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How to cross every item off your to-do list in one night

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For the entire year that I have lived in this suite, a cardboard-velvet box piled over with envelopes and mail sat on the floor between my filing cabinet and my entertainment unit. Today it is gone because yesterday I took twenty minutes to file it all.

It feels very different in here now. Cleaner karma. Better Feng Shui. It almost feels like I removed something from my head.

That box was, ostensibly, an active part of my “workflow system.” Any file that ended up out of its home was to be dropped in there, the whole lot to be re-filed at the end of every day.

All of the other components of my system have been in a similar state of stasis for a similarly long time. It was months ago that my master to-do list grew so stagnant and irrelevant that I stopped even looking at it, which reveals an interesting fact about our to-do items: they often don’t really need to be done at all.

There are items on it that have been “urgent” for months. I have certainly experienced inconveniences and lost opportunities because of my ridiculous level of procrastination, but clearly none of the eighty forgotten items on my list were life or death, or I’d be dead. Life has been generally pleasant.

So the bulk of my supposed must-do items (and probably yours too) were completely optional, benign opportunities to get ahead, rather than the creeping imperatives they seemed to be.

Still, their undoneness imposes a persistent mental burden, on the clarity of your mind and your self-esteem. Unmet commitments represent personal shortcomings.

I am a career procrastinator. So are many of you, I gather. None of the articles I’ve written has inspired more heartfelt “Oh my god that’s me!” responses than one I wrote about procrastination. In the article I argued that procrastination is not laziness, but a symptom of certain kinds of private fear.

Fear is much less a part of my day-to-day consciousness now than it was when I wrote that. I feel like I’m game to take on my concerns as they emerge in life, including the fuzzier, scarier projects that made my to-do items into more of a permanent collection than a rolling list.

The two approaches

Everyone experiences a steady stream of to-do items in their lives. People generally subscribe to one of two philosophies in dealing with them: acting on them arbitrarily as they become salient, or by using a system to organize them. In other words, they either keep their list of concerns in their head or they put them on paper. 

Some people manage to live relaxed, productive lives allowing their workload to float freely in their minds. They do what needs doing whenever it feels like it needs doing.

For the rest of us, this feels too crazy. It’s hard to walk around with the persistent feeling that you’re not doing something that needs doing. When there are eighty things that feel like they need doing, it’s hard to regard them as a finite list of concerns that can each be dealt with. So naturally, we want to write them down, and see that there are only thirty-seven concerns right now, and you can do one or two or ten today. A list alone constitutes a workflow system.

A system only works when it feels like everything is accounted for somewhere outside your head. Even if your system is a cubicle wall plastered with yellow post-its, if you have faith that it’s all there, and nothing is floating unarticulated in your head that may fall through the cracks, then you can work through them and feel in control.

Most people find that a simple list isn’t detailed enough. It doesn’t articulate priorities, it makes it look like everything is on today’s plate. A lot of people have tiers of lists. A list of phone calls to make. A list of purchases to make. A list of things to do before you die.

Probably the most popular comprehensive workflow system is David Allan’s Getting Things Done. I have long fantasized about mastering the GTD system and the “mind like water” state that is supposed to arise once you’ve properly implemented it. This achievement even had a place on my own bucket list for a while.

The general idea is that you catch all incoming requests on your time in a series of inboxes: mail goes into an in-tray on your desk, email goes into its own inbox, notes when you’re out and about go into your smartphone. Any event that causes a feeling of “I should do something about that” — an order from your boss, an unsettling knock in your car’s engine, or a recurring dream about getting your prostate checked — is written down and sent to its appropriate inbox.

Every few days, you go through these inboxes and decide what you’re going to do about them. There are four options: do something about it right now, decide you’re going to do it later, delegate it to someone else, or decide not to bother doing anything at all.

If you can capture on paper anything that tugs on your conscience, and get it to its appropriate inbox, then you can know that no concern will escape your decisionmaking process. Properly implemented, the GTD system creates a workflow that lets you relax in the moment, knowing that every single concern will end up in front of you at your desk when you are alert and prepared to make a decision on it.

