How to write structured to-do lists?

After creating the habit of using to-do lists, they can get messy. What to put into a task management app? Where to start when structuring tasks, sub-tasks, and projects? Most apps have a variety of features, but it is hard to use them properly, especially for a beginner.

Especially if having a large amount of tasks, to-do list apps or task management systems can get out of hand. There are many things to do at once, but not everything can be done at once. Maybe stuff cannot even be done because something else needs to be finished first. Maybe there is a date attached, from when a task can be worked on.

Having a proper structure helps to create trust in the system and workflows, gaining security. It helps to be reliable and not forgetting tasks. Finally, it helps to tackle work which would be overwhelming, otherwise.

Task or not?

When structuring the to-do list, it is important to think about which things are actually tasks, and which are not. A task is something to do, an action. Things, which are not tasks, are not supposed to be in the task manager. This avoids noise and things get messy.

The previous advice sounds both helpful and too abstract, so what does it mean? An example of something, which is not an action, is a calendar entry. Attending a meeting is not a task and does not belong in a task manager. This is a reminder, but not something doable at any time – except for the literal time slot, where the meeting is held. Preparing a meeting, however, is a task. Now this needs to be done. Probably available at any time, and even has a fixed deadline.

As a rule of thumb, it really helps to think of it in verbs. If always starting the task title with an action verb, most mistakes can be implicitly avoided. “Prepare,” “Write,” “Reply to,” “Make,” “Check out,” or other words at the start of a task title can implicitly help with straight-lining task structures. The same thing can usually also be applied to project titles (“Renovate the veranda.”)

One thing to avoid is open-minded tasks. A task with the title “Think about life” will probably never be finished. Generally, verbs like “Think,” or “Consider” should never belong in a task title – and while they might fit a project title, avoiding them altogether can be a good habit.

The ideal task

If considering the open-mindedness of a task, another point to keep in mind is the length of a task. While “Renovate the veranda” is a great project title, this might not be as good when selecting a task title. It is actionable, but probably cannot really be finished in one go. Tasks should be one thing to do.

Single tasks should be split up and as defined as possible. Ideally, a task is easy to finish, with a clear goal.

2-minute rule

In the Getting Things Done® book, there is a famous rule called 2-minute rule. The book says, that if a task is finished in less than 2 minutes, it is better to do the work directly, than entering a task into the system.

This is a good rule of thumb, but should be followed cautiously. The quote does not mean that anything less than 2 minutes work should be done whenever something pops into ones head. That would mean constant procrastination of current work because every tiny thing popping into the head would have a higher priority than the current task.

It is meant for time working at the productivity system. Rather than creating a project, thinking of sub-tasks, keywords and the proper order to tackle this piece of work – if reasonably doable in a short time frame, doing it directly would take less time than the productivity workflow overhead introduced by entering the task into the system.

On the other hand, productivity systems shine for everything which is not done in a few minutes. Cutting work tasks into tiny bits to tackle, one by one.

Reference lists

There are things, which might be tasks, or not, depending on personal preference. For example, reading a certain book. While this task title is open-minded, keeping a list of books to read might be something wanted. These lists are typically called reference lists. With lots of entries, such a list could be noise or something useful for later reference.

If having such tasks in the task management system, it is important to set them up as paused projects or having a context or keyword to filter them properly. There are more details on this below or in my article dedicated to avoiding noise and distraction in task management.

Creating a hierarchy in the to-do list

The first thing to keep in mind is the general structure. The start is a checklist. For example: Buying milk, checking the bank account.

As described above, bigger tasks should be split up as much as possible. Everything is ought to be doable in one go. This often creates the need for more structured to-do lists. One way to do that is to introduce a deeper hierarchy. There are a few situations where structured hierarchies make sense.

Projects Multiple tasks usually have a common main goal and thus can easily be grouped together. An example of that would be Renovate the veranda. This would make for a great project, but not so good task title. What does that mean?

Open-minded tasks like these can be divided into smaller things. Then, they tend to be much easier to tackle. A project creates an easy view on a larger task. It will be easy to grasp all steps needed to finish this project. For example:

  • Renovate the veranda
    • Finish a rough draft
    • Buy wood
    • Buy paint
    • Ask in home-center when the furniture will deliver
    • Make an appointment with flooring company

Subtasks Another way to introduce complexity are subtasks. Many apps support these in one way or another; sometimes even in multiple levels. The idea is pretty much the same as for projects, just introducing another layer to work with. In the previous example, one could do this small adjustment:

  • Renovate the veranda
    • Finish a rough draft
    • Go to the home center
      • Buy wood
      • Buy paint
      • Ask when the furniture will deliver
    • Make an appointment with flooring company

This makes it clearer, which tasks belong together, or can be done in one run. Another option would be to create another project, just for going to the home center. Explore with different ways to structure task lists, to see what works best for you.

Areas of Life The last layer of abstraction which might come in handy would be areas of life. These are a from different from projects or sub-tasks. These are not even actionable in any form. It is more of a form of filtering or sorting different projects into different situations. An example of an area would be Work, School, Private or Home.

This can usually be achieved with folders or separate task lists. Many apps have features for this, but when in doubt, it would also be possible to even use two different apps or accounts for this.

When splitting tasks and projects into different areas of life, it is much easier to separate work and private life.

