I’ve tried a thousand times to have a consistent, useful To Do list.
I’ve written them by hand in notebooks. I’ve tried fancy project management apps like Trello and Asana. I even almost settled on various paired-down “it’s just a list and nothing else” softwares like Teux Deux, Remember the Milk or Wunderlist.
But eventually, each of my To Do lists fails, and I end up abandoning it.
The problem, I realized, isn’t the interface, it’s the list itself. My To Do lists do a terrible job distinguishing between important and urgent, and between simple and complex. In the end, some combination of three things ends up happening:
- I prioritize small things that are easier to check off the list, at the expense of the “real stuff.”
- The important things languish…
- …or they get so big that they don’t make sense on the To Do list
The result is a doubly whammy of decreased output: a persistent pull towards the simpler, less-important tasks; and a growing To Do list that is either stale (stuff that rolled over week after week for months) or overwhelming (long lists of complex, insurmountable tasks).
Eventually I give up on the list, and the software, revert back to a hodgepodge of solutions.
Lately I realized that what I need isn’t better software, it’s a better list. I need a Must Do List: a things-that-absolutely-must-happen-this-week list.
Here’s how it works:
- Find a window at the start of your week, either on Sunday night or, better, Monday morning when you’re fresh and thinking clearly and broadly. Jot down the first 1-3 things that come to mind that feel like they’re going to be most important in the coming week.
- Look at your calendar for last week and for the coming week, as well as whatever communication tool (email, Slack, etc.) you use, to orient yourself to the flow of meetings, deadlines, and communication.
- Write your Must Do list, a short list of important things that really, truly, must get done this week. You’re allowed an absolute maximum of 10 items on the list.
Use the list all week, and return to it on Friday afternoon to see how you did.
Here’s the important bit: your Friday afternoon job isn’t simply to look over the list and roll things over to the following week. Your job is to evaluate what did and didn’t get done, and then, seriously and intentionally, figure out what happened: was your judgment off on Monday morning about your must-do’s, or did your execution and time management slip during the week?
Now do it again for the following week.
The result of all this isn’t just more efficiency. It’s creating a practice through which you improve both at identifying and executing the things that must happen to move your important work forward.