Your habits ensure it all gets into the funnel at some stage. The system hinges on eradicating escapees. If you have a concerning thought and you don’t write it down, some part of you will know that there is a free-floating problem out there that you haven’t addressed, and which could blow up at any time. Your personal world feels dangerous again, out of your sphere of control, and stress returns.

Weekly, you review the whole machine for leaks.

Presumably, once the crucial routines are established, you reach a point of balance, where sharpened habits process the inflow of emerging commitments into completed goals and realized dreams.

I envy people who make this complex system work. When those of us who are attempting to work a system begin to lose control of that system, we end up inadvertently using the other approach — trying to keep all our commitments organized in our heads.

Procrastinators and other people without a track-record of steady productivity will have trouble with GTD, for a particular reason: the system is unsympathetic to your emotional state. If you have any problems with procrastination or motivation, the system will fall apart quickly for you. Slag off one weekly review or let your inbox pile up for a whole week even once, then resuming the system becomes daunting enough that you wait to do them until you have a clear three-hour stretch, and very quickly your workflow system is back to a react-as-it-comes basis.

It’s still totally worth learning GTD, if only so you can use it as a basis for your own system, one that is not so inflexible and doesn’t require so many simultaneous habit changes.

I’m taking a much simpler approach now. Keep all the same inboxes, go through them once a week and put them on a big, single-category list. No more subcategories and priority rankings to get lost in. Look at the list every evening and decide what to do the next day. If I need time-specific reminders I’ll set them up in Google Calendar on my phone. A cabinet for files. A regular day weekly to get up to date.

The problem is that I’ve got a six-month backlog to work through before I can bring this leaner system to bear on today’s concerns as they arise in real time. It’s something like starting your first job, in retail, on Black Friday, when the closer last night forgot to do everything.

How to deal with a stagnant backlog of work in a single evening

In finance, when you need a clean slate, you take the drastic action of bankruptcy. I recently learned of the concept of task bankruptcy. Given that you’ve already delayed a ridiculously long time on an ridiculous number of tasks, you just decide you aren’t going to ever do those things, and you start a list again from zero.

As with financial bankruptcy, there are commitments on your list you won’t be able to reasonably discharge. But these are uncommon. Identify them and decide where to go from here with them.

Everything else is gone. If learning to knit or selling all those boxes of CDs on ebay or assembling the family tree really were important, they will recapture your conscience at some point later in life. For now — and maybe forever — they are no longer important. No need to remember what was once there, what you used to feel compelled to (eventually) do.

You let it all drop, and start from where you are. Those emails will simply go unreturned, those short stories will be allowed to die unfinished, and the world will go on.

After declaring task bankruptcy, I went through all my old “debts” with a sense of detachment and freedom and found that most of them didn’t seem important any more. But until I ceremoniously terminated them, each one had a little hook in my conscience.

Some of them still made sense to do. So I put them consciously, voluntarily on my new list, but only once I had truly cleaned my docket, and only if I felt a fresh commitment to doing them. If it was just lingering guilt, I let them die.

It may not even occur to a lot of people that almost all longstanding to-do items can be abandoned without your becoming a disgraced deadbeat. Dumping them will probably put you immediately into a better position to complete the important things. There will be some repercussions from letting certain tasks die, but they’re probably minor compared to the cost of continuing to bleed.

Streamline the system and declare task bankruptcy. GTD is a robust system that’s designed to catch absolutely everything, and it may be just too much personal bureaucracy for a lot of people. If you’ve been struggling with it, try Leo Babauta’s Zen to Done — a minimalist rebuttal to GTD and its complexity.

If you’ve got an unmanageable backlog, you’re paying all kinds of interest until you’re solvent again. Might as well swallow your pride and begin the rest of your life now.


Photo by purpleslog

JCamasto May 20, 2013 at 12:16 am

A task/debt jubilee!

