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Why Your To-Do List Isn't Working (and the Agile Tools You Should Use Instead)

Andrea Fryrear
Andrea Fryrear

Traditional to-do lists can't help us navigate an ever-shifting mountain of work, because they don't force us to focus on what matters. Here's the Agile way to really get things done in four steps.

Productivity gurus the world over sing the praises of writing things down. Whether it's through intensive systems like getting things done (GTD) or the more fast-and-loose techniques of a bullet journal, there's clearly power in getting your arms around all the things that demand your attention. 

But there are two deal-breaking problems with the standard to-do list: 

  1. It doesn't give us any indication of which tasks are most important. 

  2. It doesn't prevent us from trying to tackle everything on it at the same time. 

As a result of both these shortcomings, our to-do lists often languish. Despite our diligent efforts, items refuse to leave. 

For those of us running a business or leading teams (or just trying to navigate the next-level craziness of 2020), this is a serious problem. Crucial items simply don't get done, no matter how many hours we throw at them. 

Fortunately, the world of Agile provides a solution. Agile practices, while originally designed to help software developers get code into the hands of customers, have proven remarkably versatile in their non-coding applications. 

Two simple tools – a kanban board and strict work in progress (WIP) limits – have allowed me to build a seven-figure business, write two books, and complete two triathlons, all while traveling 30 weeks out of the year, raising two kids, and staying married to my husband of 18 years. 

When our goal is to process a high volume of high-value work, Agile is the way to do it. 

Here's how it works. 

Step 1: Radical transparency

One of our main goals in this process is to identify the highest-value, highest-priority work and focus all our productive time on it until it's done. The only way to be sure we've selected the right place to focus is by diligently documenting everything that we could be doing. 

So if you don't have one already, you're going to need a place for a fast-paced brain dump. You can type things into a document, write them on a whiteboard or in a notebook, or create a bunch of sticky notes. 

The important thing is to get everything out there where you can see it. Right now, it might look kind of like a typical to-do list, but it's going to get a makeover shortly. 

While the tool you use for this first round doesn't matter much, going forward you want to make sure you have a place where you can quickly document new action items whenever they appear. 

I have a physical notebook that never leaves my desk, where I take notes throughout the day. In the style of a bullet journal, things that need action are noted with a dot (or bullet) next to them as they happen throughout the day. Then, at the end of the day, I add them to my digital list, which lives in Trello. 

I like this kind of digital complement to a hard copy, because it's much easier to drag and drop items as priorities change (more on that in the next section). When you have something physically written out, things get messy as you try to shift the order of certain items. 

Stay on top of this list at all times. I like to say mine is the manifestation of my brain, but it's really better, because there are many things in my Trello board that no longer take up space in my head. Once I've documented them, I don't have to think about them at all until they become my top priority. 

Step 2: Ruthless prioritization

Note that I said "top priority" there, not "one of my top priorities." We really shouldn't ever pluralize the word "priority." It's like "Highlander": There can be only one. 

We'll see why this is absolutely crucial in the next section, but our main goal during this step is to look at our (no doubt massive) list of things we could be doing and stack rank them in order of importance. 

If you could only do one thing on that list, which would it be? That goes at the top. If you could only do two things, those are the top two and so on. You aren't allowed two No.3 priority items. One is the third most important and one is the fourth. 

Tools like Trello are nice for this, because they force you to pick which card goes on top; sticky notes let you break the rules all too easily. 

Like the one-time brain dump from step one, this may be a little time-consuming the first time, but once you've got it done, you won't have to do it again. All you'll have to do is take your new action items or incoming requests and decide where they fall on the list. 

Now we've moved one step beyond a typical to-do list, just by introducing the idea of prioritization. In Agile, we call this tool a backlog (and that's how I'll refer to it for the rest of this article), but you can call it whatever you like. 

I recommend reviewing your backlog at least once per week to make sure it still reflects your highest priority. If you're fielding lots of on-the-fly requests, it may need to be reprioritized daily. The crucial thing is that each time you're ready to start something new, you can do so immediately by pulling from the top of your backlog without wasting precious time agonizing over what to do. 

Step 3: Stop starting, start finishing

Now that you've got a backlog, it's time to work through it. Don't succumb to the temptation to try and tackle everything in there at once. Borrowing from the Agile world once more, your new mantra is "Stop starting, start finishing."

Tough truth time: Humans suck at multitasking. We pour a huge percentage of our productive time down the drain trying to jump back and forth between tasks, but our brains simply can't focus on more than one thing at a time. Despite this limitation, we flit from task to task like moths to various flames. 

We need a tool to save us from ourselves. Agile again comes to our rescue with the WIP (work in progress) limit. This is a hard ceiling on how much you can do at any given time. 

For individuals, it should be very, very low, i.e., two or three at the most. This doesn't mean you limit yourself to one or two things every day, just one or two things at any given time. Before I can start prepping for Monday's strategic planning session, I have to finish this article. 

It's counterintuitive, but setting, and sticking to, a low WIP limit can easily double your productivity. By not diluting your effort among a dozen different things, but rather focusing its power on one or two things, you dramatically increase how much you accomplish. 

WIP limits also allow us to say no or not right now to non-value-adding tasks. We can document them by adding to our backlog, but don't start them instantly. When they hit the top of the backlog, they'll get our attention, but not before. 

If you're leading teams, allow these principles to permeate the way your teams work, too; they should be allowed to delay or push back when their WIP is too high, or when the value of the request isn't clear. Just as these practices skyrocket individual productivity, they work wonders on the output of teams, too. 

Step 4: Continuous improvement

The last piece we're borrowing from Agile is the commitment to continuous improvement. What I've outlined here is very much a basic use case for personal agility, but there are many areas you might improve over time. 

The book Personal Kanban (one of my all-time favorites) suggests tiers of backlogs – priority 1, priority 2, etc. – that allow you to create buckets for your work. I tried it for a while but didn't find it helpful, so now I make a weekly backlog instead. 

The important thing is to think critically about your system and whether it's working for you as well as it could. Do you find yourself still forgetting things? Is high-priority work getting neglected for things that are simply urgent? Find out the shortcomings and iterate on how you handle them. 

Then you'll be truly agile, not to mention the most productive person that you know.

Image Credit: Jacob Ammentorp Lund / Getty Images
Andrea Fryrear
Andrea Fryrear,
business.com Writer
See Andrea Fryrear's Profile
Andrea Fryrear is the co-founder of AgileSherpas and a leading authority on optimizing customer acquisition and retention processes. She’s the author of two books on organizational agility, and an international speaker and trainer. In addition to working in the trenches with dozens of the world’s most innovative companies, Andrea has spent years achieving numerous certifications in how to improve all aspects of organizational performance. When not on a plane or at a keyboard, she can be found in the mountains of her adopted home in Boulder, Colorado.