Rocks and Pebbles - Photo by Benjamin EllisThe big problem with getting good at building to do lists, is that you end up with long lists of things to be done! The list just seems to keep on growing and growing. There are lots of reasons that can happen and lots of ways to deal with it. Recently I had noticed a few things were lingering on my list and causing it to bulk up. I decided to try a new tactic and learnt some interesting things on the way, in studying those lingering tasks and why they end up there.

I’ve been moving to using ThinkingRock, from Outlook, and was trying to complete my outlook to do list. Yes, two to do lists in two different applications. Not big. Not Clever. Definitely not Getting Things Done. Regardless, one of the things that Outlook does let you do is to sort tasks by last modified time. I set outlook to sort the list that way and started paying attention to the oldest things on the list. If I rewrote a task, the last modified time changed and it bounced off of the bottom. FIFO – first in, first out – task management. I started to notice some specific things with those ‘hard to shift’ tasks which had been lingering and built some strategies to deal with them.

1. The Un-actionable Thin Mist – A Task So Vague…

Some items that were just too fluffy to actually be done: “make office look nice”, “look at competitors”. Badly written to dos.

Tactic: Rewrite to focus them and make them specific, e.g. “file piles of paper to office cabinet”, “write a SWAT on the top 4 competitors” and so on. In outlook, I pasted the original to do into the notes section for reference. In ThinkingRock, I just broke the item down into projects or sub-projects.

2. The Monster Task – A Task So Huge…

To do’s that are half a lifetime of work. When you see something like “read war and peace” on a to do list, you know it isn’t going to get done in the next 30 minutes. So many things get trapped on a to do list because they are simply too big to digest in one go, they are projects.

Tactic: Break them down. Rewrite as a few smaller tasks, or in ThinkingRock press the button to promote it to a project and create new tasks under it. Read the book a chapter at a time. Boom. It is off the bottom of the list, and more likely to have progress made on it.

3. The Hidden Dependency – The Task Isn’t The Next Action…

Task are sometimes stuck because of a hidden dependency. It requires a resource to enable it to happen, or a new skill. Perhaps it needs a specific person, or requires being at a physical location, or requires a piece of information or knowledge.

Tactic: Replace the to do with an action that gets that resource, and/or put the to do into your diary on the date that you will have the resource. GTD’s contexts are a great system for tracking location based dependencies, by having separate lists for tasks that are location dependent.

4. The Frog – A Task So Ugly You Don’t Want To Kiss It…

Sometimes I look at the task and think, “I really don’t want to do that.” I’m sure you don’t ever do that, but just in case it ever happens to you… Eat that frog!

Tactic: Make the frog tasty and easier to eat, combine the undesirable with something nice “sweep the path while listening to favourite new album on iPod”, or whatever works for you.

5. Its information! Not A Task At All!

This sounds silly, but I still find a few of these get onto the list, you know, “George is a dog”. Am I going to do something about it? If not, then file it somewhere with all the other information and get it off of the to do list.

Tactic: File it somewhere, or work out what the actual action is.

6. It is not Worth it.

Give it up. Sometimes it is a question of saying “Will this make a lasting difference?” and realising it won’t.
Tactic: Practice Planned Abandonment.

Sometimes I found combinations of all of these tactics most effective. “Process and pay the 20 bills in the in tray” is changed to 4 lots of “process and pay 5 bills while listening to new favourite album”.

There are probably a few others, let me know in the comments. Sometimes I just making sure I prod the oldest item on my to do list and get it done or using some of these tactics has drastically reduced the size of my to do list.

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