Looking over my to-do list the other day, I noticed the same tasks that had been there for weeks, and it's a pattern I've observed since I started keeping to-do lists. There always seem to be some tasks that have an almost undead quality to them. You either end up looking at them and ignoring them, or you hack away at them for an hour or two and are still no closer to completion at the end.
The worst part about these tasks is that they suck away your energy and distract you from your major goals. Completing a task and ticking it off helps to fend off procrastination, so seeing your next action list swell with hordes of undead tasks is not helpful because it can cause you to ignore the list altogether.
How do we put these zombie tasks to bed?
Why do we get Zombie tasks?
The easiest way to make sure a task keeps coming back is to define it incorrectly. There are a few mistakes that seem to keep cropping up, and it's important to keep them in mind when creating your next action lists.
Mistaking a to-do item with a someday/maybe – I love the "someday/maybe" list from the GTD system. If you do any kind of creative work, you'll always end up with creating ideas you don't have the time or energy to implement at your current point. Keeping a someday/maybe list helps you keep track of these ideas so they don't disappear into the ether.
If you see a task on your to-do list that you aren't going to work on for a while, it might be best to move it to your "someday/maybe" list instead. As long as you're reviewing this list in your weekly review, it won't get forgotten and you'll be able to divert your energy to other tasks.
Mistaking a to-do item for a project – This is an easy mistake to make, especially if you're not clear on exactly what a project is. A project is anything that requires more than one next-action to complete, and a next action is a physical action that will move a project closer to completion. It can take time to fully appreciate the difference between the two, but once you've mastered the technique you'll find your to-do lists are much more helpful.
Not giving a task finite limits – A next action should have a beginning and an end, and should ideally involve a single activity. The reason for this is that you want to start it, work on it and then KNOW that it's finished. If you can't work on it for a session and know that it's finished, it's probably a project.
Missing previous steps – This is another problem I've run into quite often. I'll see a task, but remember that something else has to be done before I can do it. It's a good idea to enter this new task into your system, and move the old one to the project task list.
I like to plan ahead, and one of the things I don't like about the GTD system is the lack of next action grouping. Keeping a separate task list for each project helps a little, but if you have a lot of projects it can get quite unwieldy.
Preventing Your Tasks From Becoming Zombies
Now that we know what not to do, let's take a quick look at the qualities that make a good next action.
Something that can be done in one sitting – This isn't an essential requirement, but I've found that it helps to list tasks as something that can be done in a single session. If it will take a lot longer, then it's possible that it's actually a project so I'll try to break it down further.
It's a physical action – The next action list should only list actions that need to be performed. If you're looking over a list and having to process items as you go, then they need to be re-worded.
Finite Limits – There are set conditions for the task completing. Instead of "Brainstorm article ideas", use "Brainstorm 25 article ideas". This way you know when you've done enough. It sounds simple, but it's an easy detail to leave out.
Cleaning Up The Stragglers
The easiest way to get rid of the lingering tasks is to re-process them during your weekly review. I've found that I get a lot more zombies if I've been lax with my weekly reviews. It can be a difficult habit to get into, but it really is the most essential component of an effective GTD system.