I have been through periods where I stopped using to do lists because it was actually reasonably manageable to just do stuff when you remembered it. Recently I got back into trying to plan things out more and remember even small things more meticulously.

I’ve struggled for a long time to not make my to do lists more of a time suck than beneficial. At first they seem useful, but something about my ADHD/OCD mind ends up getting to this point where I list like, every possible ideas I have for something I could do, and then I spend way too much cognitive effort each day trying to organize all these to dos so that they are manageable. It becomes cognitive overload because now you have like 200 to do that you are trying to neaten up and triage and it ends up becoming mentally exhausting enough that you are not really that focused on the immediate tasks you should be actually doing, and you also avoid looking at your to do list sometimes because it’s gotten too unwieldy. You could delete things en masse, but it doesn’t really feel like the point.

I’m looking for just little mental heuristics, organizational tips and rules of thumb, to balance tracking stuff in a way that is efficient and effective.

I know there are tons of ideas and systems out there. I’m trying to find one little tip maybe to help me.

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    Not actually a productivity system (so not actually an answer) but "Four Thousand Weeks" by Oliver Burkeman can be summed up as "accept that you’re not going to get most stuff done". So ditch those systems claiming otherwise… Commented Apr 2 at 12:33
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    Often, we only need to get one thing done. Find the most important thing and do that. Let the rest go.
    – David R
    Commented Apr 2 at 14:21
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    Keep in mind, as well, that in a workplace tasks are typically assigned to those who are most efficient at completing them, i.e. even if you do become more productive, you don’t end up “getting everything done”, you just end up with a greater share of the overall workload. You are trying to aim for a reasonable level of productivity, and managing expectations when it comes to the rest. Commented Apr 3 at 1:46
  • Recording, prioritizing, and tracking open issues is what a Task Management System is all about. There are many, mostly equivalent though some integrate better with specific other tools; Jira and Bugzilla are the first two examples that come to my mind. I think GitHub may now offer something similar.
    – keshlam
    Commented Apr 4 at 15:38

3 Answers 3


Sounds like you are looking for some ideas to help prioritize your to-do task organization. Here are a few focused strategies that might just do the trick:

  • Simplify: Only list 3-5 key tasks for the day. This limits the number of items to track, thus reducing cognitive load, while surfacing tasks that really matter. Focus on quality, not quantity, i.e., tasks that involve the biggest lift, are most urgent, and/or provide the most ROI.

  • Bucket: Group similar tasks by whatever criteria make sense to you insofar as a helpful way to organize work. This will help maintain focus and efficiency and will also naturally help to surface priorities (for instance, completing task #1 also takes care of 1.a, 1.b, 1.c, etc.).

  • Review: Spend a few minutes weekly reviewing your list. Reassess priorities, clean up tasks that are no longer applicable, and , and recognize/acknowledge completed tasks. A weekly review helps remove the clutter and keep the list relevant based on current priorities and goals.

These strategies will transform your to-do list from a source of stress or confusion to a productivity helper tool. Good luck!


A couple of ideas:

  • you don't need to organise the whole to-do lists, just enough so you're doing valuable work today or this week (for example, you only need the next task on each project, maybe a couple, not the whole roadmap)

  • organising to-do lists is itself work; you can put it into to-do items, then prioritise them like the others (and, importantly, defer them like any others)

  • is there a task you're avoiding? if you find yourself organising to-do lists to avoid working on a particular task, one approach is Structured Procrastination: making sure that you have several worthwhile tasks at the top of your to-do list, so that you still end up doing valuable work even if you're avoiding the top-priority task

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    Structured Procrastination is so awesome! It reminds me of the Dilbert comic where he gives something to the department Secretary, saying it is urgent. "I'll begin ignoring it immediately" is the reply. Commented Apr 3 at 15:33

These are some things I might try out, just to give people a better idea of what kinds of things might provide a solution to someone like me.

  1. Actually, deleting en masse is not such a bad idea. The productivity heuristic that I’ve gotten the most into over the last year is my own version of “minimalism”. I also call this “purging”. Basically, I try to get rid of as much as I can in my life, in all ways. I try to delete every app off my phone, as many notes and photos as I can. I try to get rid of as many objects in my room I possess. If I can’t throw them away I at least put them in the closet, even furniture. I try to reduce the situation, and my entire life, to as few things as possible. This allows my hyper-analytical mind to focus on as few things as possible so I don’t get bogged down in non-terminating recursion/analysis paralysis/combinatorial explosion. I did just go through my to do list and delete as much as I could bring myself to. The remaining tasks rose to the surface as clearly the better ones to focus on. That said, ideally, I would be able to handle larger to do lists without finding them an encumbrance.
  2. I am interested in some external software structure that somehow forces you to publish very well-structured tasks, if you are to add them to a to do or project management system at all. I am thinking something git version-controlled. I have tried to research what operations-critical organizations like NASA use as their “action item protocols”.
  3. I have had phases where I find the flexible format of mindmaps and knowledge graphs to be beneficial, compared to the fixed metadata fields of most task management programs. However, mind mapping usually gives me the same problem where I put way too much in and it becomes way too hard to clean up.

My tendency is towards very complicated software based solutions, and I’m looking for alternative angles from people with differing thinking styles from my own. To give just a few tiny heuristic examples, I recently just tried ordering my to do by a time deadline, rather than a priority level. It’s a somewhat simple fix that helped me see more clearly what needs to get done first, and when, in order to meet a bunch of other deadlines. Another small example is someone showed me that when budgeting, I can put my known recurrent bills on my calendar, on the date they are due. These are good examples of small rules of thumb that actually reduce complexity while increasing efficacy.

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    Item 1 sounds great when written out, but I'm not sure what the difference between that is and " you have like 200 to do that you are trying to neaten up and triage and it ends up becoming mentally exhausting enough that you are not really that focused on the immediate tasks you should be actually doing". For me, getting rid of photos, as you mention above, is a guaranteed, time losing rabbit hole. I've reconciled myself with the fact that I'll have lots of photos I'll never look at, emails I'll never read etc. because the cost of fixing that would take away time from more important things. Commented Apr 3 at 12:20
  • ... even Marie Kondo has had to dial things back - from her Wikipedia entry "after the birth of her third child, Kondo's rigorous attitude towards tidying her home relaxed in order to make room for more personal priorities at this stage of her life" Commented Apr 3 at 12:21
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    @DaveGremlin I'm definitely The Accidental Minimalist, I don't add anything on if at all possible. Phone apps only if death would result otherwise. I delete workplace email as soon as read, or, acted on if I must. My desk usually looks like no one works there, because clutter brings my mind to a standstill. I hide or remove everything on the computer 'desktop' that I'm not actually using. A few small areas in my house where I pile things for 'later' are ok. Meditation helps clear out the inside, because irritations become so horrid that one must jettison them, including irritation itself! Commented Apr 3 at 15:43

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