The chief problem many of us face when we make our To-Do lists is that we try to list everything that we’re thinking about doing. The result is that we end up with lists that are far too long to actually complete – and, despite how much we actually get done, we focus on what we didn’t and get frustrated.
Or maybe that’s just me.
I’ve mentioned before that the trick to mastering your To-Do list involves being realistic about your list and keeping it as small as possible. Seriously reflect on your work and see how often you’ve actually accomplished more than 5 decent size tasks/projects that day. Three to five tasks/projects seems to be the sweet spot.
But it’s incredibly useful to purge all of the things that you’re thinking about just to get it off your mind. Thus the tension: if you don’t capture the things that are on your mind on to your to-do list, they’ll be there harassing you. Yet if you list everything, you’ll be frustrated about not getting it all done.
The brute fact is that most of us have far more to do than we will ever have time available to do. At least, until we learn how to do less. But until we learn how to do that, our lists contain more than we’ll ever be able to do.
A tactic that I’ve been trying for the last three or four months is to indicate which of the tasks on the list are Exit Tasks. What are exit tasks, you say?
Exit tasks are those few tasks that you absolutely must complete to have some modicum of peace after you’re done working. If I were being strict GTD, I’d say that they should be the only tasks on your To-Do lists, but getting there requires a lot of discipline, and sometimes it’s just more frustrating trying to figure out what to do with those tasks after you’ve culled them than it is to just keep them where they are for the day.
Why do I call them exit tasks? I got the idea from the motivation people get before it’s time for a vacation. If you’ve ever witnessed people trying to cleanly get the hell away from work before a vacation, you probably noticed that they dropped the pretenses about what all they were going to do and did the very minimum they had to do to be able to take their two weeks off without a phone call.
When you’re put in that situation, you recognize how much is actually important and value-added and how much is just the mind’s reaching into the future. The point, though, is that you clean house as much as you need to, but no more.
Unfortunately, many of us don’t take the “free time” we have on a daily basis nearly as seriously, so we don’t try to compartmentalize and prepare for our free time. The result is that time not at work becomes some kind of quasi-prep time for the next day.
I got tired of my leisure time being that way, so I started being serious about the fine line between work and play. I began asking myself exactly how much I needed to do to be able to exit work and begin to play.
Hence the name “Exit Task.”
To see how this works, I’ll show you my To-Do list for the day:
- Recreate Portfolio for Client X (name of client and project removed for privacy)
- Process Guard Actions
- Answer Comments on Productive Flourishing
- Rewrite ‘About’ Page
- Write “Exit Tasks”
- Look at requirements for Adobe Creative Suites
- Fax Stuff for Angela
- Do financial review
- Look at Reviews for Adobe Products
Those were all of the things that were on my mind at the time I started purging. I didn’t try to sort them by priority or context or anything like that – it was just the unrelated brain stew of things I was thinking about doing.
Looking at the time I had available to execute these tasks, it was clear that I wasn’t going to get through them all. So the next question – which of those do I absolutely have to do to get some peace?
The first two were external requirements – so I really had to do them. The third was one that I’d put off for a few days and it was starting to bother me – so I did that one. The rest were negotiable.
So those three got an (E) put behind them – my cue that those were the Exit Tasks for the day. The rest stayed on the list, but not as things I had to do. When I was done with those three tasks, I simply reevaluated what I most felt like doing. Turns out I wanted to write this post next, but I’ll probably call it quits after this.
The main point, though, is that I could have walked away with a clear head.
What about the rest of the items I didn’t complete? They stay there and are reviewed the next day – I’ll either plan to do them, postpone them, or drop them. But I won’t forget them.
Mastering the To-Do list comes down to three things:
- Learning to do less
- Learning how to complete what you have to do
- Learning how to walk away when you’ve done what you had to
The “Exit Task” paradigm has been helping me with 2 and 3.
