For years I tried to manage all I had to do on one to-do list. I tried prioritizing that list using various methods, all without success.
The problem with having one list is it’s like trying to force a semi-truck to drive down a country lane next to a bicycle. Or force my size 9 feet into dainty size 6 shoes. Some things just don’t fit. Here’s an example of what my list used to look like:
1. Make orthodontist appointment for Robbie
2. Plan Dylan’s birthday party
3. Deposit check
4. Redesign blog
5. Buy dog food
6. Clean the house
These are all normal things a woman might do. So, what was the problem?
The problem is three of those items aren’t simple tasks. Calling the orthodontist’s office takes one step, and it’s done. Boom. Check that baby off the list! But planning a party, redesigning a blog, and clean the house are made up of multiple tasks. To put them on a to-do list is just asking for failure.
Here’s what I’ve learned: cleaning the house isn’t a task. It’s a project. Projects don’t belong on a to-do list. Only single-step tasks belong there.
Once I realized the mistake I’d been making for years, I tossed my to-do list and started fresh.
Then I did something brave. I did a complete inventory of everything I needed to do. It took days to complete. I decided to include immediate needs and everything I’d been putting off. The small and the big all got listed.
Once I was sure I’d captured everything, I sat down and had a good cry. My life was seriously out of control.
Drying my tears, I reviewed the monstrous list and divided it into two categories: one-step tasks and multi-step projects. That was better. But I wasn’t done yet. I looked at all the projects, and realized some of them were urgent and others weren’t. Then I divided that list into current and future projects.
There was one more step. Since every big project is completed one step at a time, I realized I needed to add tasks to each of my projects. So I got some more paper and started to list all the tasks I could think of for each project.
These lists became the foundation of my project management notebook. And yes, I did put it in a three-ring binder. I know I could have created a digital notebook, but there was something about putting it on paper that made it real for me. Although I still had a lot to do, having it all in one place brought relief.
Now, writing my to-do list for the day is like going to a buffet and picking a piece of chicken here and a scoop of mac and cheese there. I look over my master lists and only put on my to-do list the tasks I can realistically accomplish that day. I might pick a simple task, like make an appointment, then pull another task from a project list.
This system revolutionized my approach to getting work done. It also eliminated a few of my reasons for procrastination, which included forgetting things (now they were in my safe place) and feeling overwhelmed when I looked at a big project on my to-do list.
Now my to-do list might have five items on it, rather than 25. Five is much more manageable. And when I finish those five, I can go back for more from my project management list.
Over the years, this system has actually helped me manage my workload so well that I don’t have to create massive master lists anymore. The process helped me realize I’d taken on too much, and I did some serious editing. But when I get overloaded—and it still does happen—I know to go back and create that master list again.
Heavenly Father, thank You for creating order. Help me bring order to my to-do list and manage my workload more efficiently. I want to bring glory to you in every area of my life. In Jesus name, Amen.
If you need more margin in your life, you might appreciate this recent post on Glynnis’ blog.
Create a master list of everything you need to do – now and in the future. Put it all in one place and then divide it into tasks and projects.
Do you feel mental overload? Do you wonder if you’ll ever get your home or office organized? Maybe you think if you just work overtime, or if your kids could stay at Grandma’s for a week, you could finally get it together.
What if I told you working harder or having a child-free home isn’t the solution?
I’ll venture to say 75% or more of our clutter problems aren’t because we don’t work hard enough, or that our homes are too small or our children are messy. Most of our problems start because we can’t think through what needs to be done. We can’t get our minds under control. We can’t make decisions. We are on mental overload.
Do you know that feeling?
How to deal with mental overload
For years, I lived with an ongoing sense that I should be doing something all the time. It ate at me. Even when I focused on something important, there was a latent unease about what else I should be doing. It was an underlying anxiety that hung around, even when there was no pressing deadline or responsibility.
It caused stress and lack of sleep.
It wasn’t until I read David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done, that I discovered a reason for this tension. It seems our brains aren’t designed to store and manage all of the information, deadlines and demands that swirl around us at all times.
Allen writes, “The big problem is that your mind keeps reminding you of things when you can’t do anything about them. It has no sense of past or future. That means that as soon as you tell yourself that you need to do something, and store it in your RAM (your mind), there’s a part of you that thinks you should be doing that something all the time.”
It was a head-slapping moment when I read those words. That was it! Allen goes on to explain that the first step to finding a solution is to get everything out of your mind and store it somewhere safe. Not the “safe” place you stored an important document at home, and now can’t find. But somewhere close at hand.
The right to-do list
I realized my mind tried to manage more stuff than it could hold. One to-do list wasn’t the answer because it wasn’t keeping things in safe places.
With that in mind, I’m going to ask you to do something painful. Not as painful as stepping on a scale, but close. I want you to take a personal assessment of all your responsibilities, projects, priorities and tasks. Everything. Get it out of your mind and onto one document. This could be a paper notebook or digital file, it doesn’t matter. If you have multiple to-do lists, combine them into this one list. Leave this list where you can see it morning, noon and night for a few days.
On this list write down everything you need to get done. You might start with your home and add repairs, cleaning projects or laundry.
Put down things you need to do for your family, such as make a dentist appointment, write a letter to a teacher or take clothes to the dry cleaning.
Then move on to other areas of your life: church, community involvement, sports teams, etc. Include big projects and little things, like errands and emails that need to be sent. Nothing is too small to include.
You might want to dedicate one page for future projects, such as planning this summer’s vacation or researching colleges with your daughter. Another page might contain things you want to do years from now, but you don’t want to forget.
This process will take you days. If it helps, you can organize this list however you see fit if it helps you remember things. Or just write things down as they come to mind. Whatever works for you.
It’s okay if there is no order to it. Actually trying to organize it now might hinder you if you are a perfectionist. You might not leave yourself enough room in a certain category and then you’ll be frustrated.
For now, capture it all. Don’t be surprised if you feel a bit panicky at how much you have to do. Just take a deep breath and ask for God’s peace.
I promise you feel a sense of relief soon because finally, maybe for the first time in your life, you have everything in one place.
There are many things you can do with this master list. You can organize it in to tasks (one action) and projects (more than one action). You can organize it by area of your life or deadlines. You can sort it by things that need to be done today, this week, next month, in six months, etc.
Hold on to that list. Add to it. Next month, I’ll share how to create a project management planner.