Systems & Tips

Be Quick and Thorough: Getting Started with Task Lists

Getting Started with Task Lists

Right now, you have a mountain of tasks that you’re trying to manage. From today’s to-do list to remembering those appointments and obligations for the next few months, there are a lot of activities that we all need to keep track of in order to maximize our effectiveness.

There are a few different approaches to organizing this avalanche of tasks. We each have our own unique situations and personalities, so we’re not looking for a one-size-fits all solution – but the one that works for us.

Here are some thoughts on basic lists and task management ideas that you can think about and tailor to your individual needs.

The Importance of a System

First off, do you even need a system at all? Absolutely yes!

A few years ago, I woke up in the middle of the night with a gasp. For some reason, I remembered at that moment a task I had committed to – once which I had totally forgotten about up until then. My heart pounded, the sweat started to roll. My memory had failed me.

I’ve talked before about capturing ideas as they come to you. The system helps you keep all of your ideas and tasks organized so that nothing slips between the cracks.

This not only keeps you from dropping the ball, but it helps you work without the nagging worry that you’re forgetting something. And the biggest benefit is that you can make wise decisions about how to spend your time when you can easily take a look at everything that’s on your plate.

General Principles

And seeing what’s on your plate is where the system organization comes in. We need to classify all of our tasks so that we can see what we want to when we want to – and nothing else.

Work that you absolutely have to do today needs to be in a different place from appointments that you have set six months from now.

This will lead to different lists. You may have one list of current crucial tasks, another list for things to tackle next week, and yet another list of optional things that you may or may not ever get to.

If you only had one list, can you imagine how cumbersome it would be to see what you needed to do today? This separation of lists allows you to look at the lists quickly and make wise decisions about what to do at any given time.

The lists work together. One way to think is not that you have separate lists, but that you have one system.

The sum total of all of your lists is the sum total of what you want to remember, but the tasks are separated on the different lists depending on how you want to remember them.

You have one location for urgent items, one for optional items, etc.

In a review session – whether that’s done daily, weekly, or less often – you’ll look at these lists and move things around appropriately from list to list.

Approaches to Different Lists

Here are some various types of lists that people use to keep track of their tasks. Some work for me; some don’t.

Again, think of these as different parts of your one system – mix and match the parts as you feel would work best for you.

Next Action List (Organized by Context)

This is one of the defining points of the GTD system, but it’s one I honestly don’t worry too much about. I don’t use this list – at least not in the way that GTD outlines.

GTD recommends that you think about the various tasks you need to do and boil them down to their very next action. So instead of “work on project with Ted,” you would consider the next concrete action – which might be something like “Call Bob about the data to give to Ted.”

Then, arrange these next actions by context. Phone calls may go in one folder, another folder could be tasks for the office, another folder could be tasks to do at home, etc.

Project List

If you keep a next action list, this is a worthwhile accompaniment.

You can imagine how keeping track of next actions can get confusing when a project involves multiple steps. This list is a master list of those larger tasks, so that you can check every now and then and make sure you have the appropriate next action in your next action list.

I don’t use a next action list in the way that GTD recommends, so I don’t use a project list. But perhaps it works for you.

Crucial Today List

This (and the Opportunity List below) are what I use instead of the GTD Next Action and Project lists. My approach is taken loosely from Michael Linenberger’s Master Your Workday Now system.

It’s pretty simple – this is simply just a list I make daily of the things that I absolutely need to tackle that day. It’s not a list of what I’d like to do, but what absolutely needs to get done. They are my “A1” priorities.

The key is in separating the truly crucial from the merely urgent. And here’s how I go about doing that.

Opportunity List

This list is for the important things I want to accomplish after knocking out my Crucial Today list.

I normally keep activities from about two weeks into the future on this list. I don’t worry about breaking things down into next actions.

Someday / Maybe List

This list is essential to my system. When we capture our thoughts, we will inevitably have ideas for wonderful things to do in the future. These are tasks that we want to do someday… maybe.

This list basically serves as a filing cabinet for ideas so that we don’t clutter up our more immediate to-do lists. The better we are at utilizing this list, the purer we can keep our other task lists.

Review this list occasionally (some advocate weekly) and move tasks onto your immediate lists if you want to get to them in the next two weeks.


The calendar is for date-specific tasks, such as appointments. Most people recommend using the calendar only for “hard” appointments, and I agree. This is not for things you’d like to do on a certain date.


The tickler file goes closely with the calendar. A tickler file is simply just a way to remind yourself of things in the future – from tasks that you’d like to take on to information such as birthdays and anniversaries.

There’s a lot of variation in tickler lists depending on the individual. Some like to keep a lot of tasks in the tickler. I personally prefer to keep tasks in my Someday/Maybe list, my Important Today list, and my Opportunity List. I use my tickler more for information, such as when my favorite artist’s album is coming out or when my grandmother’s birthday is.

What lists have you found work for you? Do you agree or disagree with keeping any particular lists?

PhotoCredit: John Schultz (Creative Commons)

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