How to Manage Your To-do List
Tame your to-do List with the Autofocus task manager system.
Sheila wrote : my to-do items are stuck on little pieces of paper everywhere. It’s driving me crazy! Do you have a task manager system that will help me?
How to Manage Your To-Do List
Why are the to-do sticky notes causing your head to explode? Because you never quite know where they all are. Sure, you have a bunch at your desk. A few are probably in your car. And there’s even the note you wrote while getting your weekly massage. When he saw you writing, your masseur Boris dug into your back so hard you almost dropped your iPhone.
David Allen says we need a Zen Mind, a mind like water: calm, placid, and moist. You get a moist mind by having a system that handles everything in your life. When a thought pops to mind, you know what to do: first, put on the aluminum foil hat to make sure that the idea isn’t being beamed into your head by aliens. Then, put that thought in your system-that-handles-everything. Suddenly, your mind is clear again. This only works if the system is so reliable that you know, down to the tips of your brightly painted toenails (you know you have them, guys) that putting something in means you will get to it. You have to trust the system.
(And that, my friends, is probably the first time those words have ever passed my lips. “Trust the system.” Indeed!)
In Getting Things Done, David presents a wonderful, trustworthy system that handles everything. It even has a little flowchart. That flowchart sent every Star Trek T-shirt wearing, science fiction reading, my-solutions-are-far-more-complicated-than-the-problems-they’re-supposed-to-solve type geek into a nirvana of organizational ecstasy when the book came out. Melvin and I? We used the GTD system for years and it worked beautifully.
Use a Task-Management System that Manages Everything
Unfortunately, Bernice needs personal organization too. She doesn’t wear Star Trek T-shirts, and she thinks flowcharts are … unnatural. “If Goddess had intended womyn to use flowcharts, she would have given them computers,” Bernice sniffs. Of course, we do have computers, so wouldn’t that count…?
Keeping David Allen’s requirements in mind—a trusted system that handles everything—there’s a system even the Goddess would love. It’s the remarkably simple Autofocus 4 system by Mark Forster. It uses a combined right-brain/left-brain approach to tasks, which Bernice assures me is much more Goddess-friendly.
Create a Master To-Do List
First, decide where you’ll keep your master to-do list. You can use a word processor document, or a spreadsheet, e-mail, or a notebook. I’ve switched between online and paper systems for years and consistently get better results with paper. Paper makes me think twice before adding to-do items. If something’s isn’t important enough to write by hand, it’s not important enough to spend time on. With electronic systems, once a list gets longer than a screen or two, I only look at the first couple of pages. Anything further down doesn’t get done. I can’t trust my system any more, and Zen mind goes bye-bye. Click here for more tips on choosing a tool to manage your to-do list.
I use a pocket-sized soft cover Moleskine® notebook to hold my to-do list. It is a joy to use.
How to Use the Autofocus 4 System
The system is simple. Copy your current to-do list into your notebook. Draw a line after the last item. Every time you think of a new thing to do, add it to the end of the list. The items before the line are called your backlog. The items you’ve added after the line are your current list. Unlike other systems, your items can be as big, small, vague, or specific as you like, as long as you know what they mean. “Buy lugnut to repair electric ear-cleaning attachment” goes on the list, as does “iguana pancakes.” As long as you have some idea what you mean by “iguana pancakes.”
[[AdMiddle]Start at the beginning of your backlog and scan forward. When you see something you feel like working on, work on it for as long as you want. Then cross it off. If it isn’t done, re-enter it at the end of your current list. Then keep going through your backlog. When you come to the line you drew, don’t go into the current list. Go back to the start of the backlog and keep cycling until you do one full pass through the backlog and no items stand out as something you want to work on.
Now pass through the line into the current list. Work through the current list in order, one time only, using the same rules: work on an item for as long as you want. Then cross it off and if needed, re-enter it at the end of the current list.
When you’ve finished the current list, loop back to the start of the backlog again. When you’ve crossed everything off the backlog, draw a new line at the end of the current list. The current list becomes your new backlog. What we’ve covered so far guarantees you’ll make at least some progress on everything you want to work on. But what’s to stop some items from staying in your backlog forever? There’s one last rule that handles that.
How to Deal with Items On Your Backlog
When you return to the backlog after working the active list, if you don’t work on at least one backlog item the first time through, highlight all remaining items with a little star. Starred items are now On Review. When you next work through the backlog, you have only three choices with items on review: cross them out forever, work on them and add them to your current list, or put a note in your calendar to reconsider them sometime in the future. Click here for my episode on deciding which tasks can be dropped.
And that’s the whole system: Draw a line after your backlog. Work through the backlog making some progress on some things. When nothing strikes you, move once through the current list, then back to the backlog. If you decide to do nothing the first time through the backlog, put everything on review and work your current list.
This system will handle everything in your life, and, as you’ll discover when you try it, the On Review feature forces you to drop those “I’ll get to them someday” things that you never actually work on. All that’s left is a Mind Like Zen. A mind perfect for reading my upcoming book Get-it-Done Guy's 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More.
Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!