Simple Tips for Effective Task Lists

Task lists are the cornerstone of many organisational systems. They're easy to set up, but after a while they can take on a life of their own and become more of a hindrance than a help.

How can task lists be improved without adding too much administrative bloat?

Here are a few things you can add to your task list to make them (and you) more effective. You don't have to add all of them, just use what works and toss out what doesn't.

Estimate how long a task will take

It's much easier to set time aside for a task when you have a rough idea of how long it will take to complete. Setting a time limit for a task also gives you a deadline to aim for, which can stop you from losing focus. Tasks without any sort of estimate have a habit of taking longer to complete.

Another advantage is that thinking through how long things will take will help you spot tasks that haven't been broken down into small enough chunks.

If you have a lot of tasks that will take less than 5 minutes, they probably belong on their own "shrapnel task" list. Same goes for things like phone calls and other errands.

Track the time spent on a task

This ties in with the above point. If you're anything like me, you'll probably find that estimating the time something will take is difficult. When you track the actual time, you gather evidence that can really help in the future. Not everything needs to be tracked (there's not much point in tracking the length of phone calls for example), but other important tasks are wroth tracking.

The better you get at estimating, the easier it is to plan your day and to make decisions on incoming tasks.

Make it interesting

If you encounter resistance when using your list, you'll avoid using it. Granted, it's almost impossible to make a todo list the most fun thing on Earth, but tweaking things can make it less painful to use.

Experiment with different ideas. Give yourself "points" for achieving certain tasks that you can spend on rewards, or set yourself a target for the day & week. Use an online task tracker that lets you share your results, and compare with others.

Keep a someday/maybe list

The someday/maybe list is an integral part of the Getting Things Done system, and it's well worth integrating into other systems. Someday/maybe lists are particularly useful if you do a lot of creative work and gets lots of ideas during the day. Just jot them on your someday/maybe list, and review it at least once a month.

By writing down all your ideas, you give yourself permission to be creative but still gain the benefit of keeping things in a trusted system.

Keep your lists organised

This is the hard part. A single list works well, but once it fills up things can become challenging.

A setup that works for me is to have a separate list for each project, a master list of non-project tasks, such as topics to research, and then a list of context-sensitive items like phone calls to make or emails to send. I also keep a list of any books that people recommend so I can keep any eye out for them when I'm out.

Keep a "done" list

A "done" list might seem like a strange thing to keep, but I've found it very helpful. It's less about keeping organised, and more about keeping a positive outlook on things. It's easy to work long hours and feel like you've achieved nothing, but by keeping a record of important tasks you've completed you get a better picture of what's going on.

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