are in the habit of checking shopping sites randomly while you are working then set up your to-do list manager to collect from a keyboard shortcut. Recently I have been redesigning my home office and I have been looking at office chairs, hard drive storage solutions and plants for my desk. Often as I am writing or planning I get an idea to check Ikea or a furniture store’s site. To avoid me going off on a shopping expedition, I will use my quick capture keyboard shortcut to Todoist to collect what it is I want to look at and carry on my work. I write and plan in full-screen mode on my computer, so I never leave the screen I am working in. It’s just SHIFT+CMD+A and I type “look up office chairs at Ikea” and hit return. Done. My thought was captured and I can carry on planning or writing. I can then look up whatever it is I wanted to look up when I take my next break. 

Well, I hope that has answered your question, Tim and I hope it will help you to overcome your procrastination. 

I know procrastination is a problem for many people, but if you adopt these strategies you will soon find yourself getting more important work done and procrastinating less. Be clear about what you want to get done, schedule regular breaks and turn off your notifications when you are doing focused work. These three strategies alone will help you. But the biggest one of all is to discipline yourself. Procrastination is really a sign you have a lack of discipline. Work on your discipline, and to do that start small, and you will go a very long way to stopping procrastination from rearing its ugly head. 

Good luck and thank you, Tim, for your excellent question. And thank you all for listening 

Don’t forget to check out my Holiday season offers, I am sure there will be something there for you all. 

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