Taking an axe to my to-do list

Recently I felt my productivity slipping. In fact, I found myself becoming increasing apathetic towards the tasks on my lists. GTD was no longer working for me and I wasn’t sure why.

A thread on the Work.Life.Creativity forum made me realise what the problem was. My lists were far to long to the point of becoming overwhelming. For example, my “Things to read for work” list had 63 items on it. I would estimate I was adding at least five items every week but I only managing to read two or three. The list was becoming longer and longer and the chance of me ever clearing it was becoming increasingly unlikely. The realisation that I couldn’t complete everything I had set myself was utterly demoralising.

I decided to thoroughly review all my lists. How important was each item? How likely was I to actually complete it? If I never did it would it matter? I managed to delete quite a number to to-dos – forty from my work reading list alone. I was quite nervous initially, wondering if I had done the right thing, sending so many tasks to the trash. But once I was left with a manageable list of realistically attainable tasks I felt quite liberated. My interest was renewed once I realised I could actually clear all the items and I’ve been more productive over the last week or so than I had been for the whole of the previous month.

There are two underlying problems here. The first is that I am not good enough at processing. I am very good at capture. Initially I struggled with it, regularly forgetting to write down to-dos. But over time and with practice it became a habit – especially once I started using a Moleskine notebook which is such a pleasure to write in. I am also good at remembering to transfer my to-dos into Things. What I’m not good at is not transferring items. Something that seemed important in the morning may not be so important later in the day. I certainly have a tendency to over estimate the importance of tasks without considering whether it is feasible for me to do them. Now that I have developed a good capture habit I need to concentrate on improving my processing skills.

The second problem is that although I always do a weekly review I have a tendency to concentrate on adding new to-dos and ticking off items that have already been completed. I need to spend more time considering each item and whether it still belongs on my list. Hopefully with more efficient processing and reviewing my to-do list will remain manageable.


2 Responses to “Taking an axe to my to-do list”

  1. Roger Massey Says:

    Hi Rachel
    Have enjoyed reading your blog, having found it by accident (via a google search for Yojimbo alternatives!). Like you, I have been trying hard to embrace the GTD philosophy but also have been spending a lot of time testing GTD software. I agree completely about Omnifocus. Unlike you, I shelled out for the full version on release, and consequently have been persevering with it in the mistaken belief that I am not trying hard enough to make it work. Despite faffing about with it, I found it difficult to generate a simple list of things to do today. From that perspective, Things has a much simpler and better interface. The Ical syncing is also much better. I also generate large lists, so only syncing the tasks that need doing today keeps the stress level down!
    You articulate very well the human challenges of sticking to the GTD system. Keep it up!

  2. Rachel Murphy Says:

    Hi Roger. Thanks for your comments. I agree, the Today list is one of Things’ best features. I find working from a huge list counter-productive and being able to highlight the most important tasks for the day has been enormously helpful.

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