  • Home
    • Renovate the veranda
      • Finish a rough draft
      • Go to the home center
        • Buy wood
        • Buy paint
        • Ask when the furniture will deliver
      • Make an appointment with flooring company
  • Work
    • Prepare the quarterly report
      • Look up the correct numbers
      • Finish the first draft
      • Check draft with boss
    • Reply to email from Mike

When at home, only the upper half is of interest. When at home, the lower half can be in focus.

The previous examples outline a certain issue with this approach. This behavior can get deep quickly. Depth is not necessarily available as it creates complexity. Thus, such a style can easily get overwhelming and less helpful.

Both flat task lists and deep task lists can be helpful for different use cases. Play around with them to check out, which suits you best.

Setting metadata

When entering tasks, there is a variety of things to set. All of these are called meta-data: Dates, comments, keywords, priorities. The list might vary, depending on the task management tool of choice, but there are always a lot of things to set. Which one is important, which one is not?

Purposes of dates

Usually, it is possible to attach at least one or two dates to each task. The most important ones would be a start and due dates.

Due dates are simple: They are deadlines. They should be hard deadlines. Only set a date if something is really a deadline. If not, it will result in a pattern where every single date is postponed every day, because there is no meaning to set it in the first place. A due date is not an I want to finish this by that date. It means This needs to be done by that date.

The start date serves a different purpose: They are effectively hiding tasks. A thing which cannot be done before a certain date should receive a start date. This will remove it from the task list – usually being hidden somewhere in the back-end of the task management tool. If the start date comes, the task will appear. Apps, which are targeted at Getting Things Done workflows usually have this feature in one form or another (OmniFocus, MyLifeOrganizedGTDNext, NirvanaHQ.)

On top of that, there are reminders. Task management and reminders are fundamentally different. A task management application shows tasks, which are due at certain times – basically deadlines. A reminder application reminds you of things. Therefore, a due date should not be confused with a reminder. A reminder could precede a coming deadline.

Some apps support reminder dates in addition to a due date (e.g. MyLifeOrganized,) but it fundamentally depends on your workflow. The mobile operating systems ship with a rudimentary reminder app (e.g. Apple Reminders.) There are also apps targeted specifically at reminding, like Due. An app like Due can be used in addition to a full task management suite. This makes it easy to set up reminders for various things whether they are actions or not.

Last, there are recurring dates. This is a helpful feature for repeating tasks. Let’s say, washing curtains, cleaning your fridge or basement. You probably would not want to do it weekly, but if only doing it at irregular times, it is easy to lose track of it. Create a recurring task for washing your curtains all 6 months, and it will never be forgotten.

Keywords

To make search and filtering of tasks as helpful as possible, keywords are powerful. Keywords can be used in forms of tagging, contexts or simple text flags in the task title.

When selecting tags, there is a variety of ways to choose from:

State of mind Our favorite. Selecting keywords based on how much effort is needed to finish a task. If exhausted, one cannot do high concentration tasks anymore, but there are a lot of other things, which might still easily be doable. The tags could look like this: Exhausted/Braindead, Routines, Light Focus, Full Focus. One blogger which uses this kind of approach is called SimplicityBliss.

Priorities Ranking each task according to its urgency makes it easy to filter or search for important tasks.

Tools It might be helpful to sort tasks by the tool needed to finish these tasks. This could be something like E-mail, Telephone, Computer, or Internet. Then, when being close to a telephone, filter all tasks with the telephone tag.

Location Flagging a task with a location can be helpful for things, which are strictly only available at certain locations, like handing in documents at an office. A good start would be Home, Office, City, or Supermarket.

In some applications (e.g. MyLifeOrganized, OmniFocus,) location tags can be attached to GPS coordinates. When reaching that location, the user will receive a push notification with all tasks available at that location.

Conclusion

Having a good structure is important to profit from using a to-do list. But when neglected, the list gets cumbersome to use, and no work will be done.

First, it is important to think about which tasks to enter and how to name them. Think of actionable task titles and make sure that every task has its meaning. If something is more of a calendar entry or reminder, put it in a different application.

Second, a hierarchy of projects, tasks and sub-tasks will allow giving your work a structure. When set up in this way, doing work is a matter of following the list and checking everything done.

When entering tasks, set up start and due dates as needed. If deadlines can be seen at a glance at any point, it is not possible to forget something important. Every task should be flagged with keywords, which allows it to be searched and filtered.

A regular review and proper filtering are helpful to win the fight against information overload. I discussed on this in my article on reducing noise in task management.


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See Also

The Inbox in task management

When working with an app like Things 3 or OmniFocus 2, one will quickly notice the folder in the top, called “Inbox.” …

Reducing noise in task management

A task management software is designed to be helpful. To remove noise from life. But when not organized properly, it can …

How to find the best to-do list to boost productivity

When looking at options for to-do lists, there are so many tools. How to choose the right one? What are the best options …


About the author

Marc A. Kastner
Marc A. Kastner

Marc is the founder and editor-in-chief on Productived.net. He is computer science researcher and PhD student in Nagoya, Japan. Always interested in improving his own workflows, he is on the journey to discover new productivity utilities. On Productived.net, he writes articles on productivity and digital workflows.

Twitter: @mkasu | E-mail: marc@productived.net

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