Sometimes Your To-Do List Is Best Left Unfinished

Rupert's cupboard is empty.

On Monday we discussed using context and prioritization to better organize our to-do lists. Keeping the highest priority items at the top of our lists ensures that we’re getting the right things done in order to make real progress toward achieving our goals. Less important tasks get relegated to the bottom of the list and naturally fall off the list altogether when their time passes or we move on to bigger and better things.

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer likes things this way, recognizing that if she ever got to the bottom of her to-do list it would mean she had spent valuable time doing things that weren’t her priority.

What items are hanging around on your to-do list that just don’t matter? Obviously some things (like, say, paying taxes) have to be done whether we can be bothered or not, but other tasks are only important when we first add them to the list. Time and hindsight exposes such activities as either being worth the effort or not and there’s no shame in changing your mind and excising those that aren’t worthwhile.

Executing such cuts here and there will render your list more manageable, resulting in less anxiety and enabling clearer focus on the things that matter the most.

Prioritize And Contextualize Your To-Do List

Rupert has things to do.

An integral part of whatever productivity system you decide to establish is a mechanism for managing all of the tasks that you’ll have on your plate at any one time. Some will call this ‘task management’ and employ any number of synced apps or custom systems to stay across everything. Others will go the pen-and-notecard route. There is no right or wrong method – the best system is the one that works for you. Your to-do list can help relieve the anxiety that sometimes accompanies the juggling of a few things at once… if it is properly maintained, that is.

As with so many elements of enhanced productivity, intentionality is the key to a useful and properly maintained to-do list. You can still use your notecards (or your apps!) but a little forethought will go a long way toward ensuring you make progress on your list no matter your method of recording the tasks before you.

Consider Context

No matter how simple you like to keep things, you’ll find that the expectations placed upon you are different depending on your location at any one moment. That is, your boss probably expects different things from you than your wife does.

Considering this, context becomes the first consideration in organizing your tasks. Seeing ‘do the laundry’ on my list in between meetings at work is not only futile, but might actually take me out of the zone or cause anxiety as I go through my day looking at that box that I’m incapable of ticking until I get home.

If you can’t do it in your present situation, don’t even include it on the list!

As you may have already deduced, this can be broken down into further sub-levels still. If you float between two sites at work, for instance, there’s no point in worrying about dropping off documents to Mary at Office A while you’re in a meeting at Office B. You’d be dividing your attention for less than no reason.

This context problem can be overcome in many ways, the simplest being to maintain separate lists for each context. A lot of to-do apps will allow you to maintain multiple lists or assign context to tasks, meaning you can keep all of your tasks in once place but still stay focused within your present context.

A particularly intriguing way to manage the specificity of some tasks is to adopt if/then planning of your tasks. This method allows you to frame your tasks within opportunities by phrasing them as “if _____, then I will _____”. Examples might include:

  • If I have ten minutes, then I will email my parents.
  • When this meeting is over, I will grab lunch.
  • When Claire gets home, I will kiss her.

The tasks here – emailing my parents, grabbing lunch, kissing my lady friend – are not left for me to casually skip over with my eyes. Instead, they form a kind of calendar that allows for the fluidity of the day. I don’t know when the meeting will end, but when it does I know my next action. I don’t know when I’ll have ten minutes, but when I do I know how to fill it. In this way you can seize opportunities rather than letting them pass you by.

Make Prioritizing A Priority

Within each context you will want to identify the highest priority items – your next actions. Sometimes productivity can induce a kind of high, but chasing that high by ticking off irrelevant tasks while you put off the most important ones is productivity junk food – you’re consuming empty calories that can’t sustain you and your passions and you will burn out quickly without making any real progress.

Maybe your inbox does need cleared, maybe the trash can does need emptied, maybe you do need to water the plant in the hallway, but if your goal for the day is to work on your novel and all you manage to accomplish is ticking off these three unrelated things are you really being productive?

Depending on who you ask, your priorities for the day should be narrowed down to 1, 3, 5, 10… pick a number, really. The point isn’t really to identify a number – it’s just to establish top priorities of some kind; any kind.

One clever prioritization trick I saw recently was to build levels of emphasis into your to-do list by identifying your top priority for the day, three medium priorities, and five lower priorities before tackling them all in the one day. This is productivity in terms of quantity and quality, helping you move ahead while not letting anything fall through the cracks.

