From Thoughts to Actions: Keeping a Task List

A task list is a list of what needs to get done, whether it’s in your head, in an app, or on a piece of paper. Everyone has one (a mental “what should I do next?” counts), but not everyone knows how to use a task list effectively or even realizes what should be on the task list. Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years of keeping task lists.

1. Mental Task Lists are Mental Clutter

Keeping mental track of two or three little things might be fine, but I can’t keep track of more. I noticed this when I first started working a full time job. My first few weeks were a little rough because things kept falling through the cracks. Either I forgot something that I needed to do, or I missed a deadline because I didn’t prioritize. Keeping track of tasks in my head kept me focused on one thing: what needed to get done(at least what I could remember). But, I was missing some key factors that gave tasks their priority.

  • Importance - Important items are those critical to moving forward and success.
  • Urgency - Urgent items have a soon due date.

Being Timely Keeps You Thinking Straight

The more tasks I had in one day, the more it kept me looking down and not forward. To counteract this, I started to categorize my tasks into groups based on importance and urgency. This comes from Stephen Covey’s Time Management Matrix.

Four Options

Urgency & importance give us four different options. Below, I listed them from high priority to low priority:

  • Important and Urgent - These are items that are critical and need to get done now.

    • House is on Fire
    • Wife is indefinitely angry at you
    • Boss needs this and needs this now
    • Your employee has a crisis(now it’s your crisis)

    Recommendation: Get it Done

  • Important, but not Urgent - This is your bread and butter, where you want to be. This is the stuff that matters but doesn’t have a sense of urgency(yet). This gives you time to think, improve, and find ways to be more efficient.

    • Your necessary day-to-day work
    • Planning
    • Time with Family
    • Exercise
    • Learning
    • Projects

    Recommendation: Plan this stuff out and complete it on time.

  • Not Important, but Urgent - These are hurdles in your day that keep you from getting the real work done.

    • Some meetings fall in this category. We’ve all sat through the “Plan a Meeting” meetings.
    • Crises that shouldn’t be crises - “Why is there no ice in the ice machine?”
    • Interruptions throughout the day

    Recommendation: See if you can delegate it, move it to a planned time, or not do it at all.

  • Not Important and Not Urgent - This is filler stuff that is nonproductive.

    • Busy Work
    • Redditing
    • Useless Email chains
    • Grabbing a beer during work

    Recommendation: Drop it. Once you’ve completed everything else and there’s free time on your hands, then go enjoy that beer.

If you initially find that most of your tasks fall under Important & Urgent, then it’s time to get busy. But if everything is Important & Urgent, start working on time management skills or talk to your boss about your workload. “Everything’s urgent” type businesses are unnecessary unless you’re in the emergency field. They’re an energy and morale killer.

My prioritized to do list led me to number two: if I don’t write it down, I probably won’t get it done.

2. If It’s Not on the List, It Probably Won’t Get Done

My new task list helped immensely in prioritizing my work. Important tasks were getting done on time or ahead of schedule, and I found time to get the less important work done too. But I still had a problem. I wasn’t seasoned to adding things to the list, so some tasks were forgotten. This was a habit that I had to work on, and I had to teach myself to listen for tasks in day-to-day conversation.

Of course, there were exceptions: If I could do it then & there, there’s no need in writing it down; just do it.

5 Minute Rule: Add It To The List

If its something that I can do in less than 5 minutes and I don’t have anything pressing, then I’ll just do it. Otherwise, it goes on my list.

3. If It’s Too Big of a Task, It Probably Won’t Get Done

Once I got a hang of keeping track of all my tasks, I hit another issue. Some of the tasks seemed too daunting. I’d sit and stare at a task and decide to do it later. Soon enough, a task that I should have completed a week ago still stared me in the face. To counteract this, I found the 15-Minute Rule.

15 Minute Rule: Creating Subtasks From Tasks

If a task cannot be completed in 15 minutes, break it down into subtasks. It’s much easier to look at a list of 6 5-minute tasks than it is to look at 1 30-minute task. In fact, there are several benefits to smaller tasks:

  1. It’s easier to stay focused on the task at hand. I can get sidetracked with any task that takes longer than 15 minutes to complete.
  2. Completing a task feels good. Once I’ve finished 2 or 3 tasks in a row, I start to gain momentum and I feel like I’m knocking things out. At the end of the day, you’ll feel more accomplished.
  3. It’s easier to take a break and come back to it. When you’re keeping track of the mini-tasks in your head, it’s harder to get back in the flow when you’re interrupted. Again, you’re keeping track of them in some way, so you might as well write them down and get rid of that mental burden.

4. Use Actionable Words

Another issue that kept me staring at the computer screen was improperly naming tasks. “Website” is hardly a good name for a task(and one I used several times): Am I building a website or checking one out?

Explicit task names and descriptions leave mental tracks so it’s easier to come back to at a later time.

Taskname: Look at for calls to action.

Description: Look specifically for calls-to-action to an online store and in-house consultations. It potentially needs a web redesign.

I can step away from that task, come back a week later and be back on track in seconds.

Tasks are Verbs

Tasks are usually actions(verbs), so describe tasks as verbs.

  • Buy a bag of coffee from Evocation Coffee.”
  • Read the Moz blog on the Future of SEO(Link Inside).”

There’s a psychological gain from actionable tasks. They’re clear and give you a little push to get them done.

5. Get Today’s Tasks Completed First

Need an easy way to start your day? Finish today’s tasks first. If it’s not on this list, then it won’t hurt you or get you in trouble tomorrow. Once you have completed this list, you can tackle tomorrow’s tasks. Finishing future work early gives me a fantastic feeling. Ideally, this is how you should be spending your day.

6. Priorities Change: Re-Assess Often

Priorities change day-to-day, week-to-week. Some will move up and down the list, so take the time to reassess often. I reassess my list each day.

7. Try SMARTer Goals

SMART Goals are Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, and Time-Bound. Check out a blog I wrote to learn how to make your goals and projects a little smarter.

Final Thoughts

If you want to become more effective with your task lists, I recommend checking out David Allen’s Getting Things Done. It is the #1 bestseller in Amazon’s Time Management, and it’s hard to find a time management blog that doesn’t mention GTD. Also, keep in mind that it’s not just about the goals that you set, but also about the systems you have to achieve those goals. Here’s a great blog on Systems vs goals.

Asana There are also several task management tools to keep your lists mobile and handy. Some common ones are Trello, Wunderlist, but my favorite by far is Asana. Asana goes a step further by being a project management tool, and it is fantastic for team collaboration on projects & tasks. I use it daily, and Asana is always open in my browser.

Take control of your time and get the right things done(on time).


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.