The Second-worst Task List App

Second-worst Task List App

If there is a second-worst task list app, there must be a first-worst, right? Yes — it’s your mind. It’s really good at many things, but managing your task list is not one of them. You know that already. You wouldn’t be reading this without already having a calendar and some version of a task list. So let’s assume that you are not using your mind as a task list. Maybe you’re even regularly doing a Mind Sweep to externalize your ideas, as well as capturing potentially actionable thoughts as they occur to you throughout the day. Good for you.

For several reasons, my nomination for the second-worst task list app is an inbox with stuff that’s been there more than 48 hours. I use the email inbox as an example here, but you can probably apply this reasoning to other places where your inputs show up and need to be clarified. Here are some reasons the inbox is a poor list manager.

1. You need to keep rereading at least the subject lines of the first screen of emails, which uses your valuable time inefficiently. If there’s more than one screen, you are likely scrolling into the past fairly often, to scan those older emails.

2. You may be opening, rereading, then closing the emails to remind yourself what they’re about.

3. If they were easy to clarify, such as obvious candidates for filing or deletion, you would already have done that. But they require some amount of additional thinking, and you may have negative self-talk about what that thinking will lead to. Each time you reread and close without going through the clarifying questions, it reinforces that the email is unpleasant in some way.

This is a case where practice makes perfect. The more you practice the rereading but not clarifying, the more that becomes a habit. If you are habituated to using the inbox as a set of reminders about what work you should do, an empty inbox will feel a little — or a lot — uncomfortable. Here are some suggestions for getting to zero and getting comfortable working from zero.

Use the GTD clarifying questions. What is it? Is it actionable? If no, what should you do with it (trash, reference, incubate)? If yes, what’s the next action (do it, delegate it, defer it to your Next Actions list). Give yourself time to objectively think about the questions as you clarify each item. That can prevent any negative self-talk from derailing you.

Use descriptive verbs for your next actions and projects. Use verbs that describe what doing looks like for the next actions, and what done looks like for the projects. Moving items from your inbox to your lists is good, and naming them so you are attracted to your lists is even better.

Apply the two-minute rule. It can be tempting to veer off into doing instead of clarifying your way to an empty inbox. If you use a timer you may be surprised that you start what seemed like a less-than-two-minute action only to find it taking longer. Your smartphone probably has a countdown timer to help you calibrate your sense of how long two minutes is.

You may experience decision fatigue as you are clarifying inputs. Watch for signs that you are trying to rush yourself through the clarifying questions, or looking for distractions. You might find it helps to set a time limit, such as 15 minutes of clarifying, then switch to something that doesn’t require you to make decisions for awhile.

Working offline can be helpful, so that new inputs won’t make the finish line of zero a moving — and maybe discouraging — target.

You can also use the GTD Connect Intention Journal to develop the habit of clarifying your inboxes to empty on a regular basis, and getting comfortable referring to your lists when deciding what to do.

Good luck, and keep at it. An empty inbox is not an empty promise. You can be achieving it regularly.

[Note: This post by John Forrister is from the GTD Connect online learning library. Get a free guest pass here.]

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