An Effective Way to Split up Your To-Do List

There's a better way than just brain-dumping your tasks

Tom Littler
Nov 1, 2020

Ah, to-do lists. The bread and butter of all productivity tools. Sure we can make use of OKR’s, timeboxing, weekly reviews, and other such tools to supercharge our productivity, but there’s something about the simplicity of a to-do list that has always appealed to me.

To-do lists, although unrivaled in their ease of use, are not a perfect tool. I often find, that without properly prioritising my list of tasks, I become overwhelmed with a seemingly infinite number of items to ‘check off’.

A day that started with the best intentions can soon deteriorate into a frantic mess of delivering low importance, urgent work, meaning you never get to craft the time to really focus on what matters. And the worst thing is our sneaky brains trick us into thinking we are being productive because every task checked off is another little dopamine hit.

Over the years I’ve developed a trick to get the best out of a to-do list — it’s simplicity and ease of use while mitigating against the worst — it’s complete lack of ability to differentiate between the importance of different tasks.

A Better To-Do List

The approach we are going to use here involves splitting out your to-do list into 3 separate lists, based on a particular animal. If this all sounds a bit woo-woo bear with me here, you’ll soon see why this is a pretty powerful approach to time management.

The Frog

“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” — Mark Twain

The very first thing I do when I create my to-do list each morning is to draw out a picture of a little frog. I’ll then write one task that I really want to complete that day. This might be writing an article, filming a video, or completing something important for my 9–5, whatever it is, I ensure I do this task first.

As humans, we have a natural inclination to leave things to the last minute, this is because Parkinson’s law states that work expands to the allotted time, so if don’t impose a strict deadline on ourselves, a small task can take all day.

By picking the frog task at the start of the day, and giving yourself a time limit to complete it, you will be amazed at how much difference completing one important piece of work every day will make.

The Koi

‘Koi’ means ‘Carp’ in Japanese, and this fish is a symbol of perseverance due to the fish’s tendency to swim upstream and resist the flow of water.

My next step is to draw a little fish, then I’ll write down all longer, important pieces of work down here. These are your high effort, high reward items, that probably make up the bulk of your day.

For me, this usually means larger project work such as putting together a report or presentation or perhaps creating a plan for the content I’m planning to release.

The great thing about identifying the high effort, high importance work in your to-do list is that you are less likely to get distracted from doing it. The simple act of labeling an item as high importance puts you into a more proactive frame of mind, so you don’t react as quickly to the woodpecker tasks, that will inevitably crop up…

The Woodpecker

A woodpecker can tap twenty times on a thousand trees and get nowhere, but stay busy. Or he can tap twenty-thousand times on one tree and get dinner.

We are working in the Slack age. This an age where reaching out to anyone in your company is only a few clicks away (and by that logic, anyone can reach out to you ). This is an age where people expect responses instantly. This is an age where urgent, but low importance work can, if we’re not disciplined, take up our entire workday.

I call this kind of work woodpecker tasks. You know the type, sending out a follow-up email, updating a spreadsheet, reviewing a small piece of work. $10 work not $10,000 work.

The danger with these kinds of tasks is that because they are often quick to complete, we make the mistake of just doing them as soon as they arise, to get them out of the way and to get that quick dopamine hit of an item ‘checked off’. This is a cardinal sin in productivity and if you continue down this road, your days, and therefore your life, will start to feel meaningless and empty.

That’s why I’ve taken to creating a separate list, under the image of a woodpecker for this $10 work. If someone messages me with something ‘urgent’ I’ll rarely do it straight away, I’ll add it to my woodpecker list, and when a natural pause in my more important work comes up, I’ll check a couple off.

Summary

  • To-do lists are great, but if you fail to prioritise them, you will end up filling your days by checking off urgent, low-importance work.
  • Break your to-do list up into the frog, koi, and woodpecker.
  • The frog is the one item you really want to do today — write it down and do it first.
  • The koi are high-importance, high-effort tasks that deserve most of your focus.
  • Woodpecker tasks are often reactive, urgent things to be done. Don’t let them control you, label them as woodpeckers, and take a look at a natural pause in your workflow.



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