Take control of your priorities: Your to-do list is not a dumping ground

Are you a to-do item hoarder? There's more to managing your to-do list than just working on your top priority items. Today, we're going to discuss how you manage the basement of the list.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Yesterday, we discussed The Golden Rule for taking control of your out-of-control to-do list. The idea was simple: you must limit your top priority items to things you can get done before you go to sleep. By actively controlling your to-do list and keeping a careful eye on the top priorities, you can own your agenda.

But there's more to managing your to-do list than just working on your top priority items. You also have to to take control of everything else on the list. Today, we're going to discuss how you manage the bottom of the list.

Many folks start their to-do lists with the best of intentions. But as time goes by, more and more items slip down to the bottom of the list. Worse, items with "later" or no due date get added to the list, just so they don't get forgotten. Eventually, most of us wind up with a to-do list filled with hundreds or even thousands of items - most of which will never get any attention.

That behavior stops now.

In order to take control of your to-do list's basement storehouse, you need to have two things: a plan of action, and a place to put all your stuff. You also need to clarify your thinking about the purpose of a to-do list. Let's tackle that first.

Your to-do list is a very specific tool with a very specific purpose: to help you make sure you get your most important work done on time. That's it. Your to-do list is not a storehouse. It's not a database. It's not a dumping ground.

It's the air traffic controller for your workload. It's job is to guide your projects and tasks in for a safe, on-time, turbulence-free landing.

That then, becomes our starting point. Since most of us have long thought of our to-do list as a dumping ground, we need to move all the junk we've dumped out of the to-do list.

Let's next tackle the "so where do I put it all?" question. It's a fair question, because many of the items in your to-do list are things you don't want to lose track of.

To some extent, the answer of where you put it all depends on what you do and what it all is. For example, if you're a programmer and your to-do list is filled with loads of bug fix reports, you'll want to transfer those to a bug tracking database. That's what those tools are used for. As I discussed yesterday, if you're a sales person and your to-do list is filled with leads, you'll want to transfer those to a CRM system (by the way, I have a big contacts management series coming up that will help with that process).

The point is, you want to get your non-actionable items off your list. For me, it's all the project items that used to fill up my list, along with various contacts and leads for stories or review items, outlines for classes, and back in the day, products and big deal leads.

As I said, a programmer might use a bug tracking tool, a sales person might use a CRM system. My tool of choice is Trello, which is sort of like an interactive index card box. I move all my project-related items to Trello, and each project has its own Trello board.

The idea here that since your to-do list is not a database, you need to find a data storage place for all the database-like items.

Of course, the next part of the puzzle is what stays on the to-do list and what goes into cold storage? For me, the threshold is whether I reasonably, sanely expect to take action on the item in the next 30 days. If it's not something I expect to actually work on in the next month, it doesn't belong on my to-do list. It belongs in long term storage.

You understand tiered storage for computers, right?

Look at it this way. You know that in-memory storage is way fast, but memory is expensive, so you only want the most important data to live in-memory. The next tier is flash or SSD. That's data you expect to access a lot, like an article on a Web server that was just linked to by a high-traffic site. After that, you have hard disk storage. Plentiful and cheap. And finally, there's long term storage like tape or Amazon's Glacier. Cheap, but slower to get at.

Assigning data to one or the other of those tiers is about how you're going to use the data and the time-value of the data. You're not judging any of the data as better or worse, just more active or less active.

The same tiering process applies to your to-do list. Think of your to-do list as in-memory storage and flash. It's active. Everything that's on it should be things you expect to complete, and complete reasonably soon.

If an item is a once-in-a-while or an aspirational to-do item, or something you'll get to someday, move it off your to-do list to slower, cheaper storage.

Now, I do have to tell you that this trimming/pruning process is tedious and time-consuming. That's why you want to do it once, and then keep it current. I find that - in practice - I wind up doing a full spring cleaning on my to-do list (and the associated long-term project storage lists) about once a year. I take a weekend or a slow week and just pound through it.

But it's worth it.

Once you have the bottom-end of your to-do list under control, and you can look at the next 30 days and really see what you've got coming up, and be able to to take control of your priorities, actually know what you're expecting yourself to do, and then be able to ruthlessly prioritize, you'll get more done, be more credible when you make delivery promises, and feel a powerful sense of control over your destiny.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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