The Monumental Value of Task List Bankruptcy

About once a year, I review all of my projects, initiatives, and tasks to determine what is still relevant. That description isn’t accurate enough to explain this process. The right way to say it is that I file a form of bankruptcy, admitting there is no possible way I am going to do everything I accumulated as projects, tasks, and interesting ideas over the last year.

I archive Omnifocus, my task manager, and I start with a clean instance.

Why Bankruptcy

If you track all of your tasks as I do, you get a wonderful sense of control and certainty. No loose ends, nothing escapes. In time, however, as lists get longer and projects multiply, you reach a tipping point where you nose-dive into a sense of overwhelm. The list of projects and to-dos grows long enough that it becomes useless to you, even if you are as buttoned-up as I am when it comes to reviewing my tasks and planning your weeks.

The reason for the bankruptcy is that it allows a complete and total do-over. It’s a clean start, enabling you to do the vital work of deciding what you want, and designing your life. It lets you delete all of the things you no longer wish to do or need to do. You also give yourself the time to look at the projects, initiatives, and tasks you are most excited by and reimagine them.

Left Undone

There is no way you can do everything you want to do. It’s likely that you can’t even do everything you need to do (I offer as evidence your email box that presently holds hundreds of unanswered emails and the tasks you would have liked to complete last week, but didn’t). You are always going to have things that you are not working on because something else is more important.

Over time, the importance of some things degrade. Whatever the reason, if they have remained undone, maybe it’s okay that they stay that way. If you want to eliminate a sense of overwhelm, deciding to leave certain things undone releases a lot of the pressure you feel. Removing them from your view and starting over without considering the items you intend to go undone is liberation.

Changing Your Filters

Over time, things change. What once made sense for you is no longer of any interest. The fact that you completed one project may eliminate the need to work on another project that you might have wanted or needed to do. You may have changed your priorities, or you may be compelled by external events to do something that wasn’t even on your radar.

One way to think of this is to imagine filters. Over time, your filters either get clogged up with too many large particles, or they wear out and let everything through. At some point, you have to replace them. Your new filters can eliminate all the things that you no longer want to let through, protecting you from spending your time on things that don’t matter instead of investing it on what matters most.

To-Don’t List Filters

No doubt you have a to-do list. It might be as primitive as a legal pad you rewrite every day, or as sophisticated as a modern task manager (like Omnifocus). But I am doubtful you have a “to-don’t list,” a list that is equally—and some cases, more—important.

I don’t answer all my emails every day. I scan my inbox three or four times a day for anything important enough and time-sensitive enough to require my attention. I process all emails twice a week on Wednesday and Saturdays.

I also don’t take meetings that are not work-related during working hours as a way to ensure I have time for businesses and my clients. Because I don’t allow these things onto my calendar, I have a lot of early morning meetings (very early), and a few calls early on weekends (when everyone who may happen to be in my home is asleep).

These filters are a set of workflow rules that prevent you from losing the time you need for your priorities and designing the life you want.

Routine Maintenance

There are other filters you can create to gain greater control. You can establish routines that eliminate many things that pop up in your life. A standing meeting with someone on your team can allow the person you need to speak with from having to call you or email you, saving those communications for an allotted time (I am big on this strategy, as it allows you to give you time for what’s significant).

You can also aggregate your work, doing all the tasks in some category at one time (that’s what I do with administrative work).

  • If you don’t have a process for collecting all of your projects, initiatives, and tasks, you are always going to feel overwhelmed. You are also going to forget many things you need to do.
  • If you don’t plan your weeks using some hierarchy of values that allow you to determine what you should give yourself over to, you will end up wasting time.
  • If you don’t look at all of the things on your list of projects and task lists, ruthlessly eliminating those that no longer make sense, over time, those lists become meaningless. If you haven’t done something that should have been done a long time ago and it hasn’t made a difference, maybe it doesn’t matter.

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