Nevill Wilder May 20, 2013 at 1:05 am

I did this 2 months ago to my GTD. I must have deleted over 100 action items. IT FELT AMAZING!! I was worried my life would fall apart by pulling the plug on so many things at once, but to be honest they were so unimportant that I don’t even remember what any of them were. My system is streamlined and easy right now. If you’re scared, make a backup and if it’s really bad you can go back to it. Otherwise, delete and move on.

David May 20, 2013 at 8:50 am

No backups! Cut the cord!

Kate @ herenowbrowncow.com May 20, 2013 at 1:16 am

My life is far from streamlined, I’m going to look into GTD. Must get onto it!

David May 20, 2013 at 8:51 am

GTD is great and has changed a lot of people’s lives, but as you’ll see it’s quite a large system. Don’t be afraid to modify it for your own style.

AnnieKate May 20, 2013 at 3:42 am

I go for total simplicity – a notebook with one list of things to do. I read through the list every morning and do what needs to be done and what I feel motivated to do. Whenever I have a break away from home, when I get back I tear out and throw away the list and start again. If something is genuinely urgent or important, it’ll soon be back on the new list.

David May 20, 2013 at 8:52 am

> If something is genuinely urgent or important, it’ll soon be back on the new list.

This is the principle I’m going by now. GTD is about nailing everything down. I could stand to have a little faith I think.

Andrey Lepekhin May 20, 2013 at 3:45 am

Thank you, David! I always look forward to your posts. It makes me happy to read through something so mindful, tangible and clear of clutter. I’ll definetely try to clear my head and inbox from 80+ hooks.

DiscoveredJoys May 20, 2013 at 4:53 am

One of the things I learned working in a big organization was how to deal with a backlog of non-urgent work. If you have a 3 week backlog and tackle the oldest items in order you will always have a three week backlog, or even slip further back.

If however you start dealing with the items as they arrive then you will always be up to date, and be encouraged to be up to date, from now on. It is then much easier to use borrowed staff/agency/overtime to tackle the backlog as a separate issue away from ‘live’ work.

Same with personal ‘to do lists’. Nothing weighs you down like a backlog of tasks… but you have to take care to only take on worthwhile new tasks after declaring ‘task bankruptcy’.

David May 20, 2013 at 8:54 am

I’ve noticed that my job workflow never had this backlog problem, because the business just doesn’t work like that. Everything has to be managed within a few days of it showing up in my inbox, and if I can’t humanly do it then I delegate it. This has actually made it easier than managing my personal workload, because there is much less flexibility in when it can be done.

Maia May 20, 2013 at 6:15 am

Thanks David, you must have so much to do!
Like AnnieKate – I like having a simple list of things I need to do and then tick them off/delete them when done.
I have electronic “post-its” on my computer screen, that works best for me. Some of them stay on there for a while, but eventually they all get done.

What I’d like to organise more is interesting things I see – like articles or a website or a place I want to visit it. I often see these things and think must remember this, but then I throw away the newspaper or whatever I saw it in and it’s forgotten. Have you got any system for that?

David May 20, 2013 at 8:57 am

For online “to read” items, use http://getpocket.com/

You add a tiny button on your browser and whenever you want to read the page later you just click that button, and it stores it all in an online list for you.

Anna May 21, 2013 at 9:07 pm

Great tip! I’ve been using Pinterest to store images and websites but find it too clunky. Getpocket is perfect for storing all the links I come across but don’t have time to read (since I’m busy tackling my own work to-do list!).

Joan Harrison May 20, 2013 at 6:42 am

As soon as I started reading your article I thought about a cupboard I have at home, in this cupboard 11 years ago when we moved in I put ‘stuff’ that I would get back to later when I got the time. It is still in there untouched! I am going in to clear it, I know it is there, so at the back of my mind it has been taking up space for far too long and I obviously don’t need this stuff. Thanks for the reminder:)

David May 20, 2013 at 8:58 am

Amazing how much of life is totally irrelevant when it comes down to it.

