In a couple of my recent blogs I mentioned how eliminating my to-do list helped me become more productive and happy. Having a long to-do list had caused me to be unhappy because it felt as if I was always playing catch up and could never move forward with my life; even worse when I was trying to work on moving my life forward it would cause me to procrastinate by making me feel guilty about all the other jobs I had to do. Since cutting it down to size has had such a positive effect on my life I am sharing the framework I used to dominate it to help others in the same boat. You may have a physical written out to-do list, or just a mental one like I usually did; either way the process to shrink it is the same. These steps are not in the exact order I discovered them, but in a much more effective order that will allow you to take control of your to-do list far faster than the years it took me.
Step 1: Learn To Say No!
This one might seem obvious: when the size of your to-do list seems overwhelming accepting more requests for your time is the last thing you should do; but if we weren’t we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place. For me it was my pride not letting me admit to myself that I couldn’t do it all, let alone to other people; so when someone came to me with a request for my time I would always say “yes”. Saying “No” to other people can be daunting, so I practiced by saying “No” to myself first: no new books, no new DIY projects, I had to read and complete what I had already started first. This was actually a great first step because I quickly realized that I was actually the one adding to my to-do mountain the most, far more than anyone else.
Once I was used to saying “No” to myself it was time to say “No” to other people’s requests for my time. An easy way to say it is “I’m a bit busy right now so won’t be able to get to it for a while, ask me again in a few weeks and I’ll see what I can do”. Weird thing was that much of the time once I had said no they would never even do it at all! Why was it so important to get it done when I was the one to do it, but as soon as they had to do it they lost interest? This made it really easy to say “No” in the future to those people who didn’t value my time.
Now before you make this a hard and fast rule of saying “No” to all new tasks, sometimes you have no choice: something unexpected comes up that you have to do. If your car breaks down, you have to fix it quickly; it’s a priority that you cannot say “no” to. But the majority of tasks on our mental to-do lists are not urgent or important; if they were we wouldn’t keep putting them off, these frivolous tasks are the ones to say “no” to.
Step 2: Learn to Quit!
A really easy way to get rid of a lot of items from your to-do list is to decide not to do them! There were a lot of “fun” projects I had started, but had then lost interest in and so put off completing until later. Others were tasks that I had thought would improve my life, and so had committed myself to doing at some vague point in the future. Because “quitting is for losers” I believed that I had to complete everything I started, but this isn’t true, winners don’t waste their time doing pointless tasks. To determine which tasks were pointless I asked these questions for every item on my list “Do I actually want to do it? What would happen if I never did it?” If the answer was “No, and nothing”, I could safely declare that I was never going to do that task and cross it off my list. Turned out the majority of my to-do list didn’t actually need doing. One of the big ones for me was the impossible task of keeping up with social media; when I asked myself the questions above not only did I realize that I got very little benefit from it, but it was major time suck preventing me from tackling the rest of my to-do list.
For this quitting to really work you do have to add a new item to your to-do list: get rid of the evidence! That broken lamp you never really liked but that you saved all the pieces of so you could someday glue it all back together: garbage! That TV show you TiVo’d but found boring, delete! That blog post on eliminating your to-do list that you started but got distracted from: close the tab. Wait, what am I saying? You should finish reading that one.
Ok, so now your list is a mere fraction of its former size we can turn our attention to actually completing what’s left. There are two different types of tasks: infinite and finite, which are also sometimes called process and event tasks. An infinite task is one that recurs often, so you can never truly eliminate it from your list, no matter how many dishes you wash today there will be more tomorrow, this can be frustrating as it makes it seem as though we are never making any progress against our list. Finite tasks are one off events that when completed are done and will not have to be repeated: once that shelf is up it’s up. Finite tasks often make our to-do list seem overwhelmingly large as we mentally see each task as a separate item on the list. Although there is some overlap (catching up with laundry could be an event if you’ve been neglecting it for too long; and event tasks can often be components of a process such as home maintenance) it is important that we understand the difference between these two types of task as the way of tackling them is different.
