The Golden Rule for taking control of your out-of-control to-do list

If you're suddenly facing an out of control to-do list, don't panic. This article will help you wrangle your to-dos and whittle them down to a manageable level by using the Golden Rule.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

I always have a love/hate with the first official working day of the year. It always seems like we all start our long bear nap right around Halloween and are distracted by the holidays and silly season until after New Year's Day.

But once the holiday break comes to an end, it's like we all wake up together, right around 9am on the first working day of the year.

All of a sudden, the phone rings, chats start coming in fast and furious, email threads that were long dormant suddenly come alive, and all the not-now to-do items we consciously moved to "next year" are suddenly due today.

Boom! We're back!

It's exciting, but it's also overwhelming. Suddenly, everything has to be done, and it all seems to need to be done today. Welcome to the new year. I hope you had a good nap.

If you're suddenly facing an out of control to-do list, don't panic. This article will help you wrangle your to-dos and whittle them down to a manageable level by learning to use the Golden Rule.

Golden Rule: Your top priority items must be done before you go to sleep

No matter which to-do tracker you use (I use Todoist because I like how I can turn email messages easily into tasks), every one allows you to assign priorities to tasks. Some tools use letters like A, B, and C. Others use numbers like 1, 2, and 3.

Todoist uses colors. Red is top priority. Dark blue is second highest. Light blue is third highest. And white is low priority. Personally, I like this because it's clear that I need to focus on my "red" priorities.

Here's the key to all of this

If you make something a 1, an A, or set it as a red priority, you must complete it before you go to sleep for the night. No excuses, no extensions.

If you take this rule seriously, you'll find it has all sorts of positive effects on your task management. For example, you can't assign "build a new data center" as a red priority, because there is no way you can build a data center before you go to sleep.

If working on the new data center is truly your top priority, you have to find the chunk of the task that must be done first, and make that your very top priority.

Let me give you an example from my list, today. I have two red priorities for today: grade my students and write this article. I will not call it a day until I have accomplished both these tasks.

Now, as it turns out, I don't have a hard-and-fast deadline for either of these. But my students have been waiting on grades since before New Year's Day and they deserve to get their grades. And I'm writing an article about beginning the work year, so it should be finished today.

So, let's now imagine that one of my servers has an alert that needs immediate attention. Given today's two red items, should I do? Clearly the managing the server now needs to become a red item.

Now I have three items. There is now no longer any way I can get them all done tonight. I could leave all three items red and just get done what I can.

But that breaks the golden rule. All red items must be completed before sleep. So I have to carefully think about what's on my list, exercise some editorial judgement, and change either (or both) the grading or the article to a second-level priority.

Given my experience with server alerts, once one hits, it's going to take all my attention. The grading and the writing get demoted. They won't be done tonight.

Now, my to-do list has only one red item: manage the server alert. It must be done before I go to sleep.

Obviously, changing the priority of some previously top-items may seem like a simple fabrication, but the idea is you need to become fully engaged in how you prioritize your work, and if your situation changes, you need to take active action to reprioritize, rather than just letting it all get out of control.

Let's try another example

Back when I ran a sales team as a software entrepreneur, I had a sales professional who would come back from a trade show and add all of her leads to the bottom of her to-do list, with a "call so-and-so" entry for each. She used to add hundreds of to-do items after every show, and if we had a few in a row, she wound up with thousands of to-do items - a situation that was completely unmanageable.

Her work-around for this was to ignore her to-do list and write on sticky notes, which she then plastered all over her desk. To say she had to-do fail would be an understatement.

Here's how that situation should have been handled in light of our new golden rule.

Her list of leads should never have been put into her to-do list. Salesforce didn't exist, but today, she might put them into a SaaS tool like that. Even if she just put all the leads into a name and address contact list, that would have worked as well. Just as long as the big list was not in her to-do list.

If it truly was important that she make, say, five cold calls each day, she could create a five to-do items with "call prospect" as an entry. Let's say her job (or her company) depended on making five calls a day without fail. Then she would list each of those entries as a priority 1 or a red entry.

She would have to call five prospects before she went to sleep.

"Fine," you say. "But she can't exactly go around calling people at 2am just because she didn't make her calls earlier in the day."

Actually, she could. I've done it. The key is finding a prospect in a time zone that's awake when you have time to make the call. When I was keeping my business alive during rough times, I called prospects all over the world. I got some of my very best customers by being an American calling them, during their work day and having a relevant offering.

By now, you should be getting the idea

You constantly re-jigger the list to make sure you know what you're prioritizing, make sure you've picked things that can possibly be done before you go to bed, make sure you chunk down the items you've assigned until they're small enough to be done before bed, and you update your list every day, thinking through the items you have to do and the time you have to do them.

That takes care of the top of the list. Tomorrow, we'll talk about how to handle the bottom of the list and keep track of all the loose ends.

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