Are you juggling a personal task list that contains items from a host of different places? Or struggling to find a way to manage your to-do items? For years, I wished for an easier way to visualize the many items I need to remember to do. They originate from various client assignments in different tools, to my online calendar notes and Evernote captures. They can include household chores, emailed requests, and even those pesky sticky notes lying around. In this blog, I’ll share what I do and pose some questions to consider as you try to find a personal task list system that works for you.
I recently worked with a small business owner who was complaining about his lack of focus and inability to move forward on any of his three companies. He was using Trello, which he liked, and he was spending right much time clarifying his project needs on his boards. But he wasn’t making much progress on what needed to be done. Clearly COVID brain fog was impacting him. And having his children at home wasn’t helping.
I could relate to what he was going through. He doesn’t have a lot of people working with him, so no one was really looking at his boards. So, was it worth the effort to create the fancy boards?
We’re All Different
I’ve learned the hard way that people are different. Some people prefer paper planning methods from the simple daily planner to the Bullet Journal. Others want a simpler task manager app, like Nozbe or Remember the Milk. Still others enjoy more detailed planning apps like Monday or Trello.
Some people are on their phones all day, while others are behind a desk. Some manage whole organizations or teams of people while others struggle to manage themselves. Regardless of all of these many differences, we all have things we need to get done. I’ve tried many systems, read books, and watched YouTube videos. And, I’ve studied David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology and the Franklin Covey method. I suspect few people use the simple system that I created for myself, but it has worked for me for years.
Here’s How I’m Managing My Personal Task List
After years of trying various approaches, I finally decided that I needed to simplify my life. My one requirement was that I had to be able to access my task list from anywhere. And I don’t carry paper notebooks with me wherever I go. And so, I began creating a daily calendar appointment that simply said To Do. In the notes field of that appointment, I just listed my tasks. I can access it online, from anywhere. I can expand it to a few hours, or an entire day. And, I can mark it free or busy, so my online calendar reflects my true availability. At the end of the day, I can copy the items that are not completed to the next day.
My personal task list for today includes my most pressing project tasks. David Allen calls them the strategic next action for your project. The list includes any task item that was assigned to me in any of my work, volunteer, or family team meetings. The list includes bills that I need to pay, forms that I need to complete, or just reminders to schedule a doctor’s appointment or fitness session. It can even include a question I’m wrestling with. And if I delegate an item to someone else but am particular concerned about follow up, I can track that.
Some of the items on my list will require more energy than others. And I can easily scan the manageable list for items that I can do when I am tired. And since I use a Google calendar system, the query function is pretty robust. I can search for names or words about which I have questions.
My Three Cardinal Rules for My Task List
I keep today’s list to something that is manageable for me, and if the list gets too long, I move items to future dates. If I begin to feel unfocused, I start by reducing this list.
At the beginning of the day, I focus on what’s most important now and move the top three – five items to the top. During the day, as I complete items, I move them to the bottom of the calendar appointment and mark them DONE – in all caps. The satisfaction of seeing items move from the top to the bottom of the list and carry that DONE marking is huge.
I am ruthless about monitoring this calendar item every day.
Questions to Consider When Choosing What Works for You
1 – Do you want to be able to forward emails to an app that generates tasks?
My system doesn’t work for that. And while that was nice during the years that I forwarded emails to Nozbe, I found that I didn’t always think through what was really needed. And thus, my task list got cluttered with a lot of verbiage – but not a lot of clear tasks.
2 – Are you really looking for a project management tool or a task management tool?
I use other tools for the projects that I’m working on, depending on the size of the project and who is involved. And for small personal projects, I might not use a tool at all, other than my calendar based To Do lists. It totally depends. If you are looking for project tools, that’s another subject.
3 – Are you trying to segment your task list into categories, such as calls, errands, or delegated items requiring follow-up?
The nature of the items in your list will vary, depending on what you do. You can set up specific To Do items for phone calls or errands. I keep it all together, start each item with a verb, and keep my list short enough that I can scan it in two seconds.
4 – Is it important to you, or someone else, to understand how long an activity will take?
I was talking to a friend recently and we were brainstorming about how detailed task lists needed to be. Here again, everyone is different.
I know people that map out their day planner to fifteen-minute segments the night before. They calendar every single thing they plan to do in a time slot. I can’t work that way. I’m too much of a free spirit. For me, any estimate of how long a task will take me, is pretty meaningless.
That said, I’m pretty ruthless about not overdoing an activity, and even use alarms to interrupt me if I am concerned about overworking something.
If task estimates are important to you, by all means, use them. And it may be important if you plan on assigning tasks to others, including your virtual assistant.
When it comes to team projects, activity estimates are an entirely different subject. I’ve written about it in several blogs, including this one on estimating complex projects.
5 – Do you feel the need to block out time on your calendar to work on a specific individual task?
Some tools let you assign the task to a spot on your calendar. Again, my free spirit gets in the way here. But I can use my To Do calendar appointment to make sure time is booked on my calendar for the work I need to be doing.
6 – Does your task management system need to align with your billing tool?
This is a nice-to-have feature, but in my experience, I can’t rely on those tools to accurately collect the time that I actually worked on a task. It’s too likely that I will get interrupted. And, since I work for multiple clients and some have their own time management tools, I need to factor in those requirements.
So, how are you managing your personal task list? Share your ideas in the comments. And if you’d like to learn more from a free spirit project manager, take a look at my book.