Step 3: Get Shit Done Days
A GSDD is a great way to feel accomplished and help make your to-do list less daunting by clearing a lot of small finite tasks off of it. Because of how our mind works when we see a list of 100 things to do we give equal weight to everything on the list, whether it will take 5 minutes or 5 days to complete doesn’t matter, they seem the same. In step two we shrunk the list my deciding what we didn’t have to do, but what about all those little tasks that we overlook and put off because they don’t seem important, but still have to be done? This is where a GSDD comes in! This is a day where we set aside major tasks and simply focus on getting rid of as many little items from our to-do lists as possible.
First, order your to-do list by ease, you could also group tasks by location or tools needed. When the assigned day begins simply start with the easiest in the group you have decided to tackle and work your way down. You will be surprised at how many of the tasks that have been weighting on your shoulders and that you have thought about for hours actually take less than five minutes to. I loved doing GSDDs as I really felt like I was making progress at the end of the day, rather than just playing catch up all the time, but they cannot work alone as process tasks will still prevent you from taking on big projects.
Infinite tasks seem overwhelming because they are never ending; they just seem to grow and grow, there is no way to say “No” to more laundry or dishes. You cannot do a marathon dish washing session and be good for a week: it still needs doing everyday if you don’t want to feel overwhelmed every time you enter the kitchen. So rather than setting aside a day to get through them, the way to reduce their burden is by creating systems to help make dealing with them faster and easier! Don’t introduce any new process tasks at this point, focus only on those you have already been doing; and don’t feel guilty about ignoring them, you’ll get to them soon.
Step 4: Offloading
This is one of the easiest ways to deal with infinite tasks, and we do it all the time without realizing it. The majority of us have offloaded the responsibility to grow our food to farmers; and it is very common to offload tasks that require special training such as medical care or car maintenance. In fact your job exists because someone offloaded the task of doing whatever it is that you do to you. If you have the resources hiring a maid, gardener or handyman to help you with household chores is a great way to offload some of your to-do list, but there are also some great ways to offload that require little or no money. Automating bill payments is a great way to offload a tedious task. If you run a small business there are many more tasks that can now be automated, such as billing and various aspects of book keeping. Back to the house: get your kids to clean up after themselves! Not only are you freeing up your time you’re teaching them how to take care of themselves, win-win (though they may not see how great it is for them at the time)! Now demanding that your spouse take over some of your chore list probably isn’t a great idea since they probably feel like they are doing more than their fair share too, but perhaps you can discuss shuffling the deck of chores to find which ones are easier for the other to do. And yes, the initial offloading is a finite task, but one that is well worth it as it eliminates the infinite task.
Step 5: Simplify
Without careful pruning infinite tasks can often grow to many times the size they need to be. Social Media and Email are classic examples (see sidebar for how I keep inbox zero). Social media is a truly never ending task, and so you need to create a system to minimize the negative effects it has; for me since Facebook was consuming my days I limited my access to it to my PC, I can still see what my friends and family are up to, just not all the time. If you use social media for your business you will have to create rules that keep you focused and avoid endless scrolling: create before you consume; strict time limits, etc…
Decluttering Kon Marie style, and upgrading your storage so all your items have a home are great ways to simplify the process task of keeping your home and workspace clean and tidy. The main question you have to ask yourself when creating a system to deal with an infinite task is “what would this look like if it was easy?” and then work out how to make it that way. Another great way to make these tasks easier is to set up rules and schedules for dealing with them, this way you have already made all the decisions and just have to carry them out, which makes a lot of infinite tasks not only easier but much faster too.
Step 6: Promptness
This is very important for both finite and infinite tasks, but it easier to do once we feel caught up with our to-do list, which is why I left it to the end. When we put off a small finite task, it often stays on our mind, and the more we think about it the more mental real estate it takes up and the more daunting it becomes. It’s even worse when we put off infinite tasks as they really do grow in size. Either way we start to overestimate the time and energy required to deal with the task and so start to fear doing it adn put it off again. This is why dealing with new items on our to-do list promptly is so important; it is much easier to get started on the task and keep up with our list when we still see the jobs we have to do as small and easy.
