In 2019, I wrote a post called How I’ve Made Email my Secret Weapon, which went semi-viral. One of the principles was that email makes a lousy to-do list, which led a few people to ask for this follow-up. With a little more time on my hands right now, I’m finally writing it down. I hope you find it useful. —AK
Is it me, or does it feel like we’re all on information overload?
One side effect of living in these amazing times is the sheer volume of things for our brains to process, contemplate, and use. Trying to keep track of the things we must do and want to do, in the midst of that noise, is challenging for even the most productive people.
Worse, making choices to allocate your time to action is one of the most consequential decisions you will make. They can literally be the difference between your success and failure.
One of the most powerful things you can do is create a strong system for managing the plan of action for your time.
For me, the process of getting things out of my head and onto a list has been the key to visually seeing the scope of what I need to do, deleting things I shouldn’t do, and prioritizing what is left.
Not to mention — I starting sleeping better and feeling less frenetic when I stopped spending brain cycles on “remembering.”
How Do You Keep the List?
There are many different schools of thought on to-do lists. Some write and re-write lists by hand on a 3x5 card, on a planner, or in a journal. Others start each day writing a fresh list of what comes to mind. Still more put their tasks on their calendar itself.
There are a few things I value that shape my approach.
- I want to be really good at follow-through. When I say I’m going to do something for someone, I don’t want to forget it.
- I want to be a relentless prioritizer. The most limited resource I have is time. I want to use it as wisely as possible.
- I need a clean, organized list. Lots of scratching things out and arrows to reorder priorities are distracting for me.
- I want my list accessible at all times. When I find a moment of focus, I want the latest version of my list available instantly.
- I want the details and supporting materials right there. When it’s time to work on something, I don’t want to spend five minutes finding the context. Allow me to put links or attachments in the task itself.
These five things have led me to use purpose-built task management software to run my to-do list.
I’ve used and loved Things, which is a beautiful app whose only flaw is the inability to collaborate with teammates; I’ve used Todoist, which is quite nice; but I’ve settled on Asana, which has several amazing features I’ll tell you about below. I’m sure you can adapt my process below to fit almost any good to-do list app.
How Not to Keep the List
I know a number of smart people who keep their to-do list on their calendar, but I think that approach suffers from several fatal flaws.
- We are bad at estimating time. I often don’t know exactly how I am going to do something before I start it. It’s in the process of doing the work that you figure it out. So you either end up with not enough time to finish your highest priority, or too much time when you finish early.
- Priorities change. If you find out that you need to tackle #2 before #1, rescheduling your entire calendar to accommodate that could take ten minutes. With a to-do list, you just drag #2 up above #1.
- Too many things. I have far too many things on my to-do list to possibly keep shuffling them forwards and backwards on a calendar. I need to see all of my task work in one place so I can prioritize it well.
To be clear, I will occasionally block time on the calendar to work on a very important, deadline-driven project, but that happens once or twice a month at most. Calendars are for meetings, and otherwise, I schedule big blocks of “project time” that prompt me to attack my prioritized to-do list.
Email is also a horrible to-do list. What is important gets mixed in with what is new. You can’t glance at it and see your priorities in order. You spend a lot of time re-interpreting emails three times to figure out what the action is. Don’t do it — get a real to-do list.
Organizing the List
At any given time, I have about 150–250 items on a to-do list, so I need it organized just a bit, so I can visually sift things out from each other. This is a fine balance — too much structure, and you will spend way too much time organizing your list rather than working on it!
I created the following color-coded projects in Asana.
- Call / Chat. When I need to call someone or chat with them in person.
- Focus. These are action items that probably take >10 minutes and require my complete attention and focus.
- To-Dos. These are smaller things that probably take <10 minutes, and I could probably do them while watching a TV show or baseball game.
- Think. These are ideas or opportunities I want to ponder.
- Writing. This is a list of ideas for essays I could write. I’m looking forward to checking this one off. 😉
- Read/Watch. This is a list of some really important things I want to learn through watching an interview, or deep reading an article. It’s not exhaustive — I use Pocket as my real to-do list for reading, but it can get backed up for weeks at a time. If it’s more urgent, it goes here.
- Things People Owe Me. When people agree to do something for me and it’s important, I throw it on this list with a future date to check back.
- Travel. This is both a list of to-dos related to booking travel, and a list of people I want to see when I’m next in a particular city.
- Opportunities. I’m using Asana as a low-level CRM to track the leadership consulting, speaking, and coaching clients I’m working with during this year off the bullet train.
- Special projects. I have a project for each board I sit on, and for the house we’re building in Idaho.
For most of these projects, the color-coding is literally just a visual sifting tool; the tasks are “assigned” to me, so I interact with them almost exclusively on Asana’s “My Tasks” tab.
For some of them, I keep them out of my main to-do list by not assigning them to myself, but leverage “Sections” in the project to organize — for example, my Writing project has Ideas, Outlines, and In Process sections, and I only assign that task to myself when I’m ready to actively work on it.
When Do You Add Things to the List?
Immediately. When I think of something I need to remember, I actively stop remembering it by reaching for my phone, tapping New Task on Asana, and typing it in.
