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Tame Your 'To-Do' List

Account for everything that's unfinished, and you'll be on your way to getting everything done.

Allyson Lewis, 10/22/2009

Taming your "to-do" list is often a top priority. This mysterious "to-do" list is actually a written recognition of all of the unfinished tasks in your life.

In his book Getting Things Done, David Allen refers to these unfinished tasks as "open loops." This term "open loop" conveys an important mental image of how these unfinished tasks function in your brain.

According to Allen, the human brain can only really hold one--possibly two--conscious thoughts at a time. Yet, if you try to focus on two things at the same time it places your brain into a state of confusion and indecision. Let's assume you are working on a project and you have been cruising along when suddenly you hear the familiar "BING" of an incoming e-mail message. Your concentration and attention that had been so intensely focused on moving through your task has now been interrupted, and you even may feel slightly dazed. As you look up at your computer screen, the message tells you that your 4 p.m. conference call on Thursday has been moved to 4:30 p.m.

As you look back to the paper on your desk, your train of thought is now completely gone. Your ideas which were flowing so effortlessly have deserted you and you are left sitting in your chair staring at your computer screen with an "open loop" (your unfinished project) laying on the desk, waiting for you to regain your concentration and finish the project so you can "close the open loop".

These "open loops" or "unfinished tasks" actually circle over and over in your subconscious mind periodically popping up out of nowhere into your conscious awareness hoping that you won't forget to finish them.

On any given day you may have between 30 and 50 unfinished tasks at your job. This list could include larger unfinished projects like creating an entirely new marketing strategy for your team or implementing a new investment sector to your asset allocation strategy. Some unfinished tasks could include the smaller tasks like cleaning out your desk drawer or getting caught up on your correspondence. Regardless of the size or scope of the task, one idea that can dramatically improve your productivity is to create processes, systems and schedules to tame your "to-do" lists.

Step 1: Develop a Process
Whenever possible, the "7 Minute" ideas we teach are designed to encourage you to use repeatable processes, systems and forms to help you improve your efficiency and productivity. In order to help you create a master "to-do" list you can and download the "Unfinished Tasks Checklist." This form has room for you to list up to 30 unfinished tasks at work and at home on each page. Depending on how many unfinished tasks you have, you may need to print out multiple pages to capture everything.

The purpose of creating a master "to-do" list is that it will help you take each individual task out of your subconscious mind and place it into a single safe place. One of the most compelling ideas from Getting Things Done is that as soon as you remember that you have not completed a task, your brain thinks you should be working on it RIGHT now and that you should be working on that task ALL the time until it is completely finished. And further, if you are not doing it right now, your brain begins to send out signals of stress and discomfort because you are not doing it right now.

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