Kenneth May 20, 2013 at 1:34 pm

Elaine St. James has a wonderful small book titled Simplify Your Life. Her rule is, if it hasn’t been touched in a year, it is a candidate to be sold, given away or thrown away.

Trish Scott May 20, 2013 at 8:31 am

Task bankruptcy. I like it. It works. I have another term for the same system.

I once had a problem with piles and piles of un-filed stuff. It was in boxes and even in loose piles on the floor of my lair. As you totally understand, it weighed on me heavily. Then a miracle happened. There was a flood! Good by piles of un-filed STUFF! None of it survived! Did I miss it? Not in the least. I have no idea what was in that mess but it couldn’t have been all that important or at some point I would have missed SOMETHING.

So now when I’m going through the all important papers that need filing, I do hang on to them for a few years in a catch all crate, it’s quick work going through it all. What can be easily sorted gets sorted. The rest? I pretend there was a flood! If any official need for paper arises I simply lost it in the flood. I do try to hang on to my birth certificate. Other than that, dang, the flood got it.

David May 20, 2013 at 9:00 am

Beautiful… an Act of God to the rescue. I have heard some flood victims talk about how losing everything finally gave them the clean slate they felt they’d needed for a long time.

cj May 20, 2013 at 9:41 am

An electrifying line here, David: There will be some repercussions from letting certain tasks die, but they’re probably minor compared to the cost of continuing to bleed.

When I run the cost/benefit of letting most, if not all, the items on a list go, it almost always seems like a no-brainer. I let them go and start fresh. Sure, I’ve been haunted by an item I let die, but that is the exception and not the rule. What a great article. Hope you get 222K to read it.

Tammy R May 20, 2013 at 10:07 am

My husband said, Great article on Raptitude today. Being that this is the man who once gave me a Time Management book as a holiday gift, I had my doubts. I went on the Raptitude factor – previously great content, recommendation from hubby, here I am. And he was right. Again.

I am relieved to see the last section. For all of 2013, I am really shunning most to-do lists. This doesn’t mean I don’t make them, but I hover with the pen first. Often, I don’t write it. I only make a list for lessons for my private students, and I don’t make more than five items on my list for the day. When the urge to clean a closet strikes, I’m diving in there. Until then, why stress myself out?

Louise Altman @The Intentional Workplace May 20, 2013 at 10:20 am

What a relief to not find yet another “how to squeeze another minute out of an hour” remedy. I recently wrote an article that suggested we “don’t” have to be “productive” every hour of every day. We’re tethered to these to-do lists and can’t imagine spending a day where “things” don’t get done.
I am sure you are right when you mention private fears that contribute to procrasination. I also think this is true with the kind of relentless “productivity” we see in the western countries, especially the U.S.
There is a kind of emotional freedom that comes from loosening the grip of I have to do this and that. Even for an hour.
Thanks for a very thoughtful post.

Vilx- May 20, 2013 at 10:29 am

I wonder if it would be possible to use the urge-to-procrastinate as a key that an item might not actually be useful to do? Whenever you catch yourself being reluctant about doing some task; or when it has lingered around for a while and you just don’t see when you might get to doing it – maybe that’s the point at which you can/should re-evaluate the task and decide whether or not to drop it right then and there instead of waiting until the next “Bankruptcy time”. (With full confidence that if you didn’t drop it now, it would just wait until Bankruptcy day and then get dropped anyway)

Katherine May 20, 2013 at 1:09 pm

Who doesn’t have that pile of things to do? It’s got the things that wake us up at 3am and we (at least me!) think we need to get up and do right this minute, lose sleep over, but still that task is left undone. Thanks for the reminder that we can give ourselves permission to just junk the list – the truly important things will always be get done.

