Battle To-Do Debt

My colleague, Alex Gustafson, recently wrote about To-Do Debt, and I’d like to dissect his post. 🙂

Reminder: I try to practice the methods described in “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” by David Allen.

I’m one of those people that uses a full to-do list as motivation to keep the day moving. Left to my own devices I can sit quietly in my chair and let hours float by while I just think. There’s lots of thinking to do. But when I have a full list, it’s a lot less likely I’ll waste my time this way.

The end result is that I add a due date to almost everything in my Wunderlist so that I can stare at the “Today” smart list instead of into my own mind. The other result is that a lot of my recurring events will go red (i.e., late) and stay red for great lengths of time.

I think you’ve gone numb to a few areas in your task manager. The edges of your system are fuzzy from missing proper categorization, and you have too many items scheduled to be completed each day.

Confession: I do the latter often. It’s a work in progress. 🙂

If you ignore the red text (time-sensitive to-dos), the system breaks down from lack of trust, and reduce the chances that you’ll take those to-dos seriously. Don’t set unnecessary due dates on to-dos.

David Allen suggests using your calendar for items due on a certain days.

I use my calendar for timed events and informational items (a.k.a. FYI), but I’m cool with due dates in my task manager, Things, where to-dos or projects appear in red on the day they need to be completed.

I spot an Automattic and Ingress list in your sidebar, and suggest creating folders and/or more lists. (e.g. DnD, Draw, Read, Blog/Main, Blog/Baby, and Someday.)

Glancing at the lists in your sidebar can help with a trigger to review the to-dos in each list, and keep you accountable to move items forward to completion. (Or, help you realize you should move a list/to-do to your Someday folder/list.)

Sort the to-dos into lists when you determine where they belong, rather than staying there indefinitely. If a to-do isn’t in a list, I feel it has less importance because I haven’t fully determined how and why it needs to be done.

Add tags (context) to to-dos in your Inbox. Tags allow you to reduce the number of displayed items appropriate to your current context.

Here are some example tags:

  • Time (5m, 10m, 15m, 30m, 45m, 60m, 90m)
  • computer
  • home
  • errand
  • call
  • iPhone
  • internet
  • write
  • read
  • book
  • buy
  • car
  • Energy (low, medium, high)

In practice:

  • 07:30 — I’m inspired to write! I’ll view the “write” tag.
  • 11:45 — I have 15 minutes at work before heading out to lunch. In the Automattic list, view the “15m” tag.
  • 16:00 — I’m tired. I’ll wind down by catching up on reading P2s threads by viewing to-dos with the “read” tag in the Automattic list.
  • 20:30 — Are there five or six quick to-dos around home I can complete within the next 30 minutes? View the Home list, then search for the “5m”, “10m”, “15m”, or “30m” tags.

For instance, learning to draw is a hobby right now. I want to do a little bit everyday, but it’s much lower priority than finishing my work tasks or chores at home. So it hasn’t happened in almost a week.

Is it a priority, would you like for it to be a priority, or will it be a priority at a later date? This is a great exercise, as I sometimes find myself inadvertently embracing guilt, rather than punting something to my Someday list, or scheduling the to-do to resurface on a later date.

At least once a week, review all your lists — to-dos and projects — in order to:

  • Add new items.
  • Add context to items that have gone stale.
  • Add subtasks to stalled to-dos. Don’t forget to add tags to those subtasks.
  • Check completed items.
  • Delete irrelevant items.
  • Punt items to a Someday list.

While the features and terminology might differ, the concepts are similar from Getting Started with Things:

Great titles for your to-dos make a big difference. […] Be crystal-clear about the real action you’re going to take, so that when you see the to-do again later you won’t have to think twice about what you meant.

Using your screenshot, here are some examples where I combine the above concepts (descriptive title that conveys action, plus tags):

  • “Blog post” vs. “Blog post: Read and scoff at Bryan’s post about To-Do Debt” (Tags: read, 10m, computer, internet)
  • “Read” vs. “Read GTD: Chapter 1” (Tags: read, 30m, book)
  • “DnD Writing” vs. “Write about x” (List: DnD. Tags: 30m, write)
  • “Drawing” vs. “Start sketch of y” (List: Draw. Tags: 30m, write)

Mowing the yard is important, but I hate doing it and I’m only willing to bother under the right weather conditions and time. So it will probably stay red all the way up until there’s a jungle in my back yard.

Let’s apply some a couple minutes of thought to the to-do “Mow the Yard” as an exercise.

  • Do you need to prepare anything before you can start mowing the yard? If yes, add subtasks.
  • How much time will it take? Add tags!
  • Do you and your wife care if it’s a jungle in the back yard? If not, move it to your Someday list or folder to get rid of the guilt. You’ll come across it when you review your lists weekly, or when you see a jungle in your back yard. 🙂

At what point do you declare to-do bankruptcy to get rid of all this to-do debt?

I don’t; that’d entail nuking the whole system and starting from scratch.

Throw Simba

Instead, I employ the above techniques to renegotiate my agreements to eliminate any guilt.

I can work very hard all day, cross lots of items off my list, and still feel like I’m not getting traction.

Traction on what? Try adjusting your Smart Lists so Completed is visible, and review it daily for a confidence boost — or reality check if you’re doing to-dos that aren’t relative to your goals.

I’m one of those people that uses a full to-do list as motivation to keep the day moving. Left to my own devices I can sit quietly in my chair and let hours float by while I just think. There’s lots of thinking to do. But when I have a full list, it’s a lot less likely I’ll waste my time this way.

The end result is that I add a due date to almost everything in my Wunderlist so that I can stare at the “Today” smart list instead of into my own mind.


