How To Manage An Overwhelming List of Tasks


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This week, how do you turn a list of over 200 tasks into a manageable list of daily actionable tasks.

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Episode 173

Hello and welcome to episode 173 of the Working With Podcast. A podcast to answer all your questions about productivity, time management, self-development and goal planning. My name is Carl Pullein and I am your host for this show.

For those of you familiar with Getting Things Done, you will have come across the term “mind sweep”. A mind sweep is where you sit down with an empty piece of paper or blank screen and just empty your head of everything that’s on your mind. These could be things you need to do, ideas or pretty much anything on your mind. You get everything out of your head and into an external source.

Once you have done that you then go through your list and decide what the ‘next action’ for each item is

Done correctly, this list could soon build up in one very large list with hundreds of tasks and ideas on it. The great thing about a mind sweep is when finished you feel a huge sense of mental relief. Your brain is no longer trying to hold on to things and you realise that many of the things you were afraid of are not really that difficult to resolve.

However, one problem many people find is once you have this long list, how do you turn them into actionable tasks that you can complete and that’s what I will be looking into this week.

Now, before we get to the question, for those of you interested in my online courses, I have recently updated my Productivity Bundle. This bundle now includes Your Digital Life 3.0, The Time Sector System and Productivity Mastermind courses. This bundle gives you access to five courses because Your Digital Life includes my Email Mastery and Ultimate Goal Planning courses for free.

The bundle is priced at $175.00 which saves you over $100 if you were to buy all five courses separately.

So if you are ready to get yourself organised, build a system that works for you so you can live a more balanced life without having to worry about work and anything else you may be missing, then this bundle of courses will set you on your way.

Okay, it’s time for me now to hand you over to the Mystery Podcast Voice for this week’s question.

This week’s question comes from Bret. Bret asks: Hi Carl, I have a long list of tasks from various mind-sweeps that I am having difficulty managing. How best can I structure this list so that (a) I don't miss scheduling anything important for the next 1-5 days and (b) I don't have to look through a list of 300 plus items every couple of days when making my most important tasks list?

Hi Bret, thank you for your question.

Firstly, it’s great that you have done a mind sweep, these are great ways to get everything on your mind off your mind. Doing a mind sweep does help to free up some cognitive space so you can relax and be more creative.

That said, mind sweeps can also create their own problems. Done correctly, a mind sweep will produce a lot of tasks and you need somewhere to put these tasks. Most people tend to put these into their task manager’s inbox and then process them through their various projects or time sectors. The problem here is that this over inflates your task manager developing overwhelm and a lot of redundant tasks that very quickly disappear into your system never to be seen again or pop up again six months later and you cannot remember why you ever put them into your system in the first place.

The first thing we need to recognise is we cannot do everything all at once. There’s a limited number of hours we have each day and each week. Whatever we put on our master task list needs time allocating to it. You will also find that mind sweeps produce a lot of ‘would like to do one-day’ tasks that really should not be in your task manager.

Would like to do one day tasks should go into your notes app on a note called “would like to do one day” or if you are following GTD, a “someday / maybe” list. You really do not want these low priority tasks on your task manager.

One of the ways to keep a task manager relevant and effective is to keep it clean and tight. By that I mean you only have clearly defined tasks in there that you know must be done at some point. You do not want your ‘would like to do if the circumstances are right’ tasks in there because these are not clearly defined. “Would like to do someday” is not a clear definition. I would like to see the films North by North West and Goldfinger in a cinema on a big screen one day, but how and when I have no idea so these are not clearly defined. Instead, they would be better put on a bucket or wish list.

Another type of task you want to be careful of is the “clean out the garage” type task. This type of task is deceptive because on the surface “clean out the garage” sounds defined. You have a garage, there’s a lot of stuff in there that needs cleaning up or throwing out and you want to do it.

The trouble with this type of task is not the what, but the when and how. If your garage needs cleaning out it likely means you have a lot of stuff that a few garbage sacks will not do. You probably need to hire a skip or truck to take what you throw away to the tip. It’s also unlikely to be a task that will take you a few hours. You likely have to dedicate a few days to do it and when that happens there are always other tasks that will become more ‘urgent’ on the day you decide to start doing it.

With this type of task, unless you are ready to set a date for doing it, you are best keeping it well away from your task manager until you are ready to make that decision.

How many times I’ve seen “clean out the garage” on someone’s list and discover that task has been on a list for over a year is incredible. Seriously, keep it off your task list until you are willing to block out two to three days on your calendar for completing this task.

So how do you make sure those important tasks get on to your task list?

This is why doing a weekly planning session is crucial if you want to be on top of your life. The weekly planning session is about making a decision about what is important enough to get onto your list of tasks for the week. And I really do mean that. The question to ask is: What is important enough to get onto my list for the week?

Your time is valuable—very valuable and you want to be selective about what gets on your task list. Throwing random unimportant tasks onto your task list for the week is not a good strategy. You start with your most important tasks for the week. These are the foundation for your week. I like to call these my objectives for the week. Once these are on if I feel there is space for some less important tasks I will put the next level tasks on my list.

By their very nature, less important tasks are not urgent, they are those nice to be able to do tasks, so it’s not the end of the world if you cannot get to them.

Once you have your objectives on your list for the week, you no longer need to be going back to a huge list of tasks. You’ve already made the decision on what is important this week and that’s where you need to be focused.

You see the problem you will have if you keep going back into a master task list every few days is you will lose focus on what’s important that week. That list will become a distraction and you will be tempted to keep adding to your tasks for the week. Remember, if you have done a weekly planning session you have already decided what’s important for the week. You don’t want to be allowing yourself to be distracted by more tasks. You can review your master list in your next weekly planning session and decide then what you want to work on next.

Remember, no week will be static. Once the week gets underway you will be collecting more tasks some of which will be urgent and need attention now. So while you may feel there is room for more tasks, the reality is there won’t be. The less is more principle applies when you do your weekly planning session. The less you put on your task list for the week the more you will get out of the week. You will be more focused on what you have decided to do for the week and you will have the time to do your tasks to the best of your abilities.

It also means you will be less stressed and overwhelmed because you will know that what you have on your list is important, and doable. And that makes your list more meaningful and inspiring.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to be doing a weekly planning session every week. It’s very hard to predict what you will be doing much further out than a week. Meetings you will have in ten days time are likely not have been scheduled yet. You could get a mind-numbing toothache and need to visit the dentist, or a project on track today could turn south in six days time.

Your weekly planning session is where you can review your mind sweep list select important tasks to add to your task list for the week and then only focus on those tasks over the next seven days. You will get a lot more done that way and you will stay much more focused.

I hope that has helped, Bret. Thank you for your question.

And thank you to you for listening. Remember, if you have a question you want answering, all you need do is email me— and I will be happy to answer your question.

It just remains for me now to wish you all a very very productive week.

231 episodes