All posts by Justin Hale

Getting Things Done QA

The Best Way to Organize Your To-Dos

Dear Justin,

I’ve been following your advice and keeping an inventory of all my to-dos and tasks somewhere not in my head. The problem now is how to organize them. I feel a little better now that I can see everything on a list, but I still don’t feel organized. What is the best way to organize all this stuff?

Aspiring GTDer

Dear Aspiring,

First of all, congratulations on your progress. If everyone did what you’ve been doing, they’d experience a lot more clarity and a lot less stress. That said, it’s time to take the next step.

Many people I work with find relief from clearing their minds. But then over time some of their stress returns. Why? Because they get those items off their minds only to turn them into big long lists. Any time they glance at their list, they feel overwhelmed. Yet it’s not the size of the list that is the source of stress. It’s actually the nature of the to-dos and the way they’re organized. If you follow these next two tips, I promise you’ll feel more organized, procrastinate less, and save a ton of time.

First, clarify your projects. So many people try to organize unclear stuff—you can’t. If you had a pile of documents on your desk and I said to you, “Please organize those quickly.” You’d probably say, “Well . . . I can’t do that until I look at each paper first.” Exactly. People try to “get organized” when the stuff they’re trying to organize is still in a vague and unclear form. You can’t prioritize a mess.

If you look at most people’s lists, they say things like “Paint wall,” “Mom birthday,” “Oil,” “offsite,” and “Cat Video Conference.” It’s great to have identified something you need to give time and attention to, but if the meaning is vague your mind will just spin when you look at the list. Instead of being able to do, you have to figure out what to do. It’s the difference between writing “Off-site” and writing “Email meeting invite to marketing team to brainstorm plans for 2021 off-site.”

Remember this: everything on your to-do list is either attracting you or repelling you; there’s no neutral territory. You’re either looking at something and saying, “Awesome! When can I do this and mark it off?” or, “Yuck! I don’t even want to think about this because there is so much involved it’s overwhelming.”

The solution is to decide on stuff only once. That means when you put an action item on a list, clearly identify what the next action is—the very next physical, visible activity you need to take to move things forward. Your to-do list should be only next actions, so that when you decide to do one of those actions, you can be confident it’s the right thing to do. And make sure your items start with verbs like these: Call, Read, Draft, Email, Text, Download. And so on.

Second, organize your tasks so that you can start doing and stop analyzing. The way people typically organize to-dos and tasks is either in one big list or by topic. The problem with the first approach is that it results in huge lists. I’m guessing you don’t just have 25 to-dos. If you did, then one list would work. I’m guessing you have 100 to 150 to-dos in your personal and professional life—maybe more. So, when it’s time to get things done, you end up spending more time sifting through the massive list to figure out which task to do.

Then if we do segment our lists, we tend to group them by topic or project. The potential problem with these approaches is that we often run into issues related to context and resources. Here’s an example: if you’re jumping on the train and the only work you can reasonably do is make a few phone calls, you’d have to sift through all your different topic or project lists to see what calls you could make considering how much time you have before you reach your stop. No matter what your priorities are in a given moment, your context and resources will often trump them. So, one of the best ways to get organized is to arrange your to-dos by context.

Here’s the principle: Make it easier for yourself to see the tasks you need to accomplish, when you can accomplish them. Here’s how you do that: Organize to-dos according to the location you need to be in, or the resources and people you need to be connected to, in order to complete the action. For example, you might make a list of calls to make. That way, the moment you jump on that train, you can glance at this list and know what you can accomplish in the time you have available. A few of my own lists that fit this structure are @Home, @Errands, @Calls, @Christina (my wife), @Work Computer. Other helpful lists might be things like @Grocery store, @Offline, @Mushybrain (for tasks that require very little mental energy and can be tackled easily at the end of the day). I like to use the @ symbol to suggest “when I’m in this location or with that person.”

