Your To Do List Is Not An Inbox

I regularly abuse my to do list. It doesn't help me to get stuff done because I use it as an inbox to capture things. It's a long list of things I have to do today, things I have to do this week, things I maybe should do sometime or maybe won't, reference information that doesn't have any value to me right now, and scattered thoughts that may or may not be coherent related to a project that may or may not currently exist.

What a to do list should be. My to do list should be

  • The outcome of careful thought about the ways to achieve my important goals (and, possibly, a few items of lesser importance).
  • A plan of short-term action for achieving my goals.
  • Protection against burning up my remaining afternoon energy figuring out what to do next.
  • A reason to relax and do my best work, comfortable with the thought that things are moving in the right direction.

This does not describe my to do list at times. Being completely honest, it very rarely describes my to do list. It's clutted with "I should really get working on this project, so I'll add it to my to do list." and "I don't want to forget about this. I'll add it to my to do list to figure out what to do with it later."

Why it matters. Why is that a problem? Maybe my to do list isn't pretty, but does it really matter? My to do list exists to help me with doing stuff, not for collecting things I plan to think about at some unspecified time in the future. When my to do list is unrealistic because it contains too many items, when it's not clear what I should be working on, or if I have items on there that are not statements of clear actions that need to be completed, my to do list becomes useless. I won't be able to build a habit of looking at my to do list when I'm wondering what to do next. Instead, my default is to click on my web browser and begin a search for news, tips, interesting anecdotes and funny cat pics. Although that is largely a waste of my time, and not something I particularly even enjoy, it's something I can do without thinking, which is not true of my to do list.

What belongs on a to do list. It's not difficult to determine if something should be on my to do list. Are there any decisions I haven't made? If the answer is yes, that means it's not ready for my to do list. I should be able to look at all of the items on my to do list and immediately be able to begin working on them. I should not have to think about them.

What about the other items, those that are tasks but it's not clear what I'm supposed to do, that require one or more decisions before I can start, or that are simply reference items that need to be put in the proper place? Those items belong in my inbox. That's where I store things that require a decision or that are not tasks. The inbox needs regular cleaning (ideally once a day) so I don't forget to do anything. Putting everything on a to do list is convenient, but it's not the right place for these items.

What to do with everything else. All the other items that land on my to do list fit into a few groups:

  • If I have something that needs to be filed, then I need to immediately file it where it belongs. If for some reason I can't file it right then, it goes in my inbox, whose sole purpose is to hold items that need additional processing.
  • If the item is reference material that needs to be filed but I don't know where it goes, I have to create a task to give myself time to figure out the answer, and that becomes an item on my to do list. I make a note of where the item is that I need to think about.
  • If it's a task that needs to be started, but I haven't yet figured out everything I need to do, I need to schedule some time on my calendar to get the project in order. That is a well-defined task with an obvious start time, so it belongs on my to do list. If I can't complete everything in one session, I can create another task for thinking about it again in the future, including a link to my current notes.

A good to do list makes it much easier to be productive. Doing the right things requires no thought - look at what's next on the list and do it. You see that you're achieving your goals as you go about your normal work. A bad to do list not only doesn't help you to get the important things done, it results in frustration when even your best effort doesn't lead to results. The good news is that it's easy to fix. Check that your to do list really is a to do list. If it's not, make changes.


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