How to hack your to-do list

Bottomless inboxes and endless to-do lists have become the bane of our lives. Trying to keep track of outstanding tasks can be stressful – our attention has a limited capacity and we can only fit so much in our mind at any one time. But help is at hand. Research suggests that rather than removing tasks by actually doing them we just need to have a good plan of when and how to do them. The act of planning how to finish something enables us to let go of uncompleted tasks that are cluttering our memory.

David Allen’s international bestseller ‘Getting Things Done’ provides a practical guide to how to do this. The GTD archive and reminder system acts as a plan for how to release the part of your attention that is struggling to hold each item on your to-do list in your mind. It is based on writing down everything you need to remember and filing it effectively in three main areas:

  1. Archive to store stuff you might need one day (and can forget about until then)
  2. Current task list where everything is stored as an action
  3. A “ticker file” of 43 folders in which you organise reminders of things to do (43 folders because that’s one for the next thirty-one days plus the next 12 months).

Breaking down your to do list into individual actions allows you to convert your work into things you can either physically do, or forget about, happy in the knowledge that these tasks are in the system. Each day you pick up the folder for that day and either action the item, or defer it to another folder for a future day or month.

With the remembering and monitoring taken care of your mind is freed from its tendency to get fixated on unfinished tasks and forget those that have been completed – known by psychologists as the Zerigarnik Effect.

Read more about hacking your to-do list on the Mindhacks blog.

Learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.