This approach allows you to get the right things done when you have the time and resources available, and the right people present. That way you don’t have to waste time trying to remember why you’re on that specific errand or what you wanted to talk with your partner about. Instead, when you have your weekly one-on-one with your boss, for example, you can open your list @Manager and address all the items you want to discuss with her.

Organizing by context was initially counterintuitive for me, but once I tried it out with “both feet in” I became far more productive and focused, and with less effort. I’m convinced I’ll never go back to organizing by project, topic, or one big list.

When you organize by context or resource, your focus is on the actions you can take, not on sorting and sifting. And that’s really the point of Getting Things Done.


Crucial Accountability QA

How to Make Virtual Meetings More Engaging and Effective

Dear Justin,

We are learning how to use videoconferencing as our new meeting platform. Do you have tips for facilitating meetings to promote participation and feedback, as many people seem uncomfortable because they can’t read non-verbal cues from others? Also, do you have effective methods for guiding people with interaction? No one is using the “raise hand” feature, so we often end up speaking at the same time and it’s awkward. We aren’t communicating as well as we did with in-person meetings. I’ve also noticed that people tend to rush, maybe because they’re uncomfortable speaking and seeing themselves at the same time. How can we ensure conversations flow more smoothly in a teleconferencing format? How can we encourage everyone to share their questions and concerns?

Needing Ideas

Dear Needing Ideas,

Thanks for your question. I’m guessing many of our readers share your concerns. It’s hard to get people to pay attention in any meeting, but when people aren’t in the same room, it can be especially difficult. And it’s particularly annoying when you make a nine-minute argument, pause for a reaction, and get “I’m not sure I followed you,” which might as well mean, “I was shampooing my cat and didn’t realize I would be called on.”

Meetings are often ineffective because there’s little to no accountability for engagement. There are four primary reasons to hold a meeting: to influence others, to make decisions, to solve problems, or to strengthen relationships. Since all of these are active processes, passive passengers in a meeting rarely do quality work. The precondition for effective meetings—virtual or otherwise—is voluntary engagement. Here’s what works.

1. The 60-second Rule. First, never engage a group in solving a problem until they have felt the problem. Do something in the first 60 seconds to help them experience it. You might share shocking or provocative statistics, anecdotes, or analogies that dramatize the problem. No matter what tactic you use, your goal is to make sure the group understands and appreciates the problem (or opportunity) before you try to solve it.

2. The Responsibility Rule. When people enter any social setting, they tacitly work to determine their role. For example, when you enter a movie theater, you unconsciously define your role as observer—you are there to be entertained. When you enter the gym, you’re an actor—you’re there to work out. The biggest threat to engagement in virtual meetings is allowing team members to unconsciously take the role of observer. Many already defined their role this way when they received the meeting invite and determined to work on something else while they “check in.” To counteract this implicit decision, create an experience of shared responsibility early in your presentation. Don’t do it by saying, “Okay, I want this to be a conversation, not a presentation. I need all of you to be involved.” That rarely works. Instead, create an opportunity for them to take meaningful responsibility. This is best done using the next rule.

3. The Nowhere-to-Hide Rule. If everyone is responsible, then no one feels responsible. Avoid this in your meeting by giving people tasks that they can actively engage in so there is nowhere to hide. Define a problem that can be solved quickly, assign people to groups of two or three (max). Give them a medium with which to communicate with one another (video conference, Slack channel, messaging platform, audio breakouts). If you’re on a virtual meeting platform that allows for breakout groups, use them liberally. Give participants a very limited timeframe to take on a highly structured but brief task.

4. The MVP Rule. Nothing disengages a group more reliably than assaulting them with slide after slide of mind-numbing data. It doesn’t matter how smart or sophisticated the group is, if your goal is engagement, you have to mix facts and stories. Determine the Minimum Viable PowerPoint (MVP) deck you need. In other words, select the least amount of data you need to inform the group. Don’t add a single slide more.