Identifying these priorities can be the bigger problem for some, though. When in the midst of several projects with no deadline, how does one choose what to do next? The Eisenhower Matrix is a handy way to gauge your priorities and – just as important, really – peg the things that are not a priority.

The matrix features four quadrants used to define activities in terms of both importance and urgency. The highest priority items will obviously be those that are both important and urgent (putting out the fire after you blow up the microwave), while those that are neither important or urgent (House of Cards) become the lowest priority. Items that are important but not urgent (reading this blog?) receive consideration alongside those that are urgent but not important (things your boss wants you to do like, now, that you don’t care about). The distinction between urgency and importance is a significant one. Where urgency is the same, it is the difference between, say, what is important to you and what is important to others. Work on the ones that are important to you first (depending on the context – your boss likely won’t agree that reading this blog is more important than filing reports).

However, as I have said before, it’s not neccesary or altogether desirable to eliminate those activities that are neither urgent or important. Being on at all times can burn you out and you’ll need recovery time here and there. It might seem counter-intuitive, but if you have a hard time switching off it might be worthwhile to add leisure to your to-do list. After all, there is a difference between getting sucked into another House of Cards marathon and allocating a specific time slot in which you’re going to watch X number of episodes.

Mind The Cracks

Once you’ve added contexts and prioritization to your task-management system (and doesn’t that just sound so sophisticated?), you will probably find yourself facing a dilemma: what about all those little ticky-tack things that still have to get done but never end up making your ‘priority cutoff’? You don’t want anything to fall through the cracks, after all.

A cornerstone of the GTD system is the “two minute rule”, which dictates that any action that can be completed in two minutes or less is completed then. It’s not filed away, it’s not added to the to-do list and it’s not left for after you’ve read more emails – it’s done then and then, well, it’s done.

For slightly more involved tasks that aren’t especially important, one clever idea is to maintain a separate to-do list containing these tasks. Anytime you find yourself with a few minutes to kill and no prioritized task that can be completed in that window, pull out this list and tick something off.

Move Forward, Not Sideways

The intent of all of these ideas is to keep you moving forward rather than treading water. It can be easy to fall into the trap of being busy but not making progress and life is too short.

It’s also worth remembering that you’ll probably not accomplish everything you add to your to-do list, and that’s okay. Prioritizing your list keeps the most important next actions at the top and allows everything else to kind of naturally fall off the bottom over time. The daily review that prioritization requires ensures that you won’t waste your time and energy on things that you just clearly didn’t value in the first place.

By renewing your commitment to progress each day you will find yourself moving confidently forward, one ticked box at a time.

Build A Custom ‘Inflow’ To Stay On Top Of Things

Rupert has a lot to process.

The internet is full of interesting things (including this blog!). So many interesting things, in fact, that the line between staying informed and falling into a bottomless pit of distraction is sometimes difficult to distinguish. How can you stay on top of the things that matter most to you and avoid the distraction trap? By establishing your own custom ‘inflow’ of content that presents content only from trusted sources.

The methods that I’m presenting today are my own so my usual disclaimer applies: this is what works for me – your mileage may vary. That said, my aim is to highlight the logic of the very practical nuts and bolts of my own system so that you can design a system that suits your own needs.

Read on! Unless you want to save this article to Pocket and read it later, that is.

Setting Up Your Source(s)

As I mentioned last week, a productivity system is only as effective as its inbox. After all, if items are not being input into the system, where are they going? The ‘inflow’ is the step before the inbox – it is the fishing net with which you catch items that you might want in your inbox and also the sifter with which you uncover the nuggets that will enter your system.

In the same way that you’ll want to minimize your inboxes, I would recommend also that you minimize the sources from which you catch content. I have three main sources that I monitor regularly:

It is incredibly rare that I would discover content outside of these three sources and usually doing so is a happy accident (for example: an interesting article shared by a friend on Facebook who doesn’t usually share such things). In a constantly buzzing world, how can this be? How am I not missing something?

