Is Your Task List Weighing You Down?

Your plan for the day should bring clarity, not more confusion.

One of the drawbacks to paper planning is that unfinished tasks don’t roll over from day to day. If you don’t finish something today and you need to do it tomorrow, you have to copy the task to tomorrow’s task list.

One of the drawbacks to digital planning is that unfinished tasks will automatically roll over from day to day. Tasks can automatically appear on your list (OmniFocus can hide tasks until their defer date), but once they’re on your task list, they don’t come off until you complete it or delete it.

If you’re not careful, your task list gradually swell and start to weigh you down. You remember the scene in The Incredibles where Mr. Incredible is getting hit by the intruder neutralization orbs? That.

Photo courtesy of ©Disney/Pixar

I just went through this as the holidays were approaching. Work, church, and life all got busy, and my task list started growing as tasks went on faster than they were finished. Things finally calmed down mid-December, and it took me the rest of the year—while on vacation—to work through it all. If I hadn’t violated each of the following four principles, I could have gone into the holidays with a much shorter list.

  • Set task expiration dates. You’re not going to complete every task you put on your list. No matter how dedicated and committed you are to 100% perfect productivity and following through, some things just won’t make sense by the time you get to it. Accept you’re never going to get around to doing it, and take it off your list. Don’t put it back on your Someday/Maybe list. Just let it go. If it were a priority, you would have done it by now.
  • Put everything you need to do on the list. As new things come in that you need to get done today, add them to the list, even if you don’t reprioritize. Otherwise, you’ll quickly get caught up in putting out fires (just one more!) so you can get back to your list. At that point, you’re working without a list. Your list has become a guilt trip—a reminder of what you should be doing, but aren’t.
  • Learn to say no. Some of the tasks that weigh us down the most are the ones that never should have been on there in the first place. We want to be accomodating and helpful, so we say yes to too many requests of our time. Develop a clear vision of who you want to be (a personal mission statement can help) and focus your attention there. If you don’t set your agenda, someone else will be happy to.
  • It’s okay to change your mind. Priorities shift, and what was important last week may no longer be relevant. That great idea you have today may lose its shine once you’ve had a chance to think about it. Take it off your list to make room for something better.

Some things from my mid-December task list got done. Some got rescheduled, delegated, or dropped entirely. I finally got through it all, and was able to start the new year with a clean slate.

It takes a focused effort to keep your task list relevant and useful. It’s a tool that should help you accomplish incredible things, not a burden to weigh you down.

Question: How do you keep your task list lean and mean? Share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

About

Colter writes software and blogs about personal growth and productivity. He lives in Silicon Valley (California) with his wife and children, recently took up golf, and watches mostly British TV shows.

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