Master Your Workday Now!

Is Your Task List Too Big and Out of Control?

October 3, 2012

Is your current task list is too long and out of control? Are you a One Minute To-Do List (1MTD) or MYN user, but perhaps have given up using it because your task list has gotten so big?

This is the most common reason people give up on using any sort automated task list—automated lists get too big and out of control very quickly. Even users of the excellent GTD system often say their Next Action list gets too big and so becomes unusable. Really, any automated task system will easily get out of hand—so don’t feel bad. The common source of the problem is that old tasks tend to build up in automated lists and few of us know how to handle that.

Well, in the 1MTD and MYN systems, there is no reason it has to be this way. There are easy ways to keep your task list short, well focused, and under control. Those ways are built into the systems, so if you have lost your way with either system, let me show you how to get your list cleaned up now.

(By the way, if you have not used either system yet, then spend a few minutes in the first part of the free 1MTD PDF book that you can download here. It will teach the system quickly).

The Main Principle: Use the Low Priority Section Liberally

In both 1MTD and MYN, the way to shorten the task list that you look at daily is to put things that can wait longer than 10 days into the Low priority section; that section is called the Over the Horizon urgency zone.

If you’ve forgotten that term, let me give you a quick review of some 1MTD and MYN basics. Recall that in 1MTD and MYN, the high priority section is for things absolutely due today. And the medium priority section (called Normal in Outlook) is for things that you want to do in the next 1 to 10 days. You study these two sections every day, so you want to keep them short. The two rules to keep them short are this: no more than five items in the high-priority section, and no more than 20 items in the medium (normal) priority section. So that’s a total of 25 items max in the upper two sections. Keeping to 25 will give you the focus you need and make your list usable again.

So the technique is just move the excess items into the low priority section—the Over the Horizon section. And then plan on reviewing the low priority section about once a week to determine if anything there has become more urgent. That’s it.

Now, there are some fine points on how you use the low priority section, depending on which of the two systems you use.

Using Low Priority in the One Minute To-Do List (1MTD)

In 1MTD, you simply move all tasks beyond the top 25 main tasks into the low priority section as described above. That’s really all there is to it. This is a very simple approach and one reason the One Minute To-Do List is so easy to use.

However, the disadvantage of 1MTD is that after several months the low priority list can get very big, and so you may stop reviewing the whole list weekly. If that happens, you should plan on deleting a lot of tasks there—old dead tasks probably won’t ever get done anyway, so trim the list liberally until the low priority section is easy to review weekly.

But I realize that may be hard for some of you to do. Many people have trouble deleting tasks, even old dead ones—we tend to want to hold onto them, hoping to do them someday. So if you have trouble deleting a lot of tasks, then you probably want to advance to the MYN system.

Using Low Priority in MYN: Defer to Review

In MYN, the way to use the low priority section is a little more complicated than 1MTD, but much more powerful, and it handles an unlimited number of tasks. It does this by using the start date field, in a very specific way.

Here’s how: when you put a task in the low priority section, you immediately set the start date to a future day you next want to review that item. That hides the task (assuming you have MYN configurations set in your task list), and when done consistently with all low priority tasks, your low priority section will be kept very short or even empty most of the time. Then, every week or so, as a few low priority tasks arrive for review, your job is to empty that short list again by either scheduling them to the future, deleting some, or by moving a few more urgent ones back up into your main list.

Note, in the low priority section you should set that start date as far into the future as possible to spread out these reviews; and I recommend you set them all to a future Monday so you know what day each week to do the review.

The above process is called Defer to Review in MYN, and is one of the features that makes MYN so powerful. There are subtleties to it, and there is a complimentary process called Defer-to-Do; you can read more about all of this in chapter 9 of the Outlook book and chapter 9 of the 1MTD book.

Get Your Task List Cleaned Up Today

So as you can see, it’s quite easy to keep your main task list short and well-controlled in both 1MTD and in MYN. I recommend you take a few minutes right now and follow the steps above to get your main task list cleaned up immediately. Having a well-focused and short list reduces the stress in your workday; it keeps things from falling through the cracks, and it ensures that you’re working on the most important things first. It’s simple to do in both 1MTD and in MYN.