This model works well when there’s a clear separation between what you don’t want to do (i.e. work) and what you do want to do (i.e. leisure). As I start doing more income-generating activities that I want to do or that I enjoy doing, it’s harder to find that fuzzy line precisely because the work-play dichotomy breaks down at that point.
Jared Goralnick says
Thanks for these tips, Charlie. I’ve always been a fan of the “complete mind purge” but it’s a struggle to prioritize what actually gets accomplished. My method is to assign due dates or block out time for the ones that NEED to be accomplished in a given timeframe…but you’re right that that doesn’t address the bigger issue of how to decide on those bigger issues.
One of the things I notice is that if I give myself a list and then wait on it for a week, I’ll decide that half the things on the list aren’t worth getting done anymore. The challenge though, which I haven’t found an answer to, is to determine if I’m just rationalizing or whether I really could safely ignore them? For instance, if I have a stack of 20 business cards of people I enjoyed at an event and decide to only write to 10 after a week, am I really being more productive or just accepting the fact that I can’t write to all of them? Wouldn’t I have been better off struggling through all 20?
Before the trip we manage to get our head around accomplishing less, but is that truly productivity or is it just cutting corners?
Charles Gilkey says
@ Jared: Your comment pinged as I was finishing up “Simplicity, Complexity, and Productivity” – the timeliness of it was impeccable. Let me try to say why.
Your worry is that we’re either cutting corners or being lazy. There’s multiple ways to think about that one.
The first perspective is just that if you didn’t do it and haven’t recognized any true loss from not doing it, you probably didn’t need to do it anyways. True, we may not be able to see the second- and third-order effects of not doing something – but rarely do we see those effects from doing it, either. I’m less sure about this one than the other perspectives.
The second perspective is just learning to drop shoulds you can’t act on. If there was no way you could complete that action and keep everything else afloat, then saying you should have done it is moot. Or, to take a lesson from ethics: “ought implies can” and, contrapositively, “not can implies not ought.”
The last perspective is whether or not the action added (or would) additional value. Odds are, if you don’t have time to write the 10 cards (not to overuse your example), you don’t have time to develop meaningful relationships with those 10 people. So writing them would be nice, but not necessarily value-added. Perhaps the middle ground is just to keep their names on file and next time you see them, let them know you’ve been looking forward to talking to them again. Same purpose is served, as you’re saying “hey, I remember you, and I had such a great time last time we met.”
I always like hearing from you, Jared. And no, I’m not just playing off my last sentence. :p
Marlito Dungog says
the post is great. however for me, all of my today’s to-do list are exit tasks. i believe the reason why i list it because it needs to be done and avoid procrastination.
@ Marlito: It’s awesome that you have that type of discipline. I think a lot of people list to get it off of their mind – as opposed to avoiding procrastination – so I guess this post was trying to help people go with the flow yet bring some order to the madness. Thanks for commenting, and your design firm’s cover looks pretty nice!
Francis Wade says
Over at my blog I have been exploring the limits of using To-Do lists.
That limit comes for many when they can no longer handle a mental schedule of what they plan to do for the day, week, or month.
In other words, they must start to reconcile the actions they have committed to with the time they have available to them in some way. What prompts them to make this transition is often some kind of life-change, such as a promotion or having a baby, when they begin to feel overwhelmed by having too much stuff.
That feeling of overwhelm comes from not having habits that allow them to use their schedule effectively.
I use a similar method–a mega (“purge”) list and a daily todo list. Works well for me.
Something that I find helps is to maintain a ‘To Do later’ list.
Anything that isn’t that important get’s chucked in there. At the beginning of every day I have a quick look over this list and drag anything that takes my fancy back into todays tasks. (similar if I find I have some free time during the day)
This way the tasks are not lost but they are also not cluttering up my ‘Todays tasks’
‘Learning how to walk away’ is probably one of the most difficult things for successful people to do, but I believe it’s also one of the most crucial skills in productivity!