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The Next-Do List


I have a million projects going on all at the same time.

Okay, maybe not a million. I did make a list recently though, and I came up with eight significant ongoing projects that are all outside of my regular official job. The list included side jobs, personal projects, and school projects (with Courtney). It didn’t include things like “take out trash” or “buy batteries” or things like that. My goal was to identify the things in my life that require a significant time investment over a long period of time. These are the projects that weigh on my mind when I think about them, and think about how much I have left to do on each one.

Even if you only have one such project in your life at the moment, it is really easy to feel overwhelmed. I have eight of them, and in the last two days, I’ve come up with two more that I might need or want to add. Some of you may have even more, if you were to make a list. Lists help bring clarity to a vague feeling of dread, but even if you have a list, it’s really easy to get discouraged by a lack of noticeable progress. The more stuff you have to do, the more impossible it seems to accomplish any of it, let alone all of it.

So how do you turn a monster list (or vague sense of suffocating responsibility) into something manageable?

One approach (which has a lot of merit) is to break apart each large task into many smaller tasks, which are easy to grasp and accomplish. Simply repeat the process for any “sub-tasks” that are still too large for a single bite of time, and you will end up with an outline describing the whole project in very small pieces. This works out wonderfully in the planning stage and creates something you can refer to at any time. However, it still leaves you with a very long and potentially intimidating list of 100 small things instead of 10 big things.

Depending on your personality, that may be just fine for you. If you can work effectively off a multi-project outline like that, then by all means, go ahead. My own ability to make progress from that sort of list depends on some unfortunately subjective things, like my mood and rapidly fluctuating interest level, as well as my availability at any given time.

So what else can help change an intimidating list into a manageable one?

For me, it is critical to add focus to the detail. I rarely have trouble with the detail part—creating the outline I described above. I can break apart big tasks into ridiculously small pieces if I need to without much difficulty. But a detailed project outline doesn’t give much direction in itself; there is no inherent focus in an outline. It’s really easy to add though. Just look through your outline and pick the next thing that you need (or want) to do to make progress on the project. That’s it. The beauty of this approach is that you can even skip the whole outline process if you need to. For really complex projects, I wouldn’t advise it, but for most things, you can get away with focusing only on the next small task for any given project.

This is what I call a Next-Do List. Instead of the traditional to-do list, which usually aims to catalog everything you need to do (large or small), the next-do list is only for big projects, and it includes only the next small task to accomplish. This means that the list will always be short, and will always tell you exactly what to do to make progress, no matter how large the project is.

In order to use a next-do effectively, it is important to follow only two rules:

  1. For each project, have only one task on the list.
  2. When you complete a task, replace it with the next most important small task (either from your project outline, or just think of it on the spot).

You can do more than one task at a time if you want, but it might also be helpful to limit yourself to one task for each project at a time. This ensures that you don’t fall into the “oh-no-too-much-stuff” trap again. It is important to set boundaries on yourself that will keep you from feeling powerless.

Of course, this kind of list doesn’t give you a complete picture of a project, but you don’t always need to see that. In fact, it’s often easier not to see that, if you’re the type to become overwhelmed with multiple and/or large projects. Just think of each task as a battle, and if you win the battles, you will eventually win the whole war even if it takes a very long time. You can have one really good strategy session (outlining your projects), but then switch to tactical mode. That’s when things actually get done.

Give it a shot if you feel so inclined. You may end up getting a lot of stuff done.

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Jason Rowberg March 21, 2010 - 8:16 pm

Those are some really good tips, Jeff. I know that time management is one of my issues, so this may come in handy for me. I have one concern with the “pick the next thing you can think of that you want to do” approach, because it’s one I use all the time. But I wind up in the “killed all the bots on the level but never found the red key” syndrome. That represents a significant misuse of my time.


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