Michael

Comments (17)

Graham ROctober 4th, 2012 at 9:55 am

Michael,

do you advise emptying your task list every day? (Like you do with the inbox?). This seems quite laborious, although would make re-prioritising tasks quite easy on the following day.

Ashamed in MNOctober 5th, 2012 at 3:49 pm

Michael,
Your comments speaking to a too-large-task-list is “right on” and the reason I don’t feel like I can trust my task list for more about the top 8 items (high priority and top 5 med priority items). Nor do I feel I can quit using my inbox as a “to do” list. I have not had the courage to dump those many task-related emails from my inbox into my task list because I don’t dare transfer all tasks to pri=med or I’ll lose them in a list I never review in full. I’m using your task list for no more than about 8 items and don’t dare make it longer for fear important tasks will be absorbed into a huge list. [Not that it is particularly logical to think the inbox is an easier place to spot those tasks, but I confess that I'm hanging on to it.]

Time to get some focus, eh? I’m still waiting to figure out when/how to cull my task list down to a doable size. It takes some courage, focus, and drive. I’ve picked up a copy of Brian Tracy’s self-discipline audio book and it’s giving me a kick in the pants. Seems to be what’s needed, along with focus….

Thanks so much for your system. I seem to be lacking something to pull the trigger in using it fully. Like I’m afraid to commit 2 hours per weekend to review my task list down to a usable size. The actions of this latest article of yours seem to be the ticket to getting a real working list.

Jeremy Snowden, LUTCFOctober 5th, 2012 at 4:21 pm

Your approach has been adopted me as a new skill. I think it is a well-oiled machine. Even variables (as __it happens), are subject to the MYN philosphy. Thanks for your work Michael. ~ Jeremy Snowden.

ÉricOctober 5th, 2012 at 11:13 pm

Hello,
Having a list is not a problem… Having one that is useful and really help you is another topic.
With what you teach me, mine are now more confortable. I’m now trying to all implement your system in Gmail and Lotus, the 2 mailboxes system I use (personaly and profesionaly)
Thank you.
Regards.
Éric

JuddOctober 6th, 2012 at 7:32 am

Michael,
I am a newcomer to your system, but an enthusiastic one. I have implemented it at work and at home, and it has helped me a lot. I’ve even shared it with a couple co-workers. One of the objections they raised, which this blog entry doesn’t address, is what to do when you have too many items in your Critical Now and Opportunity Now lists. I guess they feel that most of their work is short-fuse work; unlike me, they don’t feel they have very many tasks that can wait beyond a couple days, much less beyond two weeks. I suggested that either they look at those requirements/expectations more closely, or maybe it was a red flag that they were overworked, and they may want to talk with their supervisor about their workload. But I didn’t invent this system, so I’d like to ask the master (you!) what the right answer is. Thanks!

Michael LinenbergerOctober 6th, 2012 at 11:46 am

Judd
Well, I think you gave the right answer, which is that no to-do list system is going to get your work done if you are truly overloaded. But if you can admit that are overloaded, and then agree you need to pick which work to focus on now, this system enables that. And it helps you keep track of the extra items quite well, too, so you can get back to them later as appropriate.

That’s one of the hardest things for people to do by the way: admit that they will never be able to get it all done. That ship sailed a long time ago by the way–and some are still on the dock. Once you can admit that you’ll never get it all done, then you can get down to business of figuring out what your priorities are and using this system to focus on those.

I do have a blog on how to manage too many Critical Now tasks, it’s here: http://masteryourworkday.com/what-if-i-have-more-than-5-critical-now-items
But it assumes you’ve already realized you cannot get everything done.

Michael

Michael LinenbergerOctober 6th, 2012 at 11:51 am

Graham
I only tasks section I advise emptying every day is the Critical Now list . In fact, that is the guiding principle for using the Critical Now list: you would not leave work unless these are completed (and so emptied). So only put items there that meet that criteria (which keeps it short, maybe even empty, on most days).

In contrast, the Opportunity Now section, absolutely not, do not try to empty it each day. items there can wait up to 10 days, and feel free to carry up to 20 items there day after day.

I hope that helps!

Michael

Michael LinenbergerOctober 6th, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Dear Ashamed in MN
Thanks for your note (and your honesty). I have to agree with your comment: is it really easier to scan your list of email than to scan your list of tasks? But, I know many things in life don’t make sense. Here is one way to get started with using the tasks-to-email thing more consistently: start by leaving copies in your Inbox and maybe do not completely empty the inbox each day yet. Then you have that as a fallback because the tasks will be in two places.

