Taking Control of Your Task List

If you are anything like me you have a task list. Task lists come in many shapes and sizes. You might keep your list in Outlook’s To-Do bar or you might write it in a pocket sized notebook. Your list might be short and sweet. Or it may be a monstrous collection of things to do. Regardless of what your list looks like, it should have one primary purpose for its existence. Your task list is there to help you get things done.

After years of making lists and failing to finish them, I realized that I needed to manage my task list differently in order to accomplish all my responsibilities. I figured out that the list itself was not to be blamed for my failures. The problem lay with my time management skills and my misunderstanding of what a task really was.  Let me introduce you to 3 simple things I figured out. These strategies will not only ensure the completion of your list but also give you more control over of your time.

1. Categorize your task list and evaluate projects into actionable items

Adding categories to your list is an excellent way to bring order to your tasks. Larger projects make great categories to help keep your list organized. Splitting your task list into categories will allow you to see exactly where you stand with all your current projects and show you exactly what the next actionable item or task is for completing those projects.

For example, let’s say I had been hired to do a redesign for a small company’s website.

The item I placed on my list was:

a.       Redesign ForExample.Com Website

Can you see what the problem might be with that item as a task? The “Redesign ForExample.Com Website” item on that list is not a single actionable task to be completed. That redesign project is probably going to take multiple steps to accomplish, and would probably be better as a task category. My task list should probably look more like:

Redesign ForExample.Com Website:

a.       Read ForExample.Com Design Brief

b.      Call Joe Doesky regarding ForExample.Com design brief

c.       Create ForExample.Com Color Scheme

d.      Design New ForExample.Com Logo

e.      Create ForExample.Com PSD Design Mock-Up

As you can see, I have evaluated the project into what I like to call actionable items. They are listed under the category “Redesign ForExample.Com Website”. This allows me to see what the next step is in completing the ForExample.Com redesign and allows me the benefit of checking off finished project tasks, which will motivate me through the projects completion. Remember, a task is an actionable item like making a phone call, reading a memo, or sending an email. It is a single item for your list. Projects make better categories for your list than actual tasks.

2. Schedule individual tasks on your calendar

Another huge mistake I made in managing my task list was failing to plan an execution time for each task. I would try to start at the top of the list and work my way to the bottom. The problem with this method is, without planning I cannot tell whether there is enough time in my day to complete all my tasks.

The biggest rule of thumb for practicing a productive lifestyle on a daily basis is remembering that there are only 24 hours in a day. No matter how many things you have to complete, you cannot change that simple rule. You will never be able to make a day last 26 hours in order to get things done.  I would also probably be correct in assuming that when you started your day there were already things you needed to complete during the next 24 hour period. Scheduling these tasks onto your calendar will guarantee that you have set enough time aside to accomplish what needs to be accomplished.

This strategy will also give you the ability to manage your time much more efficiently. Having your tasks scheduled on your calendar will allow you to know whether you are able to accept more responsibilities and work. If you only schedule your appointments your calendar might look rather empty and looking at the empty calendar might lead you to believe that you have a lot of free time.

For example, Sandy Sampleton calls you and requests to meet with you somewhere around 3:00pm. You might think that You have time to meet with her if you are looking at an empty calendar, which only shows a 10:00am appointment and the staff meeting at 2:00pm. The calendar does not show you that  if you meet with Ms. Sampleton at 3:00pm you won’t have time to complete your tasks for the day.

If you have your tasks scheduled on your calendar you will notice that from 3:00pm to 5:00pm your time is actually allotted to something else and that you do not have time to meet with Sandy Sampleton.  By scheduling your tasks you eliminate the possibility of overbooking yourself. On top of that, you now know exactly what you’re going to do today and when you’re going to complete it. Awesomely enough, you’re going to accomplish a bunch of items on your list. In Outlook it is even possible to drag your tasks directly from the To-Do bar onto your calendar, making it extremely simple to schedule them for completion.

3. Keep your lists and calendars synced

In today’s tech crazy world it seems like everybody has a smartphone or a netbook. This technology allows us to be more productive than ever by keeping our task lists, calendars, and contacts up to date no matter where we are. I personally sync my Palm to my PC on a daily basis. Having your task list with you everywhere allows you to get things done when you find yourself with free time throughout the day.

Let’s say for example that you are headed to the train station to pick up a colleague returning from a business trip. When you arrive you discover that his train is running 30 minutes behind schedule. You get upset with the train company because you believe they have just wasted 30 precious minutes of your day. Why couldn’t they have just kept the train on schedule? Now you’re going to have to sit around for 30 minutes waiting for your colleague’s train to arrive and getting nothing done.

That is unless you’re keeping your task list and calendar synced to your mobile devices. Doing this will give you another option. By Picking up your smartphone and going over your task list you discover that there are three phone calls that need to be made. Having your phone synced with your computer, allows you to search through your contacts and find the numbers for these people and after using the 30 minutes waiting for the train to make these calls you have a few more items checked off as completed on your task list. Syncing your mobile devices allows productivity to follow you everywhere.

In conclusion, task lists are an extremely effective tool in maintaining a productive lifestyle. They can keep track of things you need to do and help you schedule your time more wisely. By scheduling your tasks you will also find that you are able to complete your work at work and leave it there when you head home for the day. It is time to say goodbye to those late night laptop sessions when you should be getting a good night’s rest to prepare you for tomorrow. The best part is you will no longer feel overwhelmed by your list. Instead, through the practice of these techniques, you will discover a new found freedom that your task list actually provides.


Joshua Riddle from www.JoshRiddle.com and www.NorcalTechSolutions.com is a freelance web developer and contributing author. His writing specializes in time management, productivity strategies, technology based tutorials, and work-flow. His development specialties are Web 2.0 style interactive PHP / MySQL database applications.


  1. Wasim Ismail on the 7th December

    Very true, by categorise and syncing your tasks to a mobile device saves me at least an hour or two in a day, as I can complete my tasks, and follow up calls, while I’m travelling between meetings, and sometimes while just waiting around. So when you do get home, you have an extra hour or so, to spend with your family 🙂

  2. Bryce Christiansen on the 7th December

    Thanks for the tips.

    I’ve noticed if I don’t use some of the same tips you describe here my task list grows stale and sits here. Pretty useless when it’s like that.

    One thing I do is to keep a running list throughout the day. Then to go through it and prioritize the list with 1 as top priority items, 2, 3, and so forth. That way when I finish one task I can look for the next priority task without wasting time inbetween deciding what to do next.

  3. Ray Vellest on the 8th December

    Great article Joshua! I constantly find myself rewriting my task list to improve the sense of accomplishment. Having the feel of finishing a task, even if it’s only partial, it’s essential to keep me motivated and productive. Thanks for sharing.

  4. BPGeez on the 1st January

    Great tutorial! I definitely signed up to this site for audiotuts, but I def found a favorite in this writer. Good job.

  5. Vladislav on the 29th December

    Thank you for this nice post, Joshua Riddle!
    It seems that tips you give here are just eternal – they are all true and effective in all terms. Actually decomposing projects into actionable items is the real key to success, even in business organizations where you have to work with multiple employees. I used to be a manager in one company where sending action items to employees (explained in simple and doable terms instead of vague formulations) was a real innovation, and it worked – we obtained a great productivity increase when we start to tell people what they need exactly to do.

    Currently we use special office software to synchronize and coordinate our employees – it allows us to keep our task lists, calendars and projects all interconnected and mutually updated. For those who are interested: it is called VIP Task Manager http://www.taskmanagementsoft.com/ – probably it may help you too in getting rid of business clutter.

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