The key to my system is intentional design. There are no redundancies (so I’m not following a site on Twitter and also subscribing to their RSS feed, except as noted below) and all of my bases are covered. Speaking generally, the way that I allocate sources to either Feedly or Twitter breaks down like this:

  • Sites on my RSS reader (Feedly) are sites that post valuable enough content that I don’t want to miss anything. Feedly shows me everything that’s new since I last checked, so missing things doesn’t happen unless I intentionally skip ahead.
  • Twitter is where I go for breaking news. Here I follow newspapers and specific organizations (such as my favorite sports teams). I’m not on Twitter often enough to read everything, so I would miss things if it were my only source of content. I don’t tend to miss the big picture in terms of current events, as the bigger stories continue to appear often enough that I’ll eventually see them.
  • The only time I would follow a source on both Twitter and Feedly would be where the site adds value on Twitter (usually through curated links and retweets) but I don’t want to miss any of their regular content. Ghostbusters taught us that crossing the streams is bad (except when it’s good) and that advice holds true here.

Downcast, meanwhile, updates my podcasts and downloads episodes automatically. It’s low maintenance in that way – even syncing across your devices – and you’ll always have the latest episodes ready to go.

This intentional design allows me to trust my system and thus I minimize my fear of missing out (FOMO – a concept I’ll be exploring in greater detail in an upcoming post). I’m not seeing anything I don’t want to see and I’m not missing anything I’m not willing to miss.

Consuming Your Content

Once you’ve cast your net, it’s time to mine out the nuggets: those bits of content that you actually want to consume.

If I only check Feedly once a day I usually find anywhere between 150 to 200 articles to browse. Of these I will actually want to read roughly one from five, so that would be 30 to 40 on any given day. Depending on my schedule and the length of those articles, it’s not reasonable that I’ll read everything at that moment. I may never get around to reading some of them. The GTD two-minute rule comes in handy in these situations: short articles that can be read in a few minutes or less are usually read right away as is anything ‘breaking’ that would lose relevance over time. Everything else gets saved to my read-it-later app, Pocket.

Pocket saves my content to a master reading list (in the order in which I save them) so that I can read them at a time of my choosing. Pocket offers a few advanced features:

  • A night mode theme with serif text that makes reading on a tablet (which is my standard device for consuming text content) a lot easier on my eyes.
  • Heaps of sharing functionality – including all major social media platforms and email.
  • Cloud storage, so my list of articles can be pulled up on any of my devices or with any web browser.

Feedly also carries these functions on board but everything comes together a little better in Pocket. Additionally, Pocket plays nicely with Twitter. I can save links within tweets straight to Pocket and when I read the link later, the original tweet is displayed at the top, making retweeting or favoriting a breeze if I end up finding the content valuable and/or worth sharing.

Pocket, then, operates as a landing place for both Feedly and Twitter – almost qualifying as an inbox in my system. However, only the best content makes it to the real inbox: Evernote.

Only The Best Survive

Once I’ve read an article, one of two things will happen to it:

  • I will tick it as ‘read’ in Pocket and it will disappear to the archive.
  • I will find it valuable enough to archive for potential reference in the future and it will be saved to Evernote.

Evernote is my big fat online filing cabinet that (yes, I’m about to tease again) I will explore in greater detail in an upcoming post. Once I’ve sent an article to Evernote, it lands in one of my system’s true inboxes and from here it will be actioned. Most of the time it simply gets filed away so I know I have a copy of it somewhere. Yes, Pocket also archives my articles but Pocket archives a link that may eventually die while Evernote archives the actual text. In this way the content can never be lost, even if the site where it was featured eventually dies or the link changes.

Occasionally an article will contain an ‘action’, like a piece of software I might want to check out or a recipe I might want to (*cough* have my fiancée *cough*) whip up. In these instances, it actually gets added to my to-do list and categorized appropriately. If content is too good to file away and forget in the short-term, I take notes in the moment and link the notes to the article within Evernote. In a way Evernote acts like my own personal internet (and has accordingly fewer trolls).

Whatever You Do, Be Intentional

Again, you don’t have to incorporate my system exactly as I have described it. My hope is that you’ll be able to read between the lines and build your own system around an intentional plan that will eliminate FOMO and reduce the time you would normally spend aimlessly wandering the internet in search of content. There are other apps that perform similar functions as the ones I use, but I know what works for me and that’s what I’ve shared.

When you’ve built up your RSS and/or social feeds to the point that you get all of the content you want without visiting any other site, you’ll know you’ve built a durable inflow that will keep you informed on the things that matter most to you. If anxiety lingers, look for the cracks (or redundancies) in your system that make you feel as though you’re missing out. Your inflow may need this occasional massaging but a few minutes organizing things every few weeks is far preferable to countless wasted minutes spent wandering the wasteland of the internet at large.