But better is to get the full solution in place and allow the tasks list to become the one trusted place you look for tasks. One way to do that is to set deadlines on the tasks that you truly cannot miss. I put the word DUE and a date right in the front of the task subject line, and then each day I scan the 20 items in the Opportunity Now list looking first for the word DUE. With that little bit of discipline, I think you’ll be happy with it and can list more than 8 tasks. Really 25 is the maximum (5 Critical Now and 20 Opportunity Now) and maybe that will work.Let me know if that helps any.
Michael

NelOctober 6th, 2012 at 5:52 pm

Hi Michael, Organizing tools are often written by NOs (Naturally Organized) people. I am not one of them. Maybe you could bring in some psychologists to help us un-NOs even figure out which items to put where — I know my head spins when I try to keep my Critical Now list down to a manageable level! OR, show us how to do it – i.e., give a list of 30 things and actually describe your thinking for each one as to which area to put it in. Thanks so much!

JuddOctober 7th, 2012 at 8:21 am

Michael, thanks so much for the reply! I’ll be sure to check your other post. Thanks again!

Michael LinenbergerOctober 7th, 2012 at 12:51 pm

Hi Nel,
Okay, I accept your challenge (to show an example of cutting down the Critical Now list), but I will need some time to come up with that. In the mean time, have you seen this post?: : http://masteryourworkday.com/what-if-i-have-more-than-5-critical-now-items
That post might help you. And finally, try using the Target Now section more. It can often work as a way to cut down the critical now section. Using them together to identify a “Day Focus” list may be what you need, and that is written up here: http://masteryourworkday.com/create-your-day-focus-list-in-myn

Hope that helps, Michael

Michael

rolandOctober 7th, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Michael,
just heard about your system and read your e-book.
Thank you so much. I had been using Evernote for my GTD system but the list of things to do was way too long. What you have shown me with Toodeldo i think is going to make a big differnce.
I still have all my project notes in Evernote. Would you suggest I copy the evernote note link and paste it into the Toodeldo tasks? I see some people have written scripts, etc. To be honest that seems too complcated for me.
Thank you for all your insight.
Sincerely,
Roland Greco

Michael LinenbergerOctober 7th, 2012 at 2:23 pm

Roland:
I keep my notes (in Evernote) seperate from tasks (in Outlook or Toodledo). In rare cases I do copy an Evernote link into the task notes section if I know I need the info when I do the task, but pretty rare.

Hope that helps!

Michael

stephanieOctober 7th, 2012 at 10:10 pm

I love your system. I use it in conjunction with toodledo and am staying organized. Like an above poster stated, I also have not committed to converting my emails to tasks. However, I have created a brief ‘to do’ item for that email task and put a note on the task line saying ’see email dated XXXX’. Now I just need to keep my top 2 buckets to under 25 items (I am averaging around 40-50).

LanceOctober 8th, 2012 at 9:03 am

Michael,

In your answer to Roland you mention keeping notes (Evernote) and tasks (Toodledo) separate. I have become a huge fan of Evernote and recently began using Zendone, which is in public beta but is a cloud GTD tool/system that integrates with Evernote. It seems like a great pairing up with real possibilities. It would be great to get your thoughts about it if you get a chance to review it. Thanks!

KarenOctober 10th, 2012 at 8:11 pm

Am so overwhelmed I don’t know where to start in the 1,695 emails. Our company Outlook Exchange limits emails so I’m always full. Am used to a Franklin Planner with lists. However, now I have a PC with Outlook; an iPhone 4; and a Samsung Galaxy tablet. I wish there was a similar platform or program that crosses all three. When I’ve tried to create tasks and to-do lists, the info stays as part of the Inbox or at least stays in the total count of MB in the folders, so that doesn’t work. Goal is to have cross-references of projects, tasks and to-do, so I can look at a chart/list for each project/event to track for the project, and also a main list taking all the urgent deadlines for all projects and tasks at-a-glance. Please help!

Susan LundalOctober 11th, 2012 at 8:59 am

I’m a fan of all time management / task organization assistance, including MYN. I can also recommend Any To Do which syncs with EverNote (iPad and iPhone).