Productivity – Pruning Your To-Do List for Greater Productivity

Guest Post By Annie Sisk of Pajama Productivity

Pruning Shears

Every so often, I get a client who tells me “I just have too much to do. That’s the problem.”

OK, actually, that happens every time I get a new client.

And most times, it’s not true, technically speaking.

Productivity problems are almost always perceived to be a too-much-on-the-list problem, but when we drill down to the minute-by-minute level, like the bad guy in Scooby-Doo cartoons, the mask comes off and it’s really Old Mr. Smithers, who runs the amusement park!

Except here “Old Mr. Smithers” is a metaphor for “not enough focus,” “overwhelm due to lack of knowledge,” or “procrastination.”

Yet every so often, the client turns out to be right. We corral the beast that’s been wreaking all this havoc and reach up to rip off the mask, but lo and behold, it really is the Too-Much-To-Do Monster!


Also: Jinkies!

Relax, and have a Scooby snack. I’m gonna show you exactly what to do when there truly is too much on your entrepreneur’s plate.

Spotting an Overworked List

First, however, let’s focus on how to tell when too-much-to-do is really the culprit behind a decrease in productivity, versus those times when it’s something else (usually something to do with you) that’s causing the problem.

What makes a list of to-do’s or tasks overly long? It’s going to depend entirely on you and the current situation in which you find yourself operating. There is no magic number of optimum tasks for the “perfect” list.

Rather, it’s the time investment that each task represents that poses the problem.

Fortunately, that answer also provides the innate solution to this question: To spot an overworked list and the absolutely-for-reals Too-Much-To-Do Monster, evaluate the time each task on the list requires to complete and compare to the time available.

Yes. It’s like math. Don’t get all twitchy on me, now. It’s easy math.

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Separate your list out by deadlines. On one list, put all items due within the next week. On another, all items due between one and two weeks from today. The remainder you can set aside for now, because this is an urgency issue – too-much-to-do is all about the now and the immediate future. Also set aside anything that truly does not have a deadline (but be careful here – sometimes, even though there’s no externally-imposed deadline, say from a client, there may be an intrinsic one where the task needs to be completed before something else occurs).
  2. For each item on the “due in one week or less” list, estimate how long each task will take you.  Write each of those down on a separate list and total up the hours.
  3. Now take that sum from step #2 and add 20%* to it. Set it aside.
  4. On a separate piece of paper, list out how many hours per week you spend on average for each of the following: sleeping; personal care (eating, showering, exercising, etc.); housework; child care; pet care; any other obligations (not stuff you should be doing – stuff you have to do; an example would be a full-time day job).
  5. Total up the hours in #4 then subtract that sum from 168. The difference is the number of hours you have available for your work and your list.
  6. Now compare the final number from #3 to the final number from #5. Circle the difference and set that aside.
  7. Take the second  “one to two weeks” list. Add up all the estimated time for these tasks, add 20% to it, and add that figure to the figure from #3.
  8. Multiply the first number from step 5 by 2, and add to that the time required for any other obligations you’ll have to meet in that second week. Subtract that sum from 336.
  9. Compare the numbers from #7 and #8. Circle the difference.

Does #5’s figure exceed #3’s, or does #8 exceed #7? If so, too-much-to-do is not your problem. Other productivity problems that present a lot like an overworked list and thus are easily mistaken for it include:

But if the figure from #3 is greater than the figure from #5, then you do have an overworked list, and the next step is to prune it down to manageable size.

*NB: Why add 20%? Because we all of us routinely underestimate how long even very familiar tasks truly take to complete. Also, there’s the “x” factor – the unknown crap that regularly conspires to delay and distract you. Twenty percent is conservative but in my experience is a fairly good constant to use for this purpose.

Pruning the Overworked List

If you’re ready to trim that list down to size, you’ve got to start with the list.

