At the ripe age of 19, I started working from home. In the beginning, it was tough. As luxurious as it may sound to roll out of bed and begin working from your pajamas, remote work is difficult, slightly overrated, and requires a certain level of restraint and self-control. This is something I’m not always up for.
Working remotely is still tough today (some days).
The distance between the bed and my desk and the bed and my entertainment system is roughly equal. And it’s approximately one thousand times easier to simply speak “Xbox, on! … Go to Netflix” while rolling out of bed than it is to flip open my laptop and get right to work.
Since my self-control is tested every single day, the only way I manage to get anything done is by using a task manager. (Todoist, of course.) I set daily goals, create tons of daily tasks, and even have miniature rewards for myself.
How does that help, exactly? And more importantly, how can you start using a task manager and stick with it over time?
As most of us all work in different fields with dramatically different workflows and environments, I can’t give a one-size-fits-all answer. But I can offer what has (and hasn’t) worked for me during my six years of being responsible for my own time and workload with no direct oversight.
Here is what I have done to finally adopt a task manager that works and actually stick to it.
Create a system
Task managers didn’t always work for me. Before last year, I had tried dozens of task managers and to-do lists—from handwritten, to digital, to mental—and nothing worked. Like most people, I took an excessively long time to get everything organized. I’d stick to it for a few weeks, if that. After this honeymoon phase came to an end, I struggled to keep going and eventually quit.
However, I’ve been using Todoist since May 2014, with only a lapse or two (namely during an insanely busy international business trip). It’s virtually frictionless, and it keeps running like clockwork. It isn’t perfect, but the system I created for myself works very well. I find myself getting more done every day, every week, every month. Still, I feel no more exhausted or spent than before.
Be deliberate about planning your tasks
I like to begin planning every work week on Sunday night. I take advantage of my relaxed state after a restful weekend, taking 20 to 30 minutes to get things in order and mentally prepare for upcoming tasks. It’s better than spending time the next morning worrying about what I need to do, when I’m far more prone to procrastinate. And I get to check off a few items as soon as I begin my day.
Any time a new task comes up, whether it be for the current day or weeks down the road, I immediately add it to my to-do list. I also have an automatic, rolling influx of tasks coming from IFTTT (If This, Then That) thanks to a plethora of recipes triggered from new emails, items added to my Pocket or Evernote, and even from other completed tasks.
Once or twice throughout the day, I recollect and revisit my to-do list. After I have finished my morning routine, I begin checking off completed items and organizing any that I’ve added in a hurry via mobile. After I break for lunch, I do the same. I usually end my work day by checking off the last few things just before I close my laptop for several hours.
During the day, the only other times I come back to view my list is for quick reference. In total, I look at my Todoist list between four times and ten times.
For me, this system works so well that I don’t think about it anymore. But something else make work for you. Just try fo find the best time in your day to reflect on what you’ve accomplished and what else lies ahead.
Don’t obsess over it
While it is important to remind yourself of what’s next or to quickly glance at your upcoming task lists, obsessing over it will only serve to stress you out and hurt your productivity. You’ll spend more time staring at an ever-growing list of new list entries and less time actually doing the things that need to be done.
I have times when I cannot really gather my thoughts and when it is difficult to find more items to add to my to-do list. When this happens, I close my list and get back to doing (or relaxing, if it’s Sunday). Whenever new items cross my mind, I’ll quickly add them as they come to me, so as not to forget.
Also, when I sit over my to-do list in edit mode and start digging too deep, I tend to discover things I might want to do, rather than things I actually need to do. Having want items on your list is not a bad idea, but the process usually leads to a half hour (or much longer) of distraction, which somehow always leads me to some far corner of YouTube. Not only that, but if the list has more than a dozen items on it, I tend to get overwhelmed.
I’m pretty adamant about adding everything to my to-do list, but I try not to spend more than a few minutes at a time looking at it. I want to be in and out and back to whatever it was I was doing as quickly as possible.
Write everything down and be specific
Speaking of adding everything: Do it. Some people tell me that adding something like “make coffee” to my to-do list as part of my morning routine is a bit much, too menial. The way I see it, if it’s helping me stick to what I should be doing and easing me into a productive morning (rather than yelling at my Xbox to open Netflix from my bed), it’s perfectly fitting for my list.
And that’s the thing. If something works for you, don’t worry about what anyone else says.
If fact, I even question whether some items I add to my to-do list should even be there. But I continue to add them, since Todoist serves as an adequate reminder to circle back and read an article I’ve saved to Pocket or physically click a check box to “End work for the day.”
Add every task, both big and small, and be specific. Make sure tasks are, well, doable. I always add at least one of these: labels, priority levels, time and date, or project. And if a new task doesn’t fall into any of the existing categories, I create a new one for it.
A friend of mine, Rita El Khoury, uses Todoist to manage orders for her pharmacy while I use it to keep the many adjacent workflows separate, organized, and current all at once. Someone else may use it to help stick to a new workout routine or just as a grocery list. But don’t make the mistake of believing that a task is too small for your to-do list. Checking off one of the most mundane, simple tasks often feels just as good as the last big item for an entire project.
At the same time, you can’t move forward without being held responsible for the tasks you have missed or for letting your to-do list endlessly grow without checking items off.
This is where I went wrong with so many task managers in the past. Some of the task managers I used in the past were just plain annoying when I missed a task.
I once received upwards of 20 notifications on my phone, tablet, and computer in the span of six hours for missing a low priority task. Rather than inspire me to get back on track, it just had a much more adverse effect. I uninstalled the app that night and deleted my account.
Another task manager I used had no system in place for past due tasks. You were subtly reminded of them once per day, and that was it. I felt bad about missing the task but still did nothing to complete the task.
With Todoist, there at two fallbacks for missed tasks. A subtle view of overdue tasks reminds you of what you’ve missed: you can see it in your Today view. And if you let an overdue task go unattended for four days, your Karma score will begin to fall.
I’ve mentioned before how Karma itself is a bit arbitrary. Since everyone uses Todoist a little differently, it’s a terrible basis for comparison and it means practically nothing that I’m a Todoist Master in the real world. However, Karma serves as an awesome motivator.
It gives you a subtle nudge and reminds you that you need to take care of those overdue tasks. And it rewards you with a few points when you do it on time, all without being too overbearing or annoying.
Make it a habit
Simply doing any one part of these suggestions won’t magically turn you into a pro task manager overnight. We are creatures of habit. But creating a new habit isn’t easy. It’s easy to fall off the to-do list train. However, if you take the time to keep up with your task manager for a few weeks, you will find yourself adding and checking off tasks without even knowing it. You will also feel a greater sense of control and comfort, even when your to-do list is seemingly endless.