The Elements of an Effective Task List

The Elements of an Effective Task List

I wrote this blog because I am obsessive with my task list, and I wanted to share how I organize my day’s list of work. My task list is the first thing I look at when I open my computer and the last thing I check at the end of the work day.

My task list functions as an extra mind, keeping track of all the details for my work and freeing my mind from tracking it all. This allows me to focus on prioritizing and completing the right things at the right time.

I keep my list well-maintained because, like a garden, if it’s not taken care of, it can grow wild. For instance, there are interruptions that change the day’s priorities or lead me in a different direction than the items on the task list. It’s easy in these times to allow my list to go to squalor, but over the years, I’ve learned some tricks to keep calm and grounded in my priorities in these situations.

Below are the elements I find make an effective task list on both the good days and the bad.

Getting a task list set up

This section provides steps for getting your task list set up for the day:

  • What should go in the task list
  • How to prioritize and determine what’s achievable

What to put in a task list - Start with Everything

If you’re starting a list from scratch then start with everything that you need or would like to do for the day. It may be a busy and overwhelming list at first, but in the next steps, we’ll clean it up.

I track more things on my list than less so that it will precisely match my day. Otherwise I find myself working on tasks not on the list, defeating the point of having the list.

Next Step: Embrace Reality

If you’ve written everything on your list, then it may be overwhelming. This is the time to embrace a few contrasting realities:

  • The task list never ends. Like life itself, there’s always something next to do. Accept and embrace this reality: “I can’t do everything but I can do SOME things.”
  • There are only so many hours in the day. You can’t do all the things in a day, so it’s important to pick the right things to invest your hours in.
  • All tasks are not equal in size or value. Our task list is not a shopping list of items of equal priority. There may be important tasks mixed in with non-important tasks as well as a mixture of large and small tasks (example: “Build Rome” vs. “Make a Cup of Coffee”). We’ll go over how to break down large tasks in a bit.

We can clean up our list by first identifying what is critical to get done today.

Identify Your High Value Work

What tasks on your list would give you a sense of accomplishment if you completed them? These are “High Value Work” or “Forward Moving Work”. It’s something that directly impacts to your team’s, boss’, or company’s goals. Or, it’s something that moves the work of your colleagues’ work, like partnering with them to ensure their project completes on time.

We want to prioritize these so that ideally you can complete them before they’re also urgent. By prioritizing this important work first, you can build a habit of working proactively rather than reactively on an ASAP basis.

Identify tasks blocking the impactful work from happening

If something urgent is blocking something impactful from being done, track it. These are items that look like: ”I can’t get to «important item» because I need to complete «urgent» first.”

These are typically tasks that come in unexpectedly, and I’ve verified they need to be done immediately. An example is dealing with a support incident.

Is It Truly Urgent?

I push back on artificial “ASAP” as much as I can. Unless you work in an emergency room, an environment of habitual ASAP is a sign of mis-prioritization and imbalance.

I’ve found that ASAP can often be kindly de-escalated in a few steps:

  1. Ensure you’re the right person to do the work - There have been many times that someone has come to me to complete a task because they didn’t know who else to go to? It’s perfectly fine to call out when another team is better fit for a particular task and you can play the role of connecting that person to that team.
  2. Call out competing priorities - Before agreeing to take something on, ensure that it doesn’t clash with the priorities of something else. This is an opportunity to prioritize impactful work over it.
  3. Agree on a real deadline - Setting a real date/time allows all involved to have concrete expectations on when the work will be completed. You might find “ASAP” means in a few days.

Last, identify the “by end of day” tasks

I think of these as daily responsibilities or one-off requests: Running a report needed for a meeting, or reviewing a teammate’s project document in a reasonable amount of time. When determining what’s doable in a day, use your best judgment on whether these tasks are truly EOD (end of day) tasks or can be delegated to another day.

