Clean To-Do List

This is the third step in my productivity journey – we’ve already looked at cleaning your inbox, cleaning your calendar – this week I’m looking at creating a ‘clean’ to-do list.

How can you know what you need to do next, if you don’t know what you need to do?

When I talk about ‘clean’ to-do lists, I’m talking about a complete task list that gives you all the information you need to know about your outstanding actions, and helps you prioritise in a way that will achieve your goals.

We’ve all been there – a task list in your notebook, one on Outlook, one on the back of an envelope, with a bunch of emails waiting your attention and no time to get into any of these because you’ve got back-to-back meetings! So let’s have a look at my strategies to help you nail down your task list and increase your productivity.

Go ‘Online’

My first strategy is to keep all of my tasks in one place, on a computer. This isn’t to say notebooks / paper don’t have their place (how do you get your actions down in a meeting otherwise?), but I would add these notes to my master list once I’m back at my desk.

The key reason is productivity. When you have filled a page with all your actions and started to cross them off, at some point you will need to rewrite out the incomplete actions onto a new page. Not only is this going against Golden Rule #1 Don’t Do it Twice, but you’re actually spending more time rewriting the less important tasks out over and over again.

Computers allow cut/copy/paste from easy keystrokes, so if you do need to move lists it becomes super-quick. I use Microsoft Outlook as my email/calendar and task manager and it works just fine for me. You may have a different email client which you could use, or even just keep a list in a notepad editor. Plenty of bespoke software also exists – Evernote, Omnifocus – just do a google search for to-do list and you’ll be inundated.

Leverage your smartphone

This tip does require you to use a program to store your list that can be synced with your smartphone. For me, Outlook 2010 offers a syncing protocol named ‘exchange’, which allows me to view and edit my emails, calendar and to-do list.

Having your to-do list in your pocket is a seriously good idea if you’re worried about being productive. This is a great way to use up some of that dead time while waiting for your meeting to start or in the queue for coffee (happily fulfilling Golden Rule #2 Save a Little Time All of the Time). Even if you are simply refreshing your memory of outstanding tasks this helps focus your mind and get you ready to complete your tasks.


You’ve probably heard of SMART objectives – that is:

Realistic and
Time Bound,

and I would recommend applying a scaled down version of this to your tasks. Make sure that you are SPECIFIC by including an unambiguous title, and TIME BOUND by ensuring you have a due date included. I then also include IMPORTANCE (High or Low) and a CATEGORY. These steps take less than 10 seconds at the point of creating the task and make sure that all your relevant information is where it needs to be – on your list!

Remove Dependency

Oftentimes you’ll find that one of your deliverables has a dependency on somebody else (e.g. a report from Jim that you need in order to make a recommendation to Neeru). But before you are dependant on Jim, you need to tell Jim what you need. Therefore, you are actually dependant on YOU.

At the point of creating the task ask yourself the question “do I need anything from anybody else?”. If the answer is yes, send your request out NOW, giving timeframes and reasons for the request. There; you’ve just removed the dependency from you and transferred it to Jim. Sorry Jim!

How many times have you had people running up to you saying “Hi – I need you to do XXX for me – and I need it NOW”? They will often have known about the deliverable for weeks – and their own poor time management is now being passed onto you. Don’t let this be how you behave – and DON’T accept this behaviour from anyone else.


I’ve talked about 4 specific strategies that should help you make sure your task list is lean and clean and ready to go; I’ve recommended keeping the list on a computer, leveraging your Smartphone, ensuring that you are SMART and reducing your inherent dependencies on your to-do list. I hope you have enjoyed reading this post, and hopefully you will be able to put some of these ideas into practice to increase your productivity – freeing up your time to concentrate on the things that matter!

Oli Note: I use Outlook 2010 at work, and I make sure that this is the one place I can go for guidance on what I need to achieve. It allows me to turn emails into tasks, and link due dates with my calendar. It also allows categorisation which helps me invest my time across my different work streams appropriately.

Other resources

One of my favourite management theory books is by Stephen Covey, and is called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. This for me was a game-changer and has hugely improved my time management and effectiveness.

The new buzz on the street is about Getting Things Done: How to Achieve Stress-free Productivity – an approach by David Allen. This is what all the cool productivity kids are talking about.

If you’re more of a click-click person, have a read of this blog from Mindtools, talking about to-do lists. It really is a comprehensive read, and backs up and expands on many of the themes in this text.