If you’re like me, you have a long list of tasks to do, perhaps broken down by different contexts (work, home, errands, calls, etc.). Your list of tasks is so long that it’s overwhelming. You can never completely wipe out your list because it’s growing every day.

Simplify your list down to the barest of essentials, and you can eliminate the need for complex planning systems.

The long to-do lists are one of the problems of GTD, which as I’ve said before, is an excellent system. But it does no prioritizing, and everything is added to your lists. In the end, it’s overwhelming, and you are left extremely busy, trying to knock off all your tasks.

Today we’ll look at ZTD Habit 8: Simplify – reduce your goals & tasks to the essentials.

Let’s first imagine the ideal scenario. Recently I’ve begun simplifying my time management system from GTD down to basically nothing. I still have long lists of things to do, but I don’t look at them much anymore. Instead, I’ve begun the process of elimination, and focusing on what’s really important.

Now my to-do list is basically one list of three essential things I want to do today. I also have a list of a few smaller tasks that I want to knock out, all at once, usually in about 30 minutes or so, leaving the rest of my day free for the more important tasks. I still use my calendar, just as a way of reminding me of appointments, but it’s not really a time management tool. I don’t need time management tools anymore — I’ve simplified my list down to three tasks, every day.

How can you get to this point? Here are the key steps:

  • Eliminate, eliminate. Take a few minutes to review your task and project lists, and see how much you can simplify them. Make it a challenge. See if you can cut it in half! If you’ve got 50 items, cut it down to 25. Then try to cut it even further a few days later. How do you eliminate tasks? Sometimes a task gets old and isn’t necessary anymore. Cross those out. Sometimes a task can be delegated. Do that, and cross it out. Read on for more tips.
  • Know what’s essential. How do you know what’s essential? By knowing what your main goal is, and other goals if necessary. You really should focus on one goal at a time, but if you want to do 2 or 3, that’s OK too. Just don’t do 10 goals or anything. Those goals should be your essential projects. Any smaller tasks are essential if they help you accomplish those goals, and not essential if they’re not related.
  • Simplify your commitments. How many projects are you committed to? How many extracurricular stuff do you do? You can’t do it all. You need to learn to say no, and value your time. And if you’ve already said yes, it’s still possible to say no. Just be honest with people and tell them that you have a high number of urgent projects to complete and cannot commit to this any longer. Slowly, you can eliminate your commitments to a very small number — only have those commitments in your life that really give you joy and value.
  • Simplify your information stream. I’ve recently gone through the process of eliminating most of my RSS feeds. I also have cut back on the number of emails I respond to. And for more than a year now, I haven’t read a single newspaper, watched television (except DVDs), or read a single magazine. The news no longer gives me any value. Simplify the inputs into your life, and you can simplify the outputs.
  • Review weekly. Your to-do list tends to build up over the course of a week. Take a few minutes each week to eliminate, and eliminate some more. You don’t need a huge to-do list to be productive — just do the stuff that matters.
  • Big Rocks. During your weekly review, figure out the most important tasks that you’d like to accomplish over the next week. Those are your Big Rocks. Now place them on your schedule, first thing in the day, on different days of the upcoming week. Make those the most important tasks each day, and do them first — don’t let them be pushed back to the end of the day.
  • Biggest value. Consider the case of two newspaper writers. One is super busy and writes a dozen articles a week. They’re all decent articles, but they’re pretty routine in nature. The second writer writes one article this week, but it gets the front page headline, it’s talked about all around town and blogged about on the Internet, it gets him a journalism award and he becomes a big name in journalism. From this article, he lands a bigger job and a book deal. That example is a bit extreme, but it illustrates the point that some tasks really pay off in the long term, and others just keep you busy and in the long run, don’t matter at all. The first writer could have stayed home all week and slept, and it wouldn’t have changed his world much (except he wouldn’t get paid for that week). Focus on those big tasks, that will make a name for you, that will generate long-term income, that will give you lasting satisfaction and happiness. Those are your Big Rocks. Eliminate the rest.
  • Three MITs. Here’s your planning system each day: write down your three Most Important Tasks on a sheet of paper (I write mine in a Moleskine pocket notebook). That’s it. Check off those tasks when you finish them. Devote your entire day, if possible, to those three tasks, or at the very least devote the first half of your day to them. Your MITs are basically the Big Rocks you planned for this week, and any other MIT that you need to do for today.
  • Batch small tasks. During the course of the day, other stuff will come up that you really need to take care of or they could create problems for you later. Write those down on another small list of small tasks (mine is at the bottom of my pocket notebook page). You don’t need to do them right now, most likely. Just write them down for later. Set a time (probably 30 minutes or so) to batch process these tasks sometime later in the day (perhaps 4 p.m.). Do your MITs first, and then do all the small tasks at the same time. These might be calls, emails, writing a short letter, doing paperwork, etc. Try to do them quickly and knock them off your list. You might have a few tasks left at the end of the day. Better to leave the small tasks until tomorrow than the big ones. Batch process email, too — if you do it throughout the day, it’s just a bunch of interruptions. Just do it once or twice a day.

Recently I posted my new twist on the excellent GTD system, Zen To Done (ZTD): The Ultimate Simple Productivity System. This is the eighth in a series of posts exploring each of the 10 Habits.

Originally published at zenhabits.net


  • Leo Babauta

    Creator of Zen Habits. Vegan, dad, husband.

    Leo Babauta is a simplicity blogger & author. He created Zen Habits, a Top 25 blog with a million readers. He’s also a best-selling author, a husband, father of six children, and a vegan. In 2010 moved from Guam to San Francisco, where he leads a simple life.