Kenneth May 20, 2013 at 1:39 pm

“Some people manage to live relaxed, productive lives allowing their workload to float freely in their minds. They do what needs doing whenever it feels like it needs doing.” This is me. I’m at complete peace with doing nothing at all (when I’m relaxing, away from work). I mean I mow the lawn, fix the toilets and outlets, call the insurance guy – whatever needs to be done. I just never put so many things on my to do list that I start stressing over it. I enjoy my life, and am at peace. Maybe I’ll paint the bathroom tomorrow. Maybe not. It’s OK either way.

Nevu May 21, 2013 at 7:26 am

Mind like water! GTD. I am so pleased to be reminded of this and how like an undone thread it has trailed throgh my mind. The book itself has been like the twig that caught the other twigs that helped build the dam. For years it has been on the shelf, picked up, re read and never fully implemented. This is because the initial sift is too mindboggling and falling off the wagon even for a few weeks really does put you back to the beginning. Why does a helpfull book cause us to feel guilty? because surfing round you find feedback from happy implementers with minds like water and then feel guilty when yours feels more sludge ladden; speaking for myself of course!
I am so glad that I read this today. Being here now, mindful cup of tea and top of my rebooted to do list is to donate GTD to the charity shop.
Thanks david

Edward May 21, 2013 at 1:54 pm

I think people often bite off more than they can chew when deciding initially to do a task. It then appears a daunting mountain in their mind. I do my tasks like dripping water. If I decide to wash the walls of my apartment, I’ll come home and wash only *one* wall. Another the next day. Meh, it’s the weekend, I’m not doing anymore washing for a few days… Miraculously, it all gets done. I do that with everything from cleaning out filing cabinets to home repairs to projects at work.

I know there’s an exalting rush to going nose to the grindstone and getting a big task done in one go, but that’s just way too much work for me. I’d rather just chip away at it because I can handle that mentally. …And oddly, I seem to get more done than the average person I know.

Angela Peters May 23, 2013 at 5:36 am

Amazing! Thank you David. Read the post last night knowing I had a little pile of “stuff” sitting in the corner, and thought, nah this isn’t a relevant post for me. Then this morning I looked at that little pile thought “Ah David is probably right”…and I took to the task of getting it all filed. *le sigh*.
Task bankruptcy rocks. It took me less than 10 minutes and I am ready to rock and roll with only one thing left from that original pile!

Procrastination is like sucking on a lemon. I’m so glad it’s over.

Steve Hayes May 23, 2013 at 3:56 pm

I like the approaches you suggested. Really interesting! And your point is very compelling. I also think that instead of keeping a list of concerns in our heads it’s better to put those thoughts into paper so we can forget about them and we can move on to do what need to be done.
Great article!
Thank you!

jane rawlings June 23, 2013 at 11:33 am

Think I’ll leave procrastination till next week.

Kelly July 9, 2013 at 10:05 pm

You have some incredible tips here. I sort of do what you mentioned in one of them by slapping anything to-do on my desktop. Shortcuts to links, text pads, anything that I know will annoy me to see sitting there. I am a frequent recycle bin user. I can hardly walk away with those scattered links and junk all over my desktop, so needless to say, I get things done, even when I don’t want to!

Crispy September 6, 2013 at 11:31 pm

I am trying to implement a lot of the GTD suggestions, and I find that using Evernote as the Mother Of All Inboxes seems to help. audio notes, “share this page” from my smartphone, email-to-Evernote, and the web clipper help me save neat or important things for later. The best part? it’s searchable!! I tend to lose things I can’t see, and then look for them 6 months later digging through all the piles I’ve made since. Evernote’s searchability helps with that.

Sebastian October 26, 2013 at 1:35 am

I used to be very pro GTD as well but there’s no enjoyment to having thousands of short and long term goals and to dos everywhere.

I now simply write the 3 most important crucial tasks for each day that will make me feel great to accomplish. I do those first thing in the morning.

Chase February 13, 2014 at 2:27 pm

I read this almost every time I find myself in need of task bankruptcy. Your words alone are usually enough to start fresh. Thank you.

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