Now that you have taken back control of your to-do list and feel caught up you can start on the tasks that will propel your life forwards! These two steps can be done at the same time.
Step 7: Start the Big Projects
Last year during the first lock-down I had a lot of GSDDs, and so quickly ran out of quick and easy jobs around the house. This meant that I could start on big projects like redecorating my office, without feeling overwhelmed by the mountain of tasks I was ignoring, since there was no mountain left. To prevent feeling overwhelmed by these projects I focused on one at a time, which also allowed me to complete it faster.
Step 8: Add New Infinite Tasks
We tend to prioritize the process tasks that stop our life from falling backwards (chores), and neglect those that would move our life forward (reading, exercise, writing blogs, etc…). We do this because when we feel overwhelmed by our to-do list we naturally focus on those that feel urgent, rather than those that although important do not have time frames for completion. Now that you no longer feel overwhelmed by your to-do list you can start incorporating these life boosting tasks into your schedule. Now, before you just start to do them you should create the framework to simplify them; as it is much easier now than after habits have been created. For myself I love riding my bike, but it is hard to find the opportunity to go for a pleasure ride every day. So I looked for a way that I could keep it simple: riding to work and back! It only takes me a few more minutes than by car, and I get to ride a trail every work day!
Email is a big one for so many people, both at work and at home, and it once was for me, I had over 500 unread emails in my inbox, but I have heard of people having 1000s! This obviously reduces the value of email as it is easy to miss important emails if you are not constant checking each new one as it comes in, and having such a large number on your notification screen is mentally taxing. I now have the mythical Inbox 0 nearly all the time, and I only check my email a few times each day. The process I created to deal with my inbox is actually the process I expanded on to dominate my to-do list, and so looks quite similar.
The first step was to reduce inflow. As is the same for a lot of people the vast majority of emails I had left unopened were from mailing lists. Since we know these are group emails and do not require replies from us we do not feel bad about putting off reading them until we have more time (which seems to never actually happen). To reduce the inflow I set up a rule for myself: if I never read, or thought something along the lines of “not another one” when I saw an email from a mailing list land in my inbox I had to unsubscribe. This has become an ongoing permanent rule which stops my inbox from filling up with junk I don’t want, I am very unsubscribe happy, I know I can always resubscribe if I miss them, but so far that hasn’t actually happened.
Now since I was choosing to not receive any more emails from these lists it meant that I also didn’t have to read the ones I had already received from them! I would search my inbox for the sender’s name and delete all emails from them at once. Just like with my to-do list: this was over half of the emails in my inbox. I then had a few Get Shit Read Days, where my focus for my free time was getting through my inbox. I then did the same thing for lists I had decided to stay on as I found it much faster to go through all the emails from a single list at one time.
Once I got my inbox empty I wanted to keep it that way so I created a set of rules to keep it that way. The first was mentioned above. The second is to only touch emails once, once I had opened it I had to take action on it right away. The only exception was if I was waiting on someone or something else in order to be able to fulfil the request, in which case I would mark the email as unread so I would remember to get back to it later.
Out of necessity this led to the third rule: only check my emails when I have time to deal with them. This was the end to constantly checking my inbox, if I was busy with another task my inbox stayed closed.
The forth rule: if it’s urgent or complicated make a phone call. Since I knew I wasn’t constantly checking my inbox, if I needed a reply quickly I started making phone calls. If an issue was complex and I knew would take a lot of back and forth I would also make a phone call as it would prevent lengthy email chains from appearing in my inbox.
I now also do an occasional clean out of my inbox, deleting all the opened emails that are no longer relevant or I forgot to delete at the time. Keeping my inbox at zero may seem like a silly objective, but not having the weight of so many emails on my back is very freeing and allows me to read books without a little voice in the back of my head always reminding me about all the emails I’m not dealing with. It also means that I don’t miss any of the emails I actually want to read, making it a much more valuable tool.