Getting Things Done QA

How To Ensure To-Do Lists Don’t Overrun Your Life

Dear Justin,

I have always been a list maker. This has served me well over the years. I’m getting older now and find that I make lists over and over and tend to have multiple lists—on my desk, in my pockets, etc. What can I do to either organize my lists or keep just one list that has it all?

List Of Lists

Dear List of Lists,

You know you’re busy when your lists have lists—or you have sticky notes to remind yourself to look at other sticky notes.

I suspect you’re mixing up the tools you use to “capture” new inputs and the tools you use to “organize” the actions you want to take. This may be why you are losing tasks and actions on many different lists. Here are some insights to consider.

1. Have Capture Tools

You need some tools where you can capture and record ideas, tasks, commitments, insights, etc. These tools do NOT comprise a to-do list. They work more like nets. If you’re on the run and need to capture an idea you want to take action on, but don’t have the time to think about the first step or when you want to start, you need a tool to capture that idea. Capturing allows you to go on with your day and be present, and at the same time not lose track of something you may want to act on later. This “capture tool” can be a notepad, the notes app on your phone, or an email you send to yourself. Those are just a few examples. Have at least one capture tool you keep with you always.

2. Have Just a FEW Capture Tools

Most people have fifteen to twenty tools where they receive or capture inputs. They have multiple email addresses, piles o’ junk on their desk and kitchen table, a purse, a wallet, several apps, in-trays, sticky notes galore, and voicemail. With so many tools capturing inputs, it’s no wonder people drop balls and miss details. There is no way that you could remember to process all the inputs in every one of those tools on a regular basis. So, things get missed.

Try this challenge. Limit your number of capture tools to fewer than five. As you do, I promise you’ll stress less about missing things and have a clearer view of your FULL inventory of commitments. There are several ways you might reduce your number of capture tools. For example, you could automatically combine inputs (auto-forward emails from a few inboxes to one); you could direct inputs yourself to a chosen tool (after you get a business card at a conference, write a quick note on it and then email a picture of the card to yourself rather than dropping the card in a briefcase, bag, or purse only to get lost); or you could let others know where to leave inputs. As a case in point, my voicemail was once a place where people would leave inputs for me. But I rarely checked it. It was frustrating for them and stressful for me. So I changed my voicemail message to say “Hi, this is Justin. I don’t check my voicemail often, but I’m happy to help. If you could email me at ### I’ll get my attention on your request in the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours.” By doing this I was saying, “This voicemail inbox is not one of my chosen capture tools, but if you put your request in my chosen capture tool, I am much more likely to help you—and help you more quickly.” It was better for them and me.

3. The Right Lists

Once you’ve reduced your number of capture tools, consider your number of to-do lists. I often advise people to have as many lists as they need to reflect the complexity of their lives, but no more. I also suggest people keep lists according to context—where the action needs to happen. So you might have a list for actions that can only be completed @home, and a list of actions that can only be completed @work, or a list of things you want to buy @grocery store. For every context, have a list. Separating your to-dos this way can make life easier. To address your original concern, I would suggest keeping all these lists in one location. The lists are separate but the location singular, so you don’t have to look all over to find them. Maybe you use an app that keeps all your lists. It doesn’t mean you look at personal stuff at work. You only look at the lists related to where you are or what you need in a given moment. Consider context, then act from the corresponding list.

Bonus Tip—for those going crazy with oversized lists. One way to simplify things for yourself is to do what I call an “agreement audit.” Take a moment and write on one large sheet of paper every single agreement you’ve made (work and home). Knowing you can’t bend time and do everything in the short term, go through each task and ask yourself, “Is this something I should DO, DECLINE, or RENEGOTIATE?” Make a decision about each, then take action. If you’re skeptical of this approach, let me ask you which is worse: not doing the tasks while pretending you might, or proactively getting in front of them and working on a plan?

Bonus Video—for fun. About this time last year, my team went out and asked people to share what pressing to-dos and tasks held their attention most. The answers we received are quite funny and relatable. Enjoy the video here.

Best Regards,

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