The first and most critical step is to adopt a completely objective mindset. Get rid of all the “shoulds” – I should be on Twitter an hour a day; I ought to be posting on Facebook six times a day; I have to post at least five blog posts a week. Think critically about that list as you go over the next several steps.

Now, look at each of your tasks, and sort them into the following four categories:

1.  Delegable – these are tasks that must be done but don’t have to be done by you. (Not necessarily tasks you will outsource – but stuff that doesn’t absolutely require your personal attention/effort.)

2.  Deferrable – these are tasks that you must do (as opposed to the “delegable” tasks above) but which don’t have to be done in the next week or two.

3.  Delete-able – (that totally should be a word, by the way, though spell check tells me it isn’t) these are tasks that you just don’t have to do at all. Some productivity peeps recommend identifying these tasks first, before identifying delegable and deferrable items. In my experience, though, that can lead to an overly-conservative approach. The goal is to get as many tasks off the list as possible, and warming into deleting items outright seems to work a bit better for most folks in this regard.

4.  Do-able – obviously, the remaining items are those that have to be done, have to be done by you, and have to be done soonish, rather than laterish.

Delegating Marketing And Other Tasks

Delegating for the solopreneur usually means outsourcing. You might be scratching your head (do people actually do that when they’re puzzled? I wonder…) trying to figure out which marketing tasks can be outsourced.

The trick here is to think about the smallest discrete unit of action in each prong of your marketing program. Perhaps you’re not ready to outsource blogging – or you happen to believe (as I [mostly] do) that solopreneurs should do their own blogging, so the content comes out in your own voice – but within the larger context of the task we call “blogging” there are actually several smaller tasks:

  • Topic brainstorming
  • Keyword research
  • Substantive research
  • Finding the best resources to link to
  • Editing
  • Formatting
  • Publishing/scheduling
  • Promoting to various social media channels

Think about each of your marketing “tasks” (really “projects” in Getting Things Done parlance) in this way. Carve them all up into the smallest possible units and think about outsourcing a large group of them.

Consider also grouping similar tasks over a longer period of time, in order to make it outsource-able. It might be difficult and unwieldy to administer an outsourcing contract for keyword research for a week’s worth of posts at a time, but how about three months’ worth?

You may also want to take a look at outsourcing non-marketing tasks such as accounting or customer service. This won’t clear up your marketing tasks list but it will free up some time for you to focus on those tasks while someone else deals with management tasks you’re not crazy about in the first place.

You may not choose to delegate or outsource every task that can be outsourced, but if you can get even a small percentage of your tasks off your list and on to someone else’s, you gain some more time and reduce the overworked list to a more manageable level.

Just make certain that whatever you do choose to outsource is thoroughly explained in your agreement with your vendor or freelancer and that all relevant terms are clearly specified. Otherwise, you may end up spending more time on the backend of the agreement dealing with a contractor dispute.

Deferring Business Tasks

Sometimes simply deferring a particular task is sufficient to get you through a rough patch. If your short-term obligations are overwhelming, but you know that’s an unusual scenario for your business, take a cold, hard look at the timing of everything on your list.

Clearly, you can’t (and shouldn’t) delay indefinitely any task you’ve committed to doing, and some tasks can even get you in legal trouble if deferred too long (taxes, anyone?).

But deferring tasks can be a great way to give yourself a little bit of breathing room during a short-term crisis.

One good way to start, particularly in those short-term crisis phases, is by thinking in terms of minimum requirements.

In other words, ask yourself: “What’s the least amount of effort necessary just to keep the lights on?”

For instance, would it be possible to take a two-week Twitter break? (Sure it is, and I don’t know any solopreneur who hasn’t undergone a self-imposed social media moratorium on occasion.)

Sometimes, that’s all it takes to get you over the hump of a too-long list.

Deleting Unnecessary Tasks

Even if your problem is just a short-term one, don’t skip this step.

You might surprise yourself just how much room you can free up on your day planner by taking a long critical look at that list and asking “How much of this crap can I safely dump altogether?”