5. The 5-Minute Rule. Never go longer than five minutes without giving the group another problem to solve. Participants are in rooms scattered, who knows where, with dozens of tempting distractions. If you don’t sustain a continual expectation of meaningful involvement, they will retreat into that alluring observer role, and you’ll have to work hard to bring them back. Consider wrapping up a presentation or brainstorming meeting with a group-generated list of options, then throw out a polling or voting opportunity to determine the team’s opinion about where to begin.

I adapted these tips from an article I recently co-wrote with Joseph Grenny for Harvard Business Review. You can review the full article here. I hope this helps.

Best of luck,

Getting Things Done QA

Chaos in Quarantine—What Can I Do About My To-Dos?

Dear Justin,

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I am up to my ears in work. I don’t know any other way to say it: I have too much to do, and not enough time. With the quarantine, kids at home, and clients cancelling, I have ten to fifteen new projects on my plate, on top of what I already had. I wish I could declare to-do list bankruptcy and walk away from it all. Is there any way around this?


Dear Bankrupt,

I’m really sorry you’re experiencing this, and I feel for you. I don’t know anyone right now whose to-do list got shorter as a result of current events. Here’s the reality, there is no way “around” this. As the saying goes, “the only way out is through.”

But there is some good news in what I’m about to share. If you follow my suggestions, you’ll know how to get through next time the waves of life come crashing down—and it’s not IF that happens, but WHEN. What we’ve found over the last few decades is this: when it comes to gaining control over your world, it’s less about the amount of work you have or even the hours in the day you have or don’t have; a highly productive life is much more about your habits than anything else. And that means YOU can get through this.

Start by making an inventory of EVERY commitment you’ve made. If you do this one thing, you’ll naturally follow most of my other suggestions. People come to me all the time complaining about how overwhelmed they are. When I ask what’s overwhelming them, they can’t really say. As far as they’re concerned, it’s just this aching feeling, this weight on their shoulders. The problem is this: if you can’t define what’s overwhelming you, you can’t do much about it.

So, grab a piece of paper and take the next fifteen minutes to write down everything that comes to mind when you think about the “weight” and the “ache.” Every task, every to-do, every project, every errand, every phone call, every meeting—you get the idea. Get it all out of your head and in front of your eyes, ASAP. If you do this, a few things will start to happen:

You’ll begin shifting the blame from the lists to yourself. This is a good thing. You need to take ownership of the fact that no one made those commitments for you. You made them.
As you start to see the sheer volume of what YOU have said yes to, the letters “N-O” will start to come to your lips more easily.
Then determine the following for each task:

  • Which will you do by the date you committed?
  • Which will you delegate?
  • Which will you decline (whether commitments to yourself or other people)?
  • Which will you renegotiate, whether when it’s done, how it’s done, or who does it?

Once that’s clear, further clarify each item by asking yourself, “What is the next action I need to take to move forward on this?” Try to identify the smallest next action. Not all of the actions you might need to take, just the next action.

You will never reach the heights of personal efficiency, productivity, and satisfaction if you aren’t having “no” and renegotiation conversations on a regular basis. I’m not saying it’s ok to overcommit when you know you’ll end up renegotiating later. I’m saying that the more you audit your inventory of commitments, the more clear you’ll get on how much work you actually can do. You’ll get better at noticing when you’ve gone over that threshold. In the short run, you might need to go back and turn down or renegotiate commitments. In the long run, you’ll be better up front about accepting or declining requests.

None of us will get through this pandemic without having these conversations and making these adjustments. I’m reminded of a time when my wife went into the hospital unexpectedly for 50 days. At the drop of a hat, I was essentially a single working dad with a three-year-old and a two-year-old. The first night she was gone, after I put my boys to bed, I sat down with my full inventory of personal and work-related projects and I simply said, “Here are my limitations. Here is my time each day. Which of these can I realistically do, which should I decline, and which should I renegotiate?” I then took a few hours to make those decisions and make a plan for executing on them.

Yes, sometimes people will be disappointed, and that’s hard. But that’s a natural consequence of doing what you CAN. It’s a consequence of focus.

Good luck,