Optimal to-do list size

January 29th, 2010 by ftobia

I am a list-maker. I enjoy making lists. Getting Things Done (GTD) utilizes lists heavily, and I also enjoy GTD. I’m not sure which way the correlation runs between those two facts. But not all lists are created equal. I think there are very important constraints on the sizes of to-do lists, Next Action lists, and Projects lists, to name a few. For the differences among these types, GTD’s Wikipedia article is a great read — if you don’t care for the distinctions, just think of your own to-do list (and if you don’t utilize a to-do list, may God have mercy on you).

Lists cannot be too long, if you are going to use them effectively. How many times have you created a to-do list for yourself, and everything was going fine for a few days, until eventually you got bogged down and started procrastinating? I find it incredibly easy to convince myself that, paradoxically, I have so many things to do that I might as well not do any of them. This does not bode well for productivity.

Over the last half of last year, I stopped seeing myself as a task-completing machine, who should optimize his throughput of actions for maximal efficiency. I realized that it wasn’t making me any happier, just checking more things off my list, since the other half of the time I was hiding from the morass of tasks. Yet again I’ve remembered that lists are merely tools for being an effective person.

It’s important to keep perspective as you go through life — otherwise you might end up in the wrong place. I realized that it’s not important what actions I complete; it is only important where they are getting me. So, I still use the GTD system, but with a few caveats:

  • I keep a short list, on my whiteboard, of the tasks I should finish ASAP.
  • I make sure this list doesn’t exceed ten or so items.
  • I don’t let any item sit on the list too long: complete it or scrub it.
  • If I let the whole list sit for too long, I have to finish as many actions as possible in the next free moment I get.
  • If the whole list gets stale, I throw it out and start over. They obviously weren’t the right tasks anyway.
  • I warehouse tasks not important enough for my whiteboard list on my Next Actions list.
  • I review my Next Actions list periodically to see if any actions should be whiteboarded. Stale actions get thrown out.

The key change I’ve seen is that my lists are much, much smaller. Constant pruning of my Next Actions list has kept it under 15 items for a few months now. And I’ve never felt better.

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Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.