managing your todo list: make lists by context, the weekly review, and the annual purge

a few weeks ago, i was talking to my friend miriam about some tips on managing todo lists. i realized i hadn’t written these down so here they are.

separate your todo lists by context

this is a tip i learned from getting things done. putting all your todos on the same list creates clutter and overwhelm. dividing them by context helps cut down on the size of each list. this helps them feel manageable (to a point).

additionally, you should only be looking at tasks in the place where you can make progress on them. this isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it can definitely help. miriam can attest to it.

the weekly review

this is also getting things done thinking. your todo list(s) is only as useful as your brain trusts it (i wrote a full post about this over here). if your brain knows that you add things to your list only for them to never get done, your todo list is no longer a useful tool. this type of system failure looks like (a) your brain beginning to remind you again to do things that are already on your list or (b) you have the same task on your list multiple times.

the remedy for this is the weekly review. once a week, you should be going through everything in your personal system. david allen has a very specific order and routine for this (shared over here). i basically just go through my tasks (parking lot, todos, and doings) and make sure they all make sense or (re)move them if they don’t. knowing that you’re going to do this every week puts your brain at ease. this allows your todo list return to become a functional tool again.

the annual purge

i can’t remember exactly where this came from. i think it’s a mix of a few things, at least one of which is several of my friends who occasionally just delete all their emails. the parallel to the todo list is exactly same and follows the same logic.

basically, once a year, usually right before or right after the new year, i delete (archive on trello) all my todos. at a certain point, the lists just get too long. there are things that are great ideas that you will just never move. and the really important things either your brain will prompt you with again or they’ll come up again in some other way.

this really matters for two reasons. first, it keeps your lists manageable over time. second, it is really important to (viscerally and practically) remember that letting go is the best thing to do sometimes. you can’t do everything, no matter how much you want to. realizing that (really, not just mentally) and then implementing practices based on that knowledge actually feels amazing, too. the freedom to start over is truly liberating.