Who’s afraid of to-do lists? Making tasks that work

List of tasks completedIn my previous post, I described how I get all the stuff out of my inboxes every day. In this post, I’ll describe how I turn all the stuff into a set of proper tasks, and integrate the tasks into my trusted system. This involves another key habit: creating tasks that actually work. This is a matter of making sure that every task I create has certain essential elements.


(This blog series is about habits and personal organisation structures I’ve developed over the years for “sustainable sacrifice” in Christian ministry. They’re specific to my own situation, so if you think any of them are worthwhile you may have to adapt them. For more information about the purpose of this series see the first post: Slip, slop, slap for sustainable sacrifice.)


The elements of a good task

I create multiple tasks each day when I process my inboxes. And every task I create has these elements:

  • The task is an action. This means it starts with a verb.
  • The task is a next action. It’s something I can actually do next.
  • The task follows the two minute rule. It’s something that will take longer than two minutes to do.
  • The task is assigned to one of my commitments. This helps me to organise it in future.
  • The task is assigned to one of my zones. This helps me to decide where and when I’ll do it.

Some tasks also need these elements:

  • If the task is time dependent, it has a defer / due date so it pops up at the right time.
  • If the tasks needs other information for me to do it, it has notes / links attached.

When the task has these elements, the task can be integrated into my trusted system (see my previous post: Building blocks of a trusted system). Without these elements for each task, I don’t have a trusted system–just a bewildering mass of stuff. That’s why this task-creating habit is so fundamental.

(By the way, this is why I’ve found email programs to be pretty useless for keeping track of tasks. Email programs simply don’t allow you to easily assign all these elements. In my experience, a proper task management system like Omnifocus is necessary for a trusted system to work).

A worked example

As I describe these elements of tasks, I’m going to use an example from real life.

A few months ago, a friend asked me in an email how I was going at walk-up evangelism. I think walk-up evangelism is a great idea, and there are plenty of opportunities to talk to people here at Moore College. But it’s not something that comes easily to me, and it’s outside my comfort zone. So I need friends to encourage and remind me–and I need to have it in my diary so I do it! So when I went through my inbox processing at end of the day, this reminder about walk-up evangelism ended up in my Omnifocus inbox:

Walk up evangelism: Inbox

But this isn’t a task. It’s just a piece of stuff. So how to turn it into a task?

Action: Start with a verb

Firstly, the task has to be an action, not just a subject. Grammatically, it has to be an imperative. In simple terms: the task has to start with a verb (= a doing word). If it doesn’t start with a verb, it’s too vague, and it just ends up being a stressful nagging piece of stuff. This might sound trivial, but it really matters. It helps me to clarify what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s definitely worth it.

So, in my example, I added the verb “Get involved [in]” to the item:

Walk-up evangelism task: Action

Next action: Can I do it next?

Secondly, the task needs to be a next action. I needs to be something I can actually do. If it’s not, then it just becomes a stressful nagging thing in my life that makes me feel guilty. If it’s something I can do, I’m far more likely to actually do it rather than feel stressed about it.

In my example, I realised that I couldn’t just “get involved” in evangelism. I had to do something more concrete first. I had to look up the details of when and where walk-up evangelism happens at Moore College, and put it into my calendar. That’s something I can do. So here was my tasks (technically there are two verbs here, but they both happen in one go):

Walk-up evangelism task: Next Action

Two minute rule: Can I do it now?

The two minute rule is part of the GTD methodology. The rule is simple: if a task is so easy that I can do it right now, in less than two minutes, then I should just do it. There’s no point putting the task into my trusted system, because it will take more time to process it to do it.

There’s a flipside to this rule, of course. If the task will take more than two minutes, I shouldn’t do it straight away. Instead, I should put it into the system. That way I can get on with processing my inboxes now, and get the task when I’m in the right zone to do it.

In the example above, I reckoned it would take more than two minutes, because I had to look up the information, and then prayerfully and carefully consider how I can integrate walk-up evangelism into my typical week.

Commitment: Why do I care?

The next thing to do is to assign the task to one of my commitments. A “commitment” is a project or sphere of life that I’ve defined earlier (see my post: Capturing wild commitments). If I don’t have a particular commitment that the task fits into, I first seriously consider whether the task actually matters, and then, if it does, I create a new commitment, and put the task into that new commitment. Assigning a commitment is vital, because it helps me to review the task, schedule it, and generally organise it to fit into life.

What does assigning a commitment to a task actually look like? In Omnifocus, it’s easy: I just fill in the “project” field (in this case “Evangelism”):

Walk-up evangelism task: Commitment

If you don’t have Omnifocus or a similar system, this might involve writing the task down in some place where you keep track of your commitments.

Zone: What zone will I do it in?

Next, I need to assign the task to a zone. This helps me to decide where and when to do the task. For more information on zones, see my post Living life in “the zone”: using zones to regulate life.

In Omnifocus, it’s easy to assign a zone: I fill in the “context” field (in this case, “Pastoral”):

Walk-up evangelism task: Zone

Defer / due: Is it time-dependent?

Some tasks are time-dependent. They either need a defer date or a due date.

First, defer dates: There are some kinds of task that I can’t start until a specific date (or time). But at that specific date it becomes a “next action”. For example, the task “Book the car in for a service”. I should do this when the car needs a service, but not before. I don’t need to be reminded of this task until later. So I assign these kinds of tasks a “defer date” so it remains dormant in my system until it’s relevant.

There are other kinds of task that need to be completed by a certain due date. For example, as a teacher at Moore College, I prepare lessons for students. Obviously, each lesson needs to be prepared before I’m due to give the class! So I need a reminder at the right time. This means I need to assign the task a “due date.” If I don’t assign due dates to these kinds of task, then I spend too much time worrying about all the possible things that are coming up. If I assign due dates, I can trust the system to remind me at the right time.

A word of caution – it’s normally best only to assign due dates for things that are definitely due at certain times. It’s a mistake to put artificial due dates or reminders to cajole myself into do things. This becomes messy and frustrating, and makes for a very clunky system. Instead, this kind of thing can all taken care of in the weekly review (which I’ll talk about in a future post).

In the case of my worked example, there were no defer or due dates.

Notes / links: What info do I need to do it?

Finally, some tasks need extra information to do them. It’s best to make sure this information is available, at my fingertips, when I come to the point of actually doing the task. This involves adding notes or links, e.g. to my email program, Evernote, websites. Many of these links are generated automatically in my earlier inbox-processing stage (see Inboxes. Getting all the stuff out of them. Every day.).

In the case of my worked example, I just added a little reminder of the website I should check out.

Walk-up evangelism task: Notes

Doing the tasks

This how I get every task, multiple times a day (well, most of the time), into my trusted system. It’s a core habit that helps me live a life of sustainable sacrifice.

Of course, the next question is: how do I go about deciding when to actually do these tasks? This is where the “weekly review” comes in. I’ll talk about my weekly review in a future post.

The posts in the series so far

  1. Slip, slop, slap for sustainable sacrifice
  2. Taming the phone 1: Minimising notifications
  3. Taming the phone 2: Putting apps in their place
  4. Building blocks of a trusted system
  5. Capturing wild commitments
  6. Living life in “the zone”: using zones to regulate life
  7. Inboxes. Getting all the stuff out of them. Every day.
  8. Who’s afraid of to-do lists? Making tasks that work
  9. The weekly review: Planning for sustainable sacrifice
  10. The trusted system: a week in the life

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