  • You already have a full to-do list in Wunderlist (and your calendar). Both are technically groups of organized sublists in various designs and layouts. Review both when you have discretionary time, then work off those tasks.
  • Limit your Today smart list for to-dos that need to be done today.
  • Pat yourself on the back! Review your Completed smart list regularly.
  • Allow yourself to “punt” items to a later date, into your Someday list, or into the trash.
  • Bonus: Read “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” by David Allen. 😉

Thanks for the prompt, Alex!

My cousin loves GTD

My cousin, Leslie, graduated from UC Davis last December and is now trying to get into medical school. (One of the most driven people I’ve ever known.) My graduation gift to her was a copy of “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.”

Yesterday, seven months later, I saw her and her family and we had lunch. Out of nowhere, she says, “Bryan, I love Getting Things Done!” She took out her paper-based calendar and showed me how less cluttered it was. (See “Hard and Soft Landscapes: Calendar vs. Reminders“) She also says she’s going to read it again for things she might’ve missed the first time around.

My uncle notices that I’m fairly laid back, probably because I keep things together. My mom jokingly suggested that I have stock in the company because I’ve bought it for so many people. I’ve bought it for a few high school graduate friends, a coworker, my other cousin in Glendale. Out of all of them, Leslie was the only one to say that she liked it.

This is fascinating hearing this after what Brett Kelly and Ricky Spears wrote a couple weeks ago. Now, I’d probably email someone a few links about the GTD methodology and suggest that they buy the book.

One task at a time

Today, I got a bunch of small tasks completed. I’m feeling pretty good about it, too. Other than the GTD book, what’s helped me immensely?

  • Keep your task lists in context to where you are. If I’m at work, my @Home tasks aren’t any good to me until I get home, so there’s no point in reminding myself of those. If I’m at home, @Errands, @Computer, and @Call, will be viewable for me [in DateBk5]. With these practices in place, I did 5 small tasks at Kare right away.
  • When writing and tracking your tasks, use whatever method that’ll motivate you. I was using index cards for awhile, because I liked ripping the card up after I completed a job. I’m back to using my PDA because I’m trying to decrease the number of buckets I have to check regularly. You can use a few sheets of paper, each containing a list for a specific context, where you cross each one out.
  • Get specific. If you see a task and you get hesitant about it, you should try to break it down further (probably because it’s a project). Example: “Get new spark plugs installed into car” could be broken down to a few smaller tasks. “Call mechanic [to ask if it’s okay to bring my own spark plugs to have installed], “Buy spark plugs from [insert auto store]”, “Bring car to mechanic”.
  • If a task will require a couple of steps to get done, it’s really a project. Identify this, break it down, then organize the best way to do the tasks.
  • Use the right tool for the right job. There isn’t any one method that’ll work for everyone. Mess around with this methodology, have fun, and git ‘er dun!

Here’s to another day of productivity!

GTD at work

This is the morning of camp (where I’ll be gone from Friday afternoon until Monday afternoon). I’m in charge, panic hasn’t ensued, and I hope it never rears its ugly head. 🙂

As I complete these tasks, I’ll either cross them off or rip them up. I’ll be a good feeling once we’re moving.

Thanks goes to Charlie Parsons at Mount Kare, because he’s been very positive and supportive towards me. Well off I go! (This was posted here because it’s GTD, but the other stuff will be back at Bryan Off Topic.)

Why I'm a lukewarm GTDer

I got to thinking about Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, especially after reading “Why We Resist the Weekly Review and Plan“. Basically, I’m slacking, but I’m hoping that this will the be turning point where I decide to do something about it. Continue reading Why I'm a lukewarm GTDer

GTD from your desktop

When I saw Rooze’s Desktop, I was pretty stoked about how much this could help in making sure I’m as productive as I can possibly be. I fired up Palm Desktop, took a screenshot, cropped the extraneous stuff, and set it as a wallpaper on my desktop as well. Sweet!

The only problem lies is the lack of Tasks displayed from Palm Desktop – they don’t show up on the monthly calendar. I could have tasks dated, but I wouldn’t know it unless I pulled out my PDA or opened Palm Desktop.

Putting folders for things to do on that day is good – text files would work as well. Jot a few quick notes down, save, and put into the day you want to review it. Since I’m into concerts, I could also put a link to the Ticketmaster page where I’d purchase the tickets into a few days before the event.

Oh yeah, it might be wise to install something that’ll restore your icons’ location if you change resolutions. Although I haven’t tried it yet, Icon Restore should do the trick. (Golf clap: Lifehacker)

GTD Resources?

If you’ve been utilizing the GTD system for awhile, can you point me to your favorite articles, resources and programs?

  • I’d love Palm OS suggestions
  • I use DateBk5 and HandyShopper, in addition to the standard apps
  • I’m a college student
  • I don’t care if you’re redundant – that shows when something is really popular and/or important

GTD Weekend

I used most of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to collecting stuff into my inbox in my quest to be more efficient using the GTD system. Monday was the day I started to process a lot of it. I took four trips to the dumpster (because my trash can is only 7 gallons).

For the most part, I think I’m making great headroom. I think my file drawer needs purging, because that hasn’t been done in at least a year, like the book recommends. However, I’m going to stay the course and keep going through my inbox. I don’t have too much further to go.

Ooh, I should use lists: O.F. Jay-style!

  • I made some folders for projects. It’s definitely weird because they might only require two small steps, and yet I’d still call them a “project”.
  • I’m liking the labeler, but now I have a bunch of avery labels I’m not sure I’ll use. (You know, the ones that you print in mass-production on sheets?)
  • Also, I’m reading how David Allen uses his Palm organizer into his system. I’ve converted the task categories like he’s done (my old system stunk), but I’m not sure how to categorize the calendar. I’m sure I’ll figure out something.
  • I have a lot of miscellaneous supplies and nowhere to store them. What to do?