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.