Organisations are not built on a series of simple tasks that can be checked off on a list. Actions often need multiple people to contribute, not all of whom are the item owner, some actions can only be completed at certain times or are scheduled periodically, some are ‘nice to haves’ and are not critical to core business and some are part of much larger projects.

Business systems not only enable these moving parts to be monitored, they show interrelations, dependencies and allow for prioritisation and efficiencies to be made. Life is just as complex and simple ‘to-do list’ is not enough, you need a system to be able to capture and organise everything.

Why is a to-do list not enough?

A daily to-do list works great for those single action items that only need me to do something. These are things like ‘renew house insurance’ or ‘book appointment for hair cut’. The list falls short however, when you have items like ‘get a quote for fence repair’. The first task can be ticked off when you make the initial request, but the whole action is not complete. You need to wait until you receive the quote, and then will need to action all of the follow-up tasks like comparing costs, checking your budget, selecting materials, booking the work etc.

To-do lists can’t deal very well with scheduled tasks, or projects that are made up of lots of individual tasks. You don’t want to have ‘buy Christmas presents’ on your list in January, and neither do you want to step out every item on your year-long kitchen renovation project.

The to-do list also fails to capture those items that you are not sure you even want to commit to, or are not a priority and you don’t want to schedule. At work, these are often things like reading background material and training, and in personal life are things like ‘try that Malaysian curry recipe’. To avoid creating one huge, rolling to-do list you need an overall system to manage all types of actions and where you know nothing will fall through the gaps.

My system is based on the ‘Getting Things Done’ methodology

There are tons of different organisation systems out there, but my choice is the ‘Getting Things Done’ method. If you haven’t heard of it, ‘Getting Things Done’ (or ‘GTD’ as it’s known) is a system that was developed by productivity expert David Allen. He published his book describing GTD back in 2001, before productivity became mianstream (?) and most of his examples used paper-based folders. Even so, it has stood the test of time as it is easily transferred to a digital system and is flexible enough to be used by pretty much anyone.

The book itself is well worth a read, but the basic premise of GTD is to:

  1. Capture everything somewhere in the system. There should be nothing left that niggles you, and you should never have to say again to someone ‘Oh you must remind me to do X…’.
  2. Organise your to-do items into different categories so you can prioritise what you need to do, and when.
  3. If it takes less than two minutes, do it right away. This is a really useful rule and I apply it to everything so that simple tasks don’t get put off, and my lists don’t end up full of small items.

You can adapt the GTD methodology to suit your own life but this is how I use it. It might seem like a lot of effort to set up, but you only have to do it once and I find that it brings a lot of peace of mind. I rarely forget to do things and can keep on top of the projects and goals that are really important to me. I’m also much more likely to start those things that I’ve always wanted to do but never seemed to get around to.

The GTD system categorises lists according to types of action

My categories are ‘Next Actions’, ‘Waiting on’, ‘Scheduled’, ‘Projects and trackers’, ‘Someday/maybe’ and ‘References and Ideas’. Items under these lists should get moved around according to their status. David Allen also has an ‘inbox’ but I find it more efficient to put items straight into a list.

Next Actions: These are the things that can be done right away. The description should be as specific as possible, for example it can’t be ‘new job’ or even ‘look for a new job’, it should be ‘make a list of companies to research’. They should also be things that you can action, for example don’t write ‘Bank to refund charges’, it should be ‘Call bank to refund charges’. Once the call is made, the item then goes into the ‘Waiting on’ list.

Waiting on: These are items that you are waiting for someone else’s action on. I always put who the item is waiting on, so that you can see at a glance all of the items from the same source. I avoid putting things on here that are not my responsibility and do not directly affect me. You might feel differently if you have kids (or you could create an entirely separate system for them?!) but I feel like this is particularly true for partners. For example, I might have ‘Tell partner about changing to a zero-fee credit card’ in my Next Actions list, but once that is done I don’t put that item into this list. It’s not my business whether or not he changes his credit card, I just wanted to make him aware of the option.

Scheduled: These are things that can’t be done right away and have a date associated with them. Here is where I put things like bills to be paid, which can’t be actioned until my next pay-day, and seeds to be planted which are season dependent. I also have recurring items here, such as regular checklists and my regular budget review.

Projects and trackers: I make a list of all my current projects (things with multiple action items) and things that I am tracking (such as ‘health’ and ‘finances’). This list comes from my values and goals map, plus any additional commitments or projects just for fun.

Someday/maybe: This is the list for anything that doesn’t really need to be done right away, but that you’d like to get to at some point. It is also the home for anything that you are unsure of exactly what the action is, or even if you actually want to commit to doing it. My list includes things like ‘start cycling to work’ (I’m not sure I can handle 12km uphill yet!) and ‘try intermittent fasting’.

References and ideas: This is where you can group anything that you think of that you want to make a note of. My references include my list of ‘regular checklists’, ‘things to pay attention to’ and ‘things I might want to buy’. I also have lists of books I might like to read, plants to try growing, ideas for house renovations and ideas for gifts for people’s birthdays.

Systems need a platform to operate from

Any system needs a platform to work from, and the GTD methodology requires a list for each category (like Trello), a time-specific system (calendar) and a place for references (like Google drive).

Trello: The original GTD used paper based folders, but I much prefer a digital format that I can access on my phone. My choice of system is Trello. Trello is like digital post-it notes that can be organised into lists, and these lists can be organised in separate boards. I like the way you can easily drag items into different lists, you can create sub-lists, you can link to spreadsheets and documents in Google Drive and you can get a mobile version for easy reference. You can also create recurring tasks, for items that need to be done on a regular basis but don’t need a specific time slot.

I have a separate board for my work and personal systems. This is because I have set working hours during which I only do work, and when I leave the office I only do personal things. I’ve noticed that a lot of productivity blogs are made by people who are self-employed and tend to combine all of their to-do lists. It probably is more efficient to do this, however I find it easier to separate work and personal tasks and my full attention is on one or the other.

Shopping list: In addition to Trello, I also have a ‘shopping list’ on my phone notes which is only for grocery items. This is to avoid clogging up my whole life’s Next Action list with things like ‘buy yoghurt’. I have a basic list that I check off every week, and additional ad-hoc items that I add to whenever I think of it.

Calendar: I use my calendar to create meetings and appointments, and reminders for tasks that need to be done at specific dates and times. This is different to recurring tasks where you don’t need to block out time, although that can be useful if you find they keep getting put off.

Google drive: I keep any references in my Google drives, because I can access it from anywhere and I can also link documents to items in my Trello page. For example, my budget spreadsheet is linked to the recurring ‘check budget’ item. I also keep bookmarked web pages as references (such as recipes) just because it is quicker to star them rather than saving a copy of the page. I just make the bookmark folders and project folders in Google consistent, so that I know I only have two places to go looking for anything.

Keep tweaking your system until it feels right

Just like any business system, you will need to keep tweaking your life system until you hit the right balance between capturing enough and being efficient. Look for ways to reduce the time it takes to input tasks, regularly clean out tasks that you know you don’t want to commit to and make sure it is a system for your tasks only.

Further Reading

Disclaimer: I receive one month’s free Gold membership from Trello if you use the link in this post to sign up.