Hide Everything Else

With the steps above, you should have a clear idea of what needs to be done today: the important things, the blockers and the day-to-day responsibility work. At this point, your list should be achievable in a day. If it’s not, then further pruning should be done to decide what needs to get done and what can be done later.

The tasks that did not make the list should be separated out into another area. This can be done in many ways depending on the tool you use:

  • Add them to a “Next” list, where you can then pull them in when you’ve completed the above tasks.
  • Provide them with a future due date if they’re important to focus on and raise another day.

Place a bet: "I can get these things done today"

There’s no way to be 100% certain what’s achievable in one day, given the unknowns of a business day. Given that, I think it’s helpful to plan for less and focus on fewer but more important tasks.

If I’m looking at my list of things to do today, I should be placing my bets on “I can get all of this done today” as opposed to “I bet I won’t get all of this done.” If my list is looking unachievable, I step back and think, “what can I take away to make the odds favorable?”

Finally: Prioritize the top 2-3 tasks

The final step is to choose what task to start with. I find it helpful to also choose the next task or two behind the first. I don’t worry about putting the list in a fully prioritized order because priorities often change throughout the day.

With all of those steps, we have our task list and we should have a good picture of what needs to be done. You could follow this process daily and have a maintained task list. Still, we can go even further to improve our list.

Make each task more effective and approachable

Tracking tasks on a list is one thing, but getting the tasks done is another. A daunting list (or even a single daunting task) can be paralyzing, to a point where you may lose motivation and even get less done.

There is an art to making each task effective. This section shares ways to make each task clear, actionable, achievable, and even motivational.

Key Element: Give each task a Clear and Actionable Title

Task names like “Analysis” are ineffective and full of indirection, requiring us to think about what the task actually means before we can do it. We have to mentally juggle it to get in the right state of mind for the task:

  • “What Analysis?” - The Client Quality Analysis.
  • “What am I supposed to do about the analysis?” - “Complete it and share it with Sarah”

To make this task actionable and clear, we can combine these two answers in its name:

  • “Complete and Share the Client Quality Analysis with Sarah”

This task tells us what to do through the action verbs “Complete” & “Share”, and it tells us exactly what those actions connect to: “Client Quality Analysis” to “Sarah”.

Two effective kinds of tasks: Actions and Questions

Almost all of my tasks come in two forms:

  • Actions - The task name tells me what I need to do. “Add the Project Milestones to the Project Document”
  • Questions - The task name tells me which question I need to answer. “What should the payload look like for the Stripe request?”

I used to track questions as action tasks (Answer “«question»”) but I find having questions as tasks is just as effective.

Break up large tasks into small easy-to-understand subtasks

Though “Complete and Share the Client Quality Analysis with Sarah” is a better title, the task itself seems big. In order to mark the task as done, we have to do two things: Complete the analysis and then share it.

Large task broken down - step 1

“Complete a Client Quality Analysis” is itself a large task that can be broken down by asking, “what needs to be done to complete this task?”:

  • Gather the data
  • Clean the data
  • Analyze the data
  • Document the results of the analysis in a presentable way

For each of these, I can create subtasks for the original task with a clear title for each subtask.

Large task broken down - subtasks

That’s a lot of tasks with “Client Quality Analysis” repetitively in their name, but subtasks that are as clear and actionable as their parent task are able to stand on their own. With the task broken down and clearly actionable, I can focus on one part at a time and even step away from it altogether without losing too much context of my progress.

I break down any task that requires more than 30 minutes of work.

If you use a task manager that provides areas for descriptions (I recommend you do), then you can make your tasks easier to start by adding relevant links or context on where you left off.

In each of the tasks and subtasks above, we can provide them with links to the data, analysis document, and presentation document.

Ensure your tasks are Completable

It doesn’t make sense to create a task like “get all the work done” because it’s not clear how to complete that task.

With each task, you should be able to say “this task is done when . . .” and clearly outline the conditions for completion.

By following all of these steps, your task list should now be granular, actionable and clear on what needs to be done.

