Staying organized and managing your to-do list is a challenge. There are a ton of systems and tools that claim to help you get more done. You can spend so much time shopping for a tool you don’t get anything done. What really matters is finding a strategy that works for you.
I’ve tried a lot of different methods to keep track of all that I have to get done: sticky notes, to-do lists, outlook tasks, white boards, note pads, and apps (lots of apps). Many of these were suitable options. All had their limitations.
- easily captured tasks
- accessibility across platforms (iPhone, web, iPad, desktop)
- real-time sync
- useable for both single tasks and projects
- sharing capabilities
- ability to keep notes on a task (such as “left a message on Monday”)
- simple user interface (UI)
I’ve put numerous apps to the test. Most of them came up short. However, there is one app that I keep coming back to – Wunderlist.
It’s About The Process
You may use other tools or apps. You may stick to a pen and pad strategy. That’s fine. The tool you use is less important than the process that allows your mind to stay focused on the task at hand.
Allow me to walk you through my process for gathering, categorizing and getting tasks done. These are simple principles you can apply to almost any task management system you’re using.
Set Up: How to Organize Your Task Lists
I forget things. I’ll tell someone I’ll send them an article, report or product. Then I’ll get busy with something else and forget. This is especially true when I’m away from the office. Having a tool that goes where I go is crucial to my task management system.
Now, as soon as a discrete task is identified (e.g., email presentation to Jim), I add it to my to-do list. Since I have my iPhone nearly everywhere I go, I can plug a task into my list in two taps. This helps prevent me from letting things slip through the cracks.
This is what it looks like when I’m entering a task on my iPhone.
A boss once asked me how I could remember all the things he asked me to do. Before long, I taught him how to use Wunderlist.
The key to capturing is that you have to do it right away. In meetings, I’ll jot down a note in my notebook and, afterwards, plug it all into Wunderlist. Nothing gets overlooked and no balls get dropped.
Tip: If you haven’t already, create a list of unprocessed tasks in your Wunderlist inbox. Remember, capturing is paramount.
I prefer to group like tasks rather than have one massive list of things to get done. Wunderlist allows me to create separate lists. I use them to group tasks together for projects, trips, and more.
Here you can see how Wunderlist displays multiple task lists.
The benefit here is that if I want to know where I stand on a specific project, I open the appropriate folder and it tells me exactly what needs doing.
There are all sorts of ways to categorize your tasks: time of day, context, energy required, location, time needed, project, etc. Wunderlist also allows you star tasks. More on that later.
Recently, Wunderlist added tags to their ever-growing features list. Basically, you add a #hashtag to any to-do item and then you can search to find all tasks with that hashtag across all of your lists.
- traditional GTD stages (e.g., #WF for waiting for, #SM for someday/maybe)
- times of the day (e.g., #morning, #afterlunch)
- energy required (e.g., #low, #med, #high) or priority (e.g., #prio1, #prio2). Use your imagination!
This is really where finding what works for you is key. Try some different things and experiment until you find what works.
Integration: How to Actually Get Things Done
Now that you have captured your to-do items and have set up your categories, what’s next? It’s time to get things done!
I recommend doing this before you leave work for the evening. Review your projects and task lists (however you’ve categorized them) in search of 3-5 tasks that will become your focus for tomorrow.
Avoid the temptation to bite off more than you can chew (preaching to myself here).
This daily scan also helps keep you aware of upcoming projects.
Using the star feature in Wunderlist is how I mark those 3-5 tasks that I’ll focus my effort and attention on tomorrow.
This is how Wunderlist displays my Starred list.
Throughout the day, I check my “starred” list, which is at the top of my lists in Wunderlist. I don’t get distracted by other to-do items and can focus on my highest priorities.
Tip: Even if you don’t scan and star your priorities the day before, this is exactly how you want to start the morning – prior to opening email.
Finally, the part we’ve all been waiting for…doing the work. Start with your toughest and most important task from your 3-5 list. This way, if that is the only thing you get done today you can still call it a success.
Once that’s done, go back to the list you’ve made for today. For me, that’s the starred list.
If I complete all of my starred tasks before the end of the day, I return to scanning or sort my tasks by the tags mentioned above to find my next action item.
With Wunderlist, as is true for other tools, there are a number of additional features you can leverage.
Reminders: Through the process outlined above, I have essentially eliminated the need for reminders. However, I occasionally use them for specific tasks that have a deadline or due date.
Sharing: Wunderlist allows you to share task lists. If you share your list with others, you can also engage in collaborative conversations about specific tasks within that list. Honestly, I haven’t used this feature very much, but I would if I was working with a team on different projects.
Subtasks: As we all know, many tasks can be broken down into even smaller components. That’s where subtasks come in. If I need to speak with different people or assemble multiple items before sending them to a client, I’ll use subtasks to make sure the little things get done.
Notes: This is especially helpful when I’m capturing a task or idea. I capture all of my blog post ideas in Wunderlist. In the notes for that idea I may include illustrations, resources or even a rough outline to start from – whatever is in my head at the moment.
I’ll also use this if I couldn’t complete the task. For instance, if I need to call Susan and she doesn’t answer, I’ll make a note that I left her a voicemail. Then I can add the #WF tag to the task to indicate that I’m now waiting for her to call back.
When you open a task, this is where you can set due dates, reminders, add subtasks and notes.
One thing I love about Wunderlist is that they continue to evolve, improve and add helpful features.
Regardless of what tool you use to manage your to-do list, you can still apply these basic principles. When we aren’t trying to use our brains to remember all we need to do, our minds are free to focus on the tasks right in front of us, be creative and find solutions. Perhaps more importantly, we don’t drop the ball. We deliver the goods, get things done and can live in the present moment.
Question: What is one tip you have for staying on top of your to-do list? I’d love to hear what’s working for you in the comments below.