How to Unfuck Your To-Do List

You probably have a long list of things you’d like to get done on your projects. The type of tasks that will push things forward. Move the needle. Take things to the next level. Open the kimono.

(Sorry, I confused my clichés for a second there.)

But I’d be willing to bet you, like most people, have times where you’re feeling stuck, or distracted. You procrastinate and play video games, rather than tackle the work you know you need to do. You’re feeling the resistance, and the resistance is winning.

Don’t fret. We all have those moments.

In my experience, developers start procrastinating when they haven’t taken the time to think through their tasks deeply enough.

Open up your to-do list. How many items does it have that sound like, “Finish project X” or “Figure out how to do Y”?

Those types of vague, enormous tasks are productivity killers. If your to-do list has more than a couple of them, there’s a good chance you’ve been procrastinating on them for a long time. Or just freaking out inside. That’s usually my approach.

Are you ready to unfuck your to-do list? I am, too.

Here’s a few steps you can take to banish those uber-tasks forever and get back to work.

Break each task down three times

When you’re working on any project, it’s easy to imagine the end product and start feeling overwhelmed.

Let’s say I’m your boss. I’m not sure how I got that particular promotion but stick with me here. If I point at a fancy SUV and say, “Build me one of those,” there’s a good chance you’d start procrastinating pretty damn hard. That’s because “Make an SUV” is a terrible request. Where would you even begin?

But things start to look a lot more manageable when you break it down into smaller tasks. Instead of “Make a car,” you might start with “Learn how a car engine works.” Then you could hit up Google and search for, “How to assemble a car engine.”

After that, you might move on to finding the parts you need, ordering them from Amazon (or wherever you can order car parts from), and — finally — assembling the engine.

Hard tasks, all. But certainly a lot easier to handle than “build a car.”

It’s a silly example, of course. Most of us aren’t building a car from scratch. But you get the idea. Big tasks become easier the longer you spend breaking them down into tiny, tiny chunks.

Next time you’re staring an enormous task in the face, ask yourself what it will take to complete it. Do this three times. Each time you have a new answer, it’s a new task.

If you’re building a chat feature for your product’s website, for example, you’d ask yourself, “What do I need to do to finish the chat functionality for the site?” Maybe the answer would be, “I need to create a new table in the database to store chat messages.”

Awesome. What do you need to do to create a new database table?

“I need to decide on an appropriate schema for the table.”

Okay, cool. I’m obviously skipping some steps here but, by breaking that tasks into tiny pieces, it’s become a series of actionable steps that feel achievable. Working on small tasks is great — once you know the plan, you can quickly gain momentum.

Please don’t assume you’ll be able to keep everything organized in your head. It’s almost never true.

Clear out the bullshit

Often, we add tasks to our to-do list that we have no intention of ever doing. Ever. I’m really guilty of this one.

Take a moment, spin through your list, and ask yourself one question: “Why should I do this?”

If you’re going to do productive work, you need to know what your ultimate goal is and — just as importantly — why you’re striving for it.

When I started working on side projects, it was a way to get out of a job I hated. That was my North Star; improving my career & job prospects.

You need your own North Star. Something to keep you on track. A phrase, idea, or person that speaks to the heart of why you started working on your project in the first place. It could be to land a more fulfilling job, satisfying the creative half of your brain, or improving your skills. Anything.

Without a clear, well-defined idea of why you’re doing the work you’re doing, you’ll just aimlessly wander from task to task. And that’s when procrastination really starts to set in.

Prioritize like a general

Most tasks fall into one of two categories; important or urgent. They’re rarely the same thing.

Take a page from Dwight Eisenhower, who said:

“I have two kinds of problems; the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

In the “Eisenhower Method,” described in First Things First, tasks are broken into one of four quadrants:

  • Important & Urgent: Do it now.
  • Important & Not Urgent: Plan when you’ll do it.
  • Unimportant & Urgent: Delegate it.
  • Unimportant & Not Urgent: Don’t do it all.

When you’re prioritizing your tasks, take a page from Dwight Eisenhower and ask yourself if each task is important, urgent, or neither. Cut appropriately.