Additional Recommendations for a Smooth Task List Process

Everything above will get you far with your task list, but I find these final steps to be the icing on the cake. They deal with keeping the list in pristine shape so that you don’t second guess your list and your priorities during stressful times.

Prioritizing keeping a task up-to-date

“Are your priorities correct since the last time you set them?”

When your tasks start to get out of sync, they start to lose their value. Take time to keep tasks up-to-date so that your task list accurately reflects the work you need to do.

I always start my day cleaning and pruning my task list, and here are other times I find it useful:

  • When a new task comes in - When an interruption arrives or I find myself getting caught up in something, this is a good time to capture those items as tasks and then step back. With them next to the other items on my list, I can compare them and prioritize them as needed. If they land at the top of my priorities then I can step back in. Otherwise, I can put them lower on the list and address them later.
  • When expectations for a task change - If I find that a task is more complicated than I thought, I step back and subtask out the steps required to complete it. This helps prevent task paralysis.
  • When completing a task or picking up a new task - Before I start something new, I scan the top of my list to see if it’s correctly prioritized.
  • Around noon - I find that pruning my list is the best way to start my afternoon. I only have half a day left of work, so I scan the list with that timeframe in mind and see what’s achievable in the time left of the day.

Track smaller tasks

Some people say to get small tasks done instead of writing them down, but sometimes I disagree.

I set explicit time to add tasks to my task list. If I tackle those small tasks immediately rather than writing them down, I get stuck down a distracting rabbit hole and lose sight of what I wanted to add to my list.

Having even the small things on your list allows you to prioritize them against the rest of your tasks. This goes the same for small subtasks for a larger task.

Capture meta tasks

Keeping a task list up-to-date and effective is itself important work and worth setting aside time to focus on, so I capture these moments as tasks. I call them “meta tasks” or tasks to improve my tasks. Here are some I use daily or weekly:

  • (Morning) Get my tasks in order for the day - I start every morning with this task. The task itself is a way for me to say “this is what I’m focusing on right now”, and I use the time to review all of the tasks on my day’s list, order them, and push back any that don’t need to be done in the day.
  • (Afternoon) Review & Reprioritize today’s tasks - Similar to the previous task, I do this in the afternoon thinking, “I only have 1/2 a day left, what work is most important to get done with that time.”
  • (Weekly) Review my priorities and create missing tasks - When I’m very focused on a project and thinking about it constantly throughout the day, I often find myself carrying tasks for my most important work in my head. This leads me to feeling overwhelmed. This task helps me realize that, and I set out extra time to sit and think about what’s in my head and not on my task list. Every time I do this, I feel more organized, more in control, and my workload feels more manageable.

Estimate Time Required for Each Tasks

Recently, I’ve started adding rough estimates of time to each of my day’s tasks, and it has been incredibly helpful for finding if I’ve committed to too much in a day.

The estimated times are rough and often over-estimates, but having them allows me to do some cool things:

  1. See how many hours of tasks I’ve committed to for the day. If it’s over my work hours, then it’s clear that I need to commit to less.
  2. Compare the hours of committed work to my schedule for the day. For instance, if my day is full of meetings with only 2 hours of non-meeting time, then I know to only commit to that timeframe.
  3. Get a clear picture of what is planned for the days ahead. (If every task is estimated)

Final Advice: Tweak your task list to your preferences

My last bit of advice is to be mindful of your task list habits and tweak them to whatever makes your process feel productive and efficient. There is no “one right way” to do a task list, so lean into what makes your task list feel achievable.

Further Reading

We Overcomplicate Our Task Systems - zen habits

How to Stay Focused If You’re Assigned to Multiple Projects at Once

High Output Management for (Non-managing) Tech Leads


About Alex Kitchens

I am a principal software engineer at Stitch Fix working remotely from Amarillo, TX. Talk to me about anything Rails, Ruby, Rust, or coffee.