Phrase it just like that, too. The way we put things into words often determines our outcomes. Asking “Do I have to do all this stuff?” will only lead to reluctant and highly selective deletions.

But asking how much you can get rid of and still stay in business – that turns it into something of a game. You challenge yourself to make bold cuts and determine the true necessity of those tasks.

Do you really need to be this active on Twitter, and Facebook, and Pinterest, and YouTube?

Do you absolutely have to post in that message board forum every single day? How about once a week instead?

Often I am surprised, looking at my list, at how long I’ve been carrying certain tasks, and how long they’ve remained undone. Something that’s long been on your list but hasn’t been done yet is a prime contender for deletion, in my book.

It’s the productivity equivalent of weeding out your wardrobe by getting rid of things you haven’t worn in over a year.

Do the Rest With (A Good) Attitude

Whatever is now left on your list, tackle it with gusto and energy.

If you carry that sense of overwhelm, or worse yet guilt over trimming the list down, the whole exercise will turn into an exercise in futility, in which you ended up exchanging one set of problems for another.

Energy is one of those things, I’ve found, that tends to be self-reproducing. The more I have, the more I have. (Up to a point, of course, and after that point, this couch warrior naps. I’m just saying – there’s a reason I work in my jammies.)

Once you’ve made your decisions about your newly trimmed list, resist the urge to second-guess yourself!

Finally, remember this truism: productivity is about producing something. Make sure your tasks are designed to produce your ideal vision for your business – keeping your efforts connected to your goals is the best fuel for your productivity.


About the Author:

Annie Sisk, a writer and marketing consultant, is essentially lazy by nature, so she’s learned from necessity how to do more crap before noon than most of those folks in the snazzy corner offices do all week. And yes, she does it in jammies (actually, yoga pants and t-shirts, but since she often sleeps in yoga pants and t-shirts, it totally counts). You can read more of Annie’s get-your-crap-done advice at Pajama Productivity, the go-to productivity site for creative workers. Annie lives in the North Carolina mountains with her daughter, as well as the (possibly imaginary, but don’t tell them that) llamas who make up her support staff.

Photo credit: © Awesleyfloyd |

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Sheila Hibbard

Sheila Hibbard takes the fluff, hype and confusion out of marketing and social media. She provides small business owners with straight forward, no nonsense marketing guidance and techniques that produce results based on her 35 plus years in advertising, communications, research, strategic planning and social media. Author of Marketing Online Made Simple - WHO.

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  1. I think you hit the nail on the head with this in the beginning,.. What hurts so many of us when it comes to such lists is either the lack of knowledge of that task or just procrastination. Amen to both. But after using your math formulas, I need 40 hour days and 8 days a week. ha.. good post.

  2. Another great post from Annie Sisk! Love her writing!
    There are a few apps that help you to figure out how much time you are spending and on what, as a starting point. I think I need one! :)

  3. Holy crap! By the time you got to the square root of 147 multiplied by the number of olives in the antipasto I was ready to hire you to do the math!! I have to seriously sit down one day and do that actual math and see if I’m as busy as I think I am. Part of the problem with what I do is there are really no deadlines. And even when there are, some client misses something on their to-do list and throws everything off on my end.

    One thing I know I have to learn to do better is deferring. My idea of deferring is sticking my head in the sand and NOT doing something until it comes back to bite me. I need to purposefully defer. Like instead of “screw it. I’ll do it sometime.” I need to say “I’ll do this in a week.” So that’s advice I can handle!

    Love your ideas, especially love your Scooby impersonation :)

  4. That math bit was awesome! Not applicable to me at this point in life, but awesome nonetheless. I really enjoy reading your posts and how you break down what’s behind under-productivity. You pinpoint areas that seem obvious yet are completely elusive…and keep us from being as productive as we want, wish, need to be! So, any math formulas that will help me figure out how to get things done while trying to keep up with my baby girl?! LOL!

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