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Managing huge task lists, Part Deux

A few weeks ago I penned the first article of this series on managing humongous task and to-do lists. Now comes the sequel, focusing on the day to day handling of this hydra.


Most of us have a day job, including yours truly, which pays the bills and puts bread on the table. Preposterously, these jobs usually come with a number of activities that are expected to justify the employer depositing an amount of cash into our sweaty palms at the end of the month. Task lists are useful to describe these activities but over time can grow to become an unwieldy beast.

Generally, my task lists span into the hundreds as they consist of project tasks that not only cover my work but also the tasks of other team members. So, in this article, I wanted to share some practices that I have found useful in this scenario.

Before I share these tips though, we absolutely need to talk about professional employer organization strategies. One of my friends works in human resources at a large company and so when I asked her how she manages to cope with her significant workload, she gave me some fascinating insights.

In case you were not already aware, if your company is struggling to manage its HR responsibilities in-house, then outsourcing to a team of PEO specialists might be just what you need to ensure that employee management tasks like payroll and recruitment are taken care of. Not only is outsourcing your HR duties to a team of PEO specialists surprisingly affordable, but it can also enable your in-house HR team to focus on other tasks that can help the rest of your business to run smoothly.

I suppose what I am trying to say is that if your HR department are struggling to stay on top of their responsibilities, then outsourcing some of their duties to a PEO service might help them to manage their tasks more efficiently. If you would like to learn more about the potential benefits of outsourcing to PEO services, you can find additional resources on The PEO People website.

So, let us now discuss some of my own task management tips to help you to tackle your to-do lists in the best possible way.

Little Rocks of task management

In the last article on managing task lists, I dealt with the so-called big rocks. This is a term used in the 7-Habits approach from Stephen Covey and it means the big important tasks. I unashamedly misappropriated this term to cover the big picture elements of task management. Now comes the Little rocks, the smaller day to day activities of huge to-do list management.


Link files

With large to-do lists, especially lists covering the activities of other team members there will always be barriers to task completion. This may be that you are waiting on inputs or information from other people, that something is simply not ready or that you yourself don’t have the gusto to get it completed in one sitting. So, it is incredibly likely you will find yourself coming back to the same task. With that in mind, and for best efficiency one would wish to put down and pick up the task as quickly as possible with minimal searching around for the information needed for that task. One tip to help with this is to provide links to the files that you need to do this work and store them with the task itself. One little free to-do list program that I use extensively is Abstractspoon ToDoList. It is really child play to make these links using this. There are a couple of methods. There is a dedicated file link field that you can populate simply by dragging the file to it. Alternatively, drag the file to the comments section where the link will be copied across. This takes about a second to place the file link with the task. Next time you come back, click the link and your files are ready to go.

Linked Files with Todolist

Hide non active tasks

If you keep your mail program open you may notice a tendency to mail surf across the different emails perhaps doing little bits here and there for each and not really concluding anything. The same can be true of large task lists. With many items confronting you it can be inviting to skip between them but not close them. One tip to avoid this distraction from the task at hand is simply to view only the tasks that you are currently doing. Task management programs often allow such In Progress tasks to be flagged and displayed.

The second option, is to use an alternative view to list only the tasks that one is actively pursuing. In this case I switch across to the Kanban plugin, also in the free Abstractspoon ToDoList app, and focus exclusively on the “In Progress”, tasks until complete, at which point some more can be pulled across from the backlog.

Todlist Kanban Plugin Screenshot




Stop preening the list

With a huge task list there is always the danger that one spends more time maintaining the list than actually doing the work. So, control that preening habit. A couple of tips to help with this,

  • Enter the information that is necessary for task execution
  • Organise your task list so than maintenance can be minimised. For example folder hierarchy.
  • If cleanups or team updates are needed, schedule a review to do this. Complete the review and then get back to executing the tasks and closing the items.


Limit work in progress

Limit your work in progress and develop a compulsion to closure. That may even seem like two tips there so you are getting one for free! But, they go hand in hand. Focus on few tasks at a time and try to get them closed. This is not always possible in one sitting so some task switching may be needed but even then switch to your shortlisted items that you want to get done. A nice tool for this is the Kanban, where you will have an “In Progress”, column in which you should spend the bulk of your time. Straying outside of this columns should be either for taking new tasks or a general review.


What makes the greatest contribution to objective

With many things vying for attention there is no shortage of tasks that could be done. But, the question is which ones need to be done now. There are many ways to decide which task to do now and frankly I think it is person specific. What works for one does not mean that it will work for everyone. Here are a few options to get you started and if more options are desired then you can check my article on how to decide which tasks to do now,

  • Priority: Define which are most important and do them.
  • ABCDE system: Borrowed from Brian Tracy. A letter is assigned to each tasks and described it’s importance,
    • A: Must do items or there are serious consequences.
    • B: Should do items with mild consequences.
    • C: Nice to do items with no consequence.
    • D: Delegate items. Not critical items for you to be spending you time on.
    • E: Tasks that should be eliminated and that add no value.
  • Scheduled tasks: Define when each task will be done.
  • Time or energy available: Taken from the GTD (Getting Things Done) methodology it means that certain tasks are executed depending on how much time you have or how mentally in tune you are to tackle it.


Last Words


This marks the end of the humongous task list sequel – unless I turn it into a trilogy – and I really could not rule that out. If that magical alchemy of a good Rioja, comfortable easy chair and Friday evening once again strikes!

Brendan Toner

Let me welcome you to this alcove of the internet. In this little productivity blog, I detail the trials and tribulations of trying to use my time more effectively utilising the latest productivity tools and techniques. I hope you enjoy the articles, cheers! Brendan Toner, author of Done Before Brekky

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1 Response

  1. June 24, 2016

    […] This is the sequel to handling huge task lists part 1, focusing on the day to day management of the todo list for maximum productivity.  […]

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