Niklaus Gerber

September 20, 2022

How I found a more mindful way to manage my todos. My tool-agnostic way to task management.

Research shows us that people with anxiety tend to be poorly organised. Organising your life is something you can learn. In my career, I helped individuals better at self-managing their workload. Sharing what worked for me and discovering what did not work for others helped improve how I manage my tasks. 

These days modern apps seem like the best way to get your todos under control. But apps are just tools. You must understand what you want to achieve and how you will get there, and then pick the perfect tool. The way I organise my todos does not need any app. You can use the method with pen and paper, post-its, a traditional notebook or a modern productivity app. 

Most people fight with an ever-growing list of things they should be doing. This means starting every day already overwhelmed. Some apps allow you to "snooze" tasks, which means they pop up at a later point, meaning you can remove the items on your list, but they keep popping up at the worst possible moment.

I wanted to find a way of organising my todos that keeps me in control, keeps my cognitive load low, and helps me focus on the essential things. I also wanted a system that does not need much time to manage it. I want to get things done and not waste time organising them. 

The most crucial matter is having all your todos in one place. Spreading them out over multiple sources will mean you spend more time looking for todos than working on them. As Marie Kondo said: "Everything has a home."

Your source can be anything that works for you. I prefer a digital task management tool. But an A4 paper, post-its on a wall or a simple text list will also work. The underlying method of how I organise my tasks is Kanban. I think this video from Atlassian is a great introduction if you have never heard of it before.

The brilliance behind Kanban is that tasks run through a workflow. The workflow limits the number of things that can be done in parallel: more focus and less task switching. This is more effective and reduces your cognitive load. Let me walk you through my workflow, step by step. 

Backlog → This month → This week → Up next → In process → Waiting or Done.

Every new task or to-do I encounter is put into the backlog. The backlog contains everything I once would like to get done. The higher an item is, the earlier I need to tend to it.

Items that I want to start working on move to the next step; "This month". I usually revisit my backlog every week. Every Sunday evening, I go over "This month" and select the items I want to get done "This week". I move things over into my week, trying to be realistic about what I can achieve. Again, the higher up an object, the more critical it is. I tend to plan less than I think I can manage. I like having some spare time for unforeseen things. 

"Up next" is the first step in my workflow that limits the number of items (WIP = Work in process limit). I set this to 5. Every morning I make sure that Up next has five things in it. If there are fewer, I will move the top ones over from "This week". After my daily planning, I now only have to look at a list of 5 things that need to be done; so there is no need to always look at a daunting list of 100+ tasks. 

"Work in process" are the things I am working on right now. I will pull the top item from "Up next" and focus on this specific task. "Work in process" is limited to two things, so I prevent task switching. Once I finish the job, I will move the item to "Done".

It will happen that you will need to wait for feedback, or someone else has to work on this task. All these items are in the section "Waiting", which I review periodically. 

The workflow then keeps going. Once "In process" has no more items, I will pull the top articles from "Up next", and then it cascades back down the line. My daily view of tasks only contains "Up next", "In process", and "Waiting". Like this, I only see the things that matter that day. 

Some more thoughts

You might ask yourself how you should juggle a task that takes multiple weeks to complete. The answer is slicing it down. I tend to break more significant functions into smaller units that I can handle within less than three hours. In my daily planning, I will also consider my calendar. I know I can get less stuff done if my schedule is full of meetings. I will block time off in my calendar if I have tasks that take more than an hour to complete. Like this, I stay in control and focus on the essential things.

So why do I think this system is better than most task lists?

  • After daily planning, I only face essential tasks. If I don't get them all done, I can reflect on what went wrong in the evening and improve the next day. Usually, I have all my tasks done, boosting the feeling of control and accomplishment. 
  • Planning and managing tasks take almost no of your time. There is rarely time wasted on replanning and rescheduling tasks.
  • You don't need any fancy tools or complicated setups. If you have your favourite to-do app, you can use that system—more time for work and less time dealing with agencies and design. 
  • Revisiting your "Backlog" and daily planning will help you spot non-important and urgent tasks quickly. I try to delegate those or delete them #EISENHOWER-MATRIX.

About Niklaus Gerber

My thoughts on leadership, life, productivity, design, and innovation.