How to Use Your To-do List to Prioritize the Things that Truly Matter

This simple strategy from one Todoist user will help you separate the truly important tasks from the noise.

prioritize todo list

Back in 2009, I made the decision to upgrade from my trusty old Franklin Planner and implement the Getting Things Done (GTD) philosophy. After 13 years with that planner organizing and running my life, it was time to enter the brave new world of collection buckets, tickler files, and capture tools. I wanted more flexibility, and GTD offered it.

I rushed out and bought a beautiful aluminum, side loading in-tray and a stack of sturdy folders. I allowed a whole holiday weekend to set the system up. I’d read the book and bought the gear. I was ready to go GTD.

In the early days, I carried a little black notebook and pen that went everywhere with me. It wasn’t the most convenient method, but back then GTD apps on the iPhone were not at the level of sophistication they are today. I also wanted to be a GTD purist and follow the system exactly how David Allen used it. (I even looked into getting Lotus Notes for my Mac but decided against it owing to its cost.) For my lists, I bought a beautiful, black hard bound notebook by Quo Vardis, and I set up the pages as per the GTD book.

However, I soon came across a problem. I was ticking off a lot of tasks, but I didn’t feel I was moving forward. It was as if I was running on a treadmill. I was putting in the effort, my legs were moving (quite fast on some days!), but I just didn’t feel I was going anywhere.

Over the next two to three years, I continued to struggle with this dilemma until one day it hit me. The problem was not GTD. The problem was I had far too many projects, and I was so busy ticking off tasks that had to be done, I had lost sight of my real, life changing project goals. Every day, I dutifully checked off my tasks and forgot to think about the projects and goals that would move my life further forward.

A small tweak with huge results

It was then that I had the idea of separating out the tasks I had to do just to maintain my life in its current state. This included things like preparing the weekly sales report and updating the daily activity logs. I had been putting these tasks in their own individual projects and treating them like projects. Instead I realized these were routine tasks that needed to be done every day or week or month and were not really projects. I had to do them to do my job, but they were not taking my life further forward.

Instead, I decided to move these types of tasks out of their individual project files and move them into either a “daily routines,” “weekly routines,” or “monthly routines” folder. I also set them up with a recurring date so I never needed to think about any of them until they needed to be done.

Todoist Routines

After I had set up the routines folders, I only allowed real, genuine ‘improve my life’ type projects into my projects list. I also began to make extensive use of my someday/maybe folder. Anything I was either not ready to do, or did not have the resources for at the time, went into my someday/maybe folder. I only allowed myself to be working on three projects at once as a maximum. Routine tasks were done as they needed to be done, but my whole focus was on the main, life improving projects that had previously been lost in a quagmire of tasks and to-dos. Now routines were out of the way and only came up when they needed to be done.

Once I had made these changes and allowed for a little modifying over a few weeks, a profound change happened. Not only was I getting more things done, I was getting more things that really mattered in my life done. I no longer felt I was on a treadmill. I felt I was out in the beautiful open countryside covering those miles towards my goals.

I noticed after six months of this system I was actually completing projects I had struggled to complete over the previous twelve months. It was a simple change, yet one that had a huge impact on the work I was doing and the work I was completing. My creativity improved because I was focused on the things that really mattered and no longer focused on ticking boxes just to reach the end of the day with a clear task list. It was a surprisingly simple modification to the way I was using GTD, yet it has helped me to achieve so much more that is meaningful and worthwhile.

So how do you set this up in Todoist?

1. Separate and automate your recurring tasks

Todoist recurring tasks

To set up this small modification to GTD in Todoist, first create a project and name it “routines.” Then, create three sub-projects using drag-and-drop indent (or the keyboard shortcut command + right arrow) and call these “daily,” “weekly,” and “monthly.” Now begin populating these sub-projects with the tasks you have to do either daily, weekly, or monthly. I found stepping away from Todoist and writing them out on a piece of paper helped enormously. However, feel free to do this part any way you like.

Once you have created the lists, go through each task and add a recurring date. For daily tasks you will create a repeating task of either everyday [ev day] or every week day [ev weekday] etc.  For weekly tasks create something like: [ev wed at 10am] or [ev fri]. For monthly create a date such as [ev 21] or [ev 3] whichever day of the month the task falls.

It may take you a few days or weeks to get these routine lists working perfectly for you, and I advise you review them regularly. Things change, commitments change, and you want these lists to work, not be something you need to worry about on a daily basis. Once you’re up and running with this system, you’ll notice a change in the way you get your tasks done. You’ll be much more focused on the real, worthwhile projects in your life and your daily routine tasks will just get done when they need to get done without you ever having to worry about them.

2. Keep no more than three projects at a time

To make this system work, make sure you limit the number of actual projects you work on. Ideally, three or fewer actual projects is about right. That’s where you’ll break down each large project into the small, manageable next steps that are necessary to move the project forward. I also have a “single actions” project for those one-off tasks that need doing from time to time.

For the most part, I’m just going through my daily task list without having to worry too much about prioritizing or deciding what to work on because I know everything on my list each day are worthwhile tasks that are moving me forward or are essential routine tasks.

3. Put everything else in a someday/maybe project

When you focus on giving more attention to fewer projects, you will inevitably have to say no to interesting ideas. Instead of saying “no” outright, say “not right now.” Keep those ideas in a “someday/maybe” project. If they are ideas worth pursuing, you can turn them into projects at a later date. This will help you focus on your current projects without losing sight of future possibilities.

4. Review your lists daily

The final piece of this ‘system’ is to do a mini review at the end of each day using the “next seven days” list in Todoist. Look at your active projects and decide what you are going to do the next day. This daily re-focusing allows you to see what needs doing next to move a project forward.

With your routine tasks out of the way, you can focus all your attention on the important projects first, the projects that move your life forward. This might be a small change in the way you use GTD and Todoist, but it is a change that will have a huge impact on what you achieve in your life.