“Ah, grasshopper. You have come seeking wisdom. Where does your life trouble you? Too many things to do and too little time? You don’t know where to start? Confucius say, ‘It is best to start at the beginning.’ Come, let us look at your to-do list. You do have one, right? We can sync our Google to-do lists and then I can help.”

So, you don’t have a to-do list, eh?

Unless you are blessed with an incredible recall and highly organized mind, living without a to-do list of some type can be a challenge. It is the equivalent of taking things as they come, starting each day with a completely blank slate and simply attacking the task that pops up first. Think of it like task Whac-a-Mole, whenever a task pops up, you whack it by completing it.

It may sound idyllic to start each day with a blank slate, but there are few of us with that luxury. The demands and responsibilities of daily life, family, and work make sure our slates are full well before the sun rises.

Being confronted with an untamed mass of demands on our time is akin to herding cats. By the way, if anyway reading this has ever herded cats or knows someone personally who has, could you please let us know here? It’d be a hoot to talk to someone. Anyway, I digress. Being faced with these competing demands is daunting, unnerving, and stressful.

The Zen of the to-do list

Have you ever had so much to do, you didn’t know where to start? Me too. As our opening illustrates, the best place to start is at the beginning with a to-do list. It is enlightening to do internet searches on various topics. For this article, I searched on “to-do list apps,” which returned 1,030,000,000 hits! I do believe we have a winner, at least in my searches. Over one billion hits relating to the humble to-do list.

This huge number of hits tells me that the topic of, and need for, to-do lists is pervasive. And for good reason, a to-do list enables you to get a handle on all your commitments whether you call them tasks, appointments, responsibilities, goals, etc. The to-do list enables you to achieve a commitment Zen state of mind. In other words, you capture your commitments and can step back from them and look at them with a fresh perspective. If you don’t create the list, you cannot tame it.

What form the to-do list?

You have two choices here, electronic in the form of a to-do list app or tracker, or good old-fashioned hard copy. On the 21st century, electronic side, you can use a dedicated smartphone app, grab a to-do list template for Microsoft Office, a Google task list manager, and so forth. Project management software and task management software can act as to-do lists for those who want the most powerful tool at their disposal. It makes sense if you are using that software for other aspects like managing projects and priorities.

For the Luddite crowd, there is pen and paper. These can be quite satisfying in that you have the physical results of your efforts clutched firmly in your fingers. Did you know that some of the earliest Babylonian cuneiform clay tablets were to-do lists? No, they weren’t, but it is fun to speculate on how early to-do lists started. While it is not possible to sync a paper to-do list, no power surge or solar flare is going to wipe out all your hard work. Pick you favorite and stick with it.

The purpose of a to-do list

The primary purpose of a to-do list is to enable you to keep track of all your commitments to prevent any from slipping through the cracks. It is also an excellent basis upon which to start prioritizing which item on the list to tackle first, second, and so on.

With an extensive to-do list, you can group individual commitments into a group to create a project. Here’s where software with project management attributes and capabilities like Bubbles Planner can be a boon. These pieces of software enable you to organize individual bits of work into a larger whole. A benefit of combining individual items is it makes your overall list appear less threatening because you have fewer entries.

Your to-do list becomes your priority management tool. Use it before the start of the day and select the most important of the items to focus on first. With a daily priority firmly in mind, you are prepared to respond do the inevitable interruptions and distractions that crop up. When necessary, you can say no to the request, citing more pressing commitments.

Organizing tasks and to-do’s

We touched on this in the previous section. It is helpful to segregate the various items into related groups. You might have half-a-dozen individual things to do that are related to the church picnic; shopping for food, cooking, packaging, picking up your cousin, setting up at the event, and cleaning up. Create a “project,” and your individual tasks serve a single purpose. That is quite helpful by itself.

The technique is to look at all the tasks and start a second list things that have multiple individual items associated with them. Driving the kids to soccer practice, going to the games, providing the sideline drinks go into Soccer Season 201X. The tasks associated with developing the literature for the new service roll up into Service Launch.

You have created a hierarchical arrangement of projects, tasks, and subtasks. Seeing them altogether helps you decide when to act of a specific item. The beauty of a to-do list app is that you can set reminders. If something doesn’t need attention for six weeks, like making the potato salad for the church social, give it a due date to match, and let the software remember and remind you.

 

Managing your time, and your attention

Working for extended periods of time on a single item can become counterproductive. Studies show that methods like the Pomodoro Technique increase productivity by helping you concentrate on a single task for 25 minutes after which you take a 5 minute break. Following the break, you can resume work on the same task or turn your attention to another. It sure beats trying to multi-task, another practice research has shown does not produce optimal results.

As you would expect, there is an official Pomodoro app for desktops and mobile devices. You can use an egg timer if you like. Bubbles Planner has a timer specifically included to support this timing technique. Other techniques supported in Bubbles Planner include the Get Things Done, Kanban, Kanban + Matrix, and others. Each task is represented by a bubble and you drag it to the spot in a window denoting its importance. Very easy and intuitive.

Wrapping it up

You don’t have to have an elaborate piece of to-do list, priority, or task management software to start getting control over your commitments and regaining some of your sanity. Paper and pen will work. The advantage of the software approach is in is flexibility, scheduling, reminders, and organization. You get to decide which method suits your style. Just make the list your own and use it for more success in to-do crunching.