How to Bring Order and Focus to a Massive To-Do List

When you have a big goal with hundreds of smaller tasks contributing to reaching that goal, it can be overwhelming to try to figure out what to do first. That overwhelm can paralyze you or keep you working on tasks that do very little to reach your goal. Here is how I organize my to-do list so that I stay on track with my creative vision.


Use Sub-Themes to Categorize Your List

In my blog on setting goals that will keep you motivated, I talked about how using the framework of a theme can keep you moving forward. This helps when your long-term goals are large in scope and you want to spend a particular period of time working on certain aspects of that goal.

Using the Theme method not only helps you feel more accomplished when your goals are large, but it can also help you organize your task list. When you make your yearly theme, it’s helpful to split that theme into sub-themes. During 2015, my theme is Foundations. I knew that there were a lot of things I wanted to set into motion so as to start building towards my bigger, long-term goals. One of my sub-goals is “Build Platform” and this article is part of that sub-theme. And that ultimately feeds into my foundations theme.

Once you have identified what sub-themes fit within your overarching theme, You can use those sub-themes as categories to help you organize your task list. I like doing this because it allows the visualization of what each task is actually accomplishing for you. Suddenly, constructing a new section of your website isn’t just constructing a new section of your website, it’s “building platform.”

You will also be able to see which categories lack ideas and which are under-served.

This is a form of task subdivision. You’ll likely need to further subdivide the individual tasks that can’t be accomplished in one sitting. This is a good thing because it’ll minimize the feeling of overwhelm. Overwhelm can lead to fear, anger, frustration and even depression. Theme and task subdivision does not promise to eliminate negative experiences, but it will abate them.


Finding and Prioritizing Your Major Tasks

Once you’ve categorized your To-Do list into several sub-themes, you can begin to schedule practically. One of the best ways to do this is to use the 80/20 Rule or the Pareto Principle. There are many different variants on this idea, but the 80/20 Rule I’m referring to is the idea that the majority of the desired effects result from the minority of the causes.

Here’s a quick video on the idea so that you’re up to speed with me:


The big take away here is that about 20% of your task list is actually what will give you 80% of your goal. These are the tasks that you’ll need to spend the most time checking off of your list. These are the tasks that will have the largest ROI (return on investment) of your time. The other 80% of these tasks will only yield about 20% of your net goal.

Now here’s where it gets a tad confusing: You want to spend 80% of your time working on the 20% of tasks that ultimately yields the 80% of your desired goal.

Let’s look at an example.

Let’s say there’s a potter and she wants to sell 100 works by the end of the year. She’s been working on a lot of ideas to drum up business, but has settled on five categories that will build to that goal:

1. Making great pottery

2. Starting a blog about pottery

3. Using Social Networks to drum up interest in her pottery

4. Getting her pottery in retail spaces

5. Researching the hottest pottery items

It’s obvious that if she doesn’t have great pottery, she’s unlikely to sell any pots, no matter how much time she spends tweeting out cat videos. Making great pottery lands in the 20% yielding 80% category.

Since her goal is to sell a lot of pots, her blog will need to appeal to pottery buyers and enthusiasts. She could blog about other people’s pottery and great pottery throughout the ages, but what will get her closest to her desired goal would be to blog about her process and the resulting pottery. So she documents with photos and brief descriptions of how each piece is made and the final product. She’s smart, so she puts an “order this piece now” link in the blog post.

Using social networks has become one of the bigger tools in the the modern era. She can tweet: “buy my stuff!” and tell the world where she’s going out to eat, but she’ll find that that does very little to get her pottery sold. At most, she converts one or two sales periodically. She finds that what gets the most traction is when she shares pictures of her work on pinterest and instagram and her process blogs to facebook and twitter. So she focuses on that.

Getting into retail spaces is hard. She not only needs to have a great product, but she has to find a retailer who is interested in consignment. She’s found one shop willing to sell her pots so far, but every other one in the area has rejected her. So she spends many evenings searching Google for shops in her greater area that will do it.

Her google work also leads to other blogs and social media accounts that focus on the same market. She follows these content curators in order to see what her market is into.

In the case study, we have 5 different sub-goals that play to her overall goal. What you will notice is that only one of them clearly lands into the 20% yielding 80% basket. If you don’t have pottery, you don’t sell pottery. Her blog brings her sales, but making the pots is still the primary thing she’s doing to make those conversions. Her social network presence does little, but it does funnel potential buyers to her blog. Finding retail space has yielded some, but it takes up a lot of time to find locations and pitch her work. Researching is great because she’s learning, but she’s not making direct sales from research. The research is only informing what pottery she might make next.

See the pattern? All of her ideas are great, but there’s 20% of what she’s doing that will get her 80% there. In the case of the potter, she will want to spend 80% of her work day making her pots and 20% of her day on other tasks.

Hopefully you’re spending 80% of your time making those pots and not tweeting cat videos.


Fitting in Your Minor Tasks

The 20% yielding 80% are the most important tasks, but when you’re drilling down to what you need to do day-to-day, your 80% yielding 20% tasks will need get to done as well. After all, 80% of your goal is great, but you really want to reach 100% of your goal.

I believe that creating a hierarchy for your tasks can help decide priority:

What tasks are most important?

What tasks are most pressing?

There can be some obvious crossover, but important and pressing are two different things. Your most important tasks are your 20% yielding 80% results. Your pressing tasks are tasks with impending due dates.

If you commit to accomplishing five tasks a day, you’ll need to decide what tasks make the list. Naturally, you’ll want to place your 20% yielding 80% tasks on your list, but if you have a 80% yielding 20% task that’s due that day, you’ll probably want to move that higher in priority.

However, if your minor tasks don’t have due dates, they may never get done. I believe that you should set due dates to every task, but this may not be a viable or preferable option for you. If your minor tasks have no pressing priority, distribute them evenly across your work week, making sure that you’re only allocating 20% of your time to it.


Pulling It All Together

Hopefully, you’re still with me and not completely lost. If you’re wondering: “so what does this all mean?” maybe I can pull it together for you right now in a few actionable steps:

1. Create categories (or sub-themes) and sort your tasks into these groups.

2. Find the 20% of your tasks that yield 80% of the results you want and focus on completing them.

3. Find the tasks that are most pressing and focus on completing them on time.

4. Find a system that will help you schedule and organize.

Before I finish, I should let you know what I now use to complete step 4.




Sometimes you encounter an app that feels like it was built just for you. Todoist is that app for me. It allows me to use the system above to order and focus my to-do list.

I’ve talked about how I capture and organize my ideas. I still capture a lot of tasks with my idea capturing method, but I need to keep my tasks separate from my notes. Sometimes more than one tool is the most elegant way to accomplish your end-goal.

Todoist shines in its ability to remain simple. It does as much as you want it to do and no more. But if you do want to use categories and due dates, it allows you to do so.

The app also exists on pretty much every format you need (browser, iOS, Android, OSX, Windows, Kindle). As long as you have your tech around, you’ll be able to access and check off tasks. The mobile app is particularly wonderful. It’s little work to add new tasks and schedule or reschedule them.

Todoist also adds a layer of gamification to their system with Karma points. If you’re like me, the only thing that keeps you working more than filling check boxes is watching a line graph go up as you gain more points. Call it juvenile, but don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it!

At risk of this becoming an ad for Todist, I recommend you stop by and check them out.


What About You?

I hope this was helpful to you. If so, please share this blog with someone who might need it.

What methods have you tried to keep your to-do list focused and organized?

What tools do you use?

Drop a comment below and let me know!