You Can’t Create A New World Until You Handle This One

Rupert is out to create a new world.
On Monday we discussed the importance of establishing a productivity system that will turn our many inputs into valuable outputs. David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, recently offered this reminder about just how important these systems are:

Our systems must be durable, adaptable and robust. They’re built not only to help us organize the chaos of the present, but also to serve as a foundation for a future that we haven’t even imagined yet. There will simply be no time to make those dreams a reality if we’re in a constant struggle with the demands of the moment, so get your system right! When it’s humming along nicely in the background and your mind is finally free to imagine a new world, turn your system into overdrive and deliver.

You Need A System To Convert Inputs Into Outputs

Rupert is feeling overwhelmedLast week I discussed the value of segmenting your time into ‘input mode’ and ‘output mode’ in order to stay focused on getting things done. If you talk about input and output with an engineer or a manufacturer, they’ll tell you that a system is what bridges the two – that funnelling input through a system is what produces output.

It’s no different for your individual productivity – you’re going to need a system (or two… or three) to help you turn all of the many inputs in your life into working and final output. Today I’m looking at what such a system would look like at its very core and filling in the gaps with examples from my own system. As always, your mileage may vary. I’m sharing what I do not because it’s a one-size-fits-all solution that will immediately change your life, but because it’s a system that works for me and my reasoning may help you adapt your own system to work for you.

The Inbox

The most important – and central – component of any productivity system is the inbox. Think of your system as a giant funnel through which inputs must pass. The widest opening of the funnel – where everything is captured – is your inbox. It’s best if you have as few inboxes as logistically possible, though it’s not unreasonable to have a few. I operate with three: a physical inbox (which is an actual desk tray in my office) and two digital inboxes (my email inbox and an ‘inbox’ folder in Evernote).

My physical inbox gathers anything that’s a hardcopy – snail mail, business cards, flyers, CDs, and the occasional handwritten note. My email inbox, not surprisingly, captures only email. Just about anything else – including scans of hardcopy items from my desk tray – goes into Evernote.

The trick with inboxes is to keep them empty or as close to empty as possible at all times. This is known as Inbox Zero, a concept popularized by Merlin Mann. If you experience anxiety from feeling like you constantly have too much to sort through, Inbox Zero is your solution and getting there is probably easier than you think.

Getting Things Done (GTD)

Getting Things Done is the name of both a book by David Allen and the productivity system that it outlines. The system deals with your input as it spins toward the bottom of the ‘funnel’, employing filters and triggers through which each piece of input must pass before being actioned or filed away.

Say you receive an email. The first filter for this message asks: does this email require action on my part?

If the answer is no, the email has one of three destinies:

  1. Trash it
  2. Save it for possible action (if it contains an idea that might need developing)
  3. File it away for your own reference

If the answer is yes, the ball starts rolling immediately (and in this order):

  • Is this part of a larger project? Define the next action.
  • Can you do it in two minutes or less? Do it.
  • If not: is this something you should do yourself? Put it on your to-do list or schedule it.
  • If it’s not for you: delegate it and make following up your next action.

Again, this structure is what the GTD system calls for – your own system will need to suit your specific circumstances. For instance, I don’t have anybody I can delegate to (without spending money, anyway), so that’s not even an option for me. You may choose to skip the two minute rule and add everything to your to-do list immediately. There are no rules, but considering this framework is a great place to start.

The Assembly Line

Once inputs have passed through your system, you’ll be left with a queue of actions waiting to be converted into output. In this way, you can keep your inboxes at zero without losing track of the things you want to accomplish. My emails don’t disappear – they just get added to my to-do list or they get filed away. Gmail is great to this end, as everything you ‘archive’ remains searchable and easy to find, so there’s really no need to bother with folders or labels (though, again, that doesn’t mean you can’t).

It is at this stage that you can switch into ‘output mode’ and really start getting things done. Knowing yourself and your tendencies is key here. If you like to start with the big, annoying task and get it out of the way, do so. If you like to work your way up by knocking out the easier things first, go right ahead. The important thing is that you stay focused on the task in front of you. When in ‘output mode’ there is no input allowed – no email, no social, no television. If you don’t really feel like switching into output mode, your list of actions and tasks offer a great way to trick yourself by making the question less about should you start and more about where will you start.

It’ll take some time, but once you install and learn to trust your system your inputs will be regularly converted to outputs and your system – along with yourself – will be effortlessly firing on all cylinders.