The Personal Backlog: How I Organize My To-do List

Over the years, I’ve tried a number of different task management systems. Some were paper-based, some were all electronic, and some (highly ineffective ones) were all in my head. Some worked well, others not so much.

I’ve also spent a lot of time reading and thinking about efficiency and effectiveness over the years. That is why we use to-do lists, after all - to be more efficient and more effective. Based on my experience I have concluded that there are three things you must accept in order for a todo list to be effective:

  1. Not everything will get done.
  2. Value matters most.
  3. Goals are more important than tasks.

That first one seems like heresy to some people, including me when I first heard it. Successful people always get everything done, right? Some try to make it look that way but believe me when I tell you that that is never the reality. Effective people get the right things done first, and then everything else is frosting on the cake. That is the key to success, I believe, and also the key to an effective task management system. That’s why value (#2) matters.

Goals is a larger topic that deserves its own post, but in short, what matters is not what individual actions you perform, but what you’re trying to accomplish by taking those actions. Focus on the goals and you’ll get the right things done. Focus on the activities and you’re likely to miss the big picture. Subtle but important.

My Personal Backlog

With all that in mind, I’ve devised and used my own to-do list system over the last couple years. It is based on the idea of the Product Backlog from Scrum, so I call it my Personal Backlog. Basically, I keep a big list of things that need to be done and I prioritize them relative to each other. Then each day I work on the things at the top of the list, i.e. the things that are most important. It doesn’t matter how old they are, how big they are, or how far out the due date is - the most important things always get done first. If that keeps other things from getting done, well… that’s ok because those things were less important anyway.

The Three Folders

To help make sure I focus on value and goals, I organize my list into three folders:

  1. Weekly/Monthly Goals - If you’re familiar with Scrum, you can think of this as my Sprint Backlog.
  2. Things to Do First Today
  3. Tasks

Weekly/Monthly Goals

The “Weekly/Monthly Goals” folder is used to make sure I’m focused on the big picture. Some goals need to be broken down into tasks in order to be achieved, but if you don’t put a name on the goal itself you’re likely to lose sight of it. There’s also a surprising amount of satisfaction to be gained from checking off something you’ve worked on for multiple days or weeks. If you track only the tasks and not the larger goals you can’t experience the joy of achieving the goals; why rob yourself of that?

Things to Do First Today

The “Things to Do First Today” folder may be the most important in terms of effectiveness. At the end of each day I put two or three things in that folder, and then at the start of the next day, I start on those things before anything else. They are literally the first things I do the next day. I don’t get coffee, I don’t check email, nothing else - I start working on those things.

Getting a few small things done first thing every morning primes the pump for the rest of the day. If you spend your entire day working and you don’t actually get anything completed, how do you feel? Not so good. On the other hand, if you start your day by knocking a few things off your list - even if they aren’t the biggest or even the most important things - how do you think the rest of your day is going to go? Start the day by accomplishing something and feeling good about it, and the rest of the day is much more likely to go the same way.

Tasks

The “Tasks” folder is pretty obvious - it’s everything else. As mentioned earlier, it’s prioritized, with the most important things first. Note that important does not mean urgent - it means most valuable. Don’t get caught in the trap of constantly putting out fires - figure out what provides the most value and focus on that.

Within the Tasks folder, I group tasks by High/Medium/Low priority to help make the list more manageable. I reserve the High priority group for things that have a hard deadline within the next day or two; that way I can make sure I don’t miss any deadlines. Most of my tasks reside in the Medium priority group, with the Low priority group essentially being a graveyard… putting something there is basically an admission that I’ve consciously decided I’m never going to do it, but I don’t want to remove it from the list for whatever reason.

Workflow

What does all this mean for my daily workflow? When I’ve finished the items in the Things to Do First Today folder I check my email, then I start on the first thing in the Tasks 2folder. Tasks in the High priority group are addressed as soon as possible; if none of them are completable I move on to the highest-priority task in the Medium priority group. And that’s how my day goes; I repeat the periodically-check-email-and-then-do-important-stuff cycle throughout the day to make sure I’m responsive to everyone else but still getting my own work done. And more importantly, to make sure I’m getting the most valuable work done!

Emails Are Tasks!

A task, for the purposes of this system, is anything you have to do except read incoming email. For me that includes things like recurring meetings; weekly or bi-weekly reports; questions that need to be asked periodically, and maybe most importantly, email responses that require more than two minutes to compose. When I receive an email, if I can respond to it right away I do; if I can’t I create a task for it. Then I prioritize it against all the other tasks on the list and I don’t respond to it until I’ve taken care of all the other things that are more important. I do try to be as responsive as I can to email, but the reality is that not all email is critical. Just because someone sends you an email does not mean it’s more important than all the other things that are already on your list, so don’t drop everything to respond to it!

As you have probably guessed, I manage my list electronically. I think this is a must - priorities change and tasks come and go too fast to manage a list like this on paper. Tight integration with email is important for me too because of the amount of email I send and receive; being able to create tasks from new emails is essential.

Conclusion

The Personal Backlog works very well for me. It makes sure I’m always focused on the most important tasks while also making sure that I don’t lose sight of the goals that those tasks really exist to support. As a bonus it prevents me from getting lost in my email, which is a common time sink for many people (including me on bad days). I highly recommend it if you’re looking for a new way to manage your todo list or just to make yourself more effective.

Images used in some versions of this post are courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net