I don’t format it, color-code it, date it, or do any of the things we’ll do later in triaging the list. Just type what I need to remember, and hit Create.
Another way to add things to my list is sending an email to email@example.com. This magically adds the email as a task to your list — the subject line becomes the task name, the content of the email becomes the task notes, and any attachments get added as task attachments! Magical.
Triaging the List
Triaging takes me about 5 minutes — no more than 30 seconds per task in my Inbox. I have the “My Tasks” tab in Asana grouped into custom sections that I’ve created, and I can expand/collapse each of these sections with a click.
- Inbox. The landing spot for new and re-surfaced tasks. (Don’t confuse this with Asana’s Inbox feature — I ignore that.)
- Today. The things I really need to get done today.
- Working. My prioritized list of things to do when I’m next working.
- On the Run. A list of things I could do when I’m out and about — often, this is primarily calls/chats.
- Later. Stuff that I don’t want to see until a specific date in the future.
When I sit down at my desk in front of my computer and open Asana, I will typically see a decently long list of tasks in the Inbox that have accumulated since I last triaged. Here’s the process.
- Color-code it. Add the project to it, so your color code is visible.
- Edit the task name. Some tasks will come in as “FW: Contract Details” or you will have tapped them out on your phone with typos. I like my tasks to have clear, actionable names — “Sign contract for Jill” or “Draft proposal for Tom.”
- Move it to the right section. Here’s the most important part of the process: time to quickly decide when you want to work on this.
Here’s how to think about that last decision.
- If you can’t work on this until a date in the future — like filling out the yet-to-be-released FAFSA form for my son’s college applications — put a due date on the task, and move it to Later.
- Only put in Today the things that you would be in trouble or really disappointed if you didn’t get done today.
- If it’s something you’d prefer to do while out On the Run, put it there to opportunistically tackle when you’re not at your desk.
- Err on the side of putting things in the Working section.
Finally, how do you leverage these sections on the My Tasks tab?
- Inbox — always expanded
- Today — always expanded
- Working — collapsed, until I’ve finished everything in Today!
- On the Run — collapsed, until I’m out and about
- Later — always collapsed
The result? I have a nice, clean list of things to do in Today, and when I complete all of those things, I open up Working, and just start attacking that list until I run out of time.
Aren’t You Forgetting Later?
But wait…if Later is always collapsed, how will we ever remember the tasks that we buried there?
That’s a bit of Asana magic I love. When a due date arrives, the task magically pops back up to Inbox. I love writing things down for the future, and putting them out of my brain until a month or two from now when I actually need to remember them.
What about keeping personal and work tasks separate?
That’s a personal choice, but easy to do with this approach. Perhaps create another project called “Personal” so you can color-code them, and then you can create another section in My Tasks called “Evening” to keep collapsed until after working hours are done.
Once a day, I prep my list for the day. I often do this the night before so I go to bed with a game plan in mind for tomorrow. Some times I do it first thing in the morning. It only takes 5–10 minutes.
- Grab tomorrow’s tasks. If it’s the night before, you need to accelerate Asana’s magic. Group your “My Tasks” tab by Due Date, grab all the tasks with a due date of tomorrow, and move them to Inbox. Switch back to grouping by your custom sections.
- Triage. Triage everything in Inbox — do you really need to do it today? Or should it get prioritized alongside other work? Or have your priorities changed and this is a task you should eliminate?
- Reprioritize Working. Expand your Working section, and take a quick skim. Anything to eliminate? Drag stuff up or down to put it in priority order? I tend to keep my <10 minute to-dos in one spot, and my >10 minute focus work in another, but at the very top are my top priorities regardless of how long they will take. Do what feels right to you.
- Check On the Run. I also check my On the Run section to make sure I haven’t been neglecting things I should move to Today.
Once every week or two, I also take an extra couple of minutes and click through the rest of my projects one at a time. Are there any writing projects that I want to assign to myself so they show up in My Tasks? I might also open Later and make sure I didn’t accidentally put something down there without a due date for it to resurface.
Traps to Avoid
Here are a couple of common traps to avoid to keep this system working smoothly for you.
- Don’t set due dates for the vast majority of tasks. If you do, you’ll constantly be wasting time by triaging and resetting dates for 20+ tasks. If you won’t be in trouble or really disappointed by not getting that done on that specific day, just put it on your Working list — it will come up to the top in order of priority.
- Don’t try to use your calendar as a second to-do list. If you are time blocking for a specific task more than 1–2x a month, you might not be scheduling enough project time to attack your to-do list.
- Don’t work on things solely because they are on your list. When doing your daily prep, don’t forget to ask yourself if this is still important or worth your time. Another tell is if I’ve prioritized things down for a month or two — some things are just not worth doing.
Welcome to your List as your Secret Weapon.
My definition of success for my to-do list is different from my inbox. Unlike Inbox Zero, getting your task list down to nothing isn’t likely to happen, and really isn’t the goal.
May your to-do list become your secret weapon to elevate yourself into one of the elite few — the people who get the right things done, at the right time, for the people they serve.
Thank you to Micaela Barraza for giving feedback on a draft of this essay.