Reducing Task Overload With Time Contexts

cr: Roman Bozhko

I cannot live without my to-do lists.

I am completely rubbish at committing things to memory; I am someone who needs to be constantly reminded whenever I need to do something. Plus, whenever I get down to the task at hand, my mind would be thinking of all the tasks I have left to do… only to forget it (again).

A to-do list offloads that mental burden for me, allowing me to focus on the things at hand. By having an external system that I trust I will look at everyday, I can rest assured that the things I have to do in the future will not be forgotten or left aside.

I’ve been using Todoist for the past five years and it honestly has changed my life and the way I work. Everything goes into my inbox; in the evenings before I sleep, I re-arrange tasks according to projects and set the dates when I will do them. I was very happy with myself.

Until last year.

Last year I had to write my thesis. It was a grueling paper on thermal properties of propulsion systems for nanosatellites. For the first time my Todoist list jumped from an average of 30 tasks to almost 60 each day. I didn’t know where to start. In the end that red number badge on the Todoist icon on my phone became a point of depression. I became scared of the brutally long list, so it kept on piling and piling…

I was suffering from task overload.


Contexts on the left

I got through that period, albeit with much drudgery. It was messy, soul-sucking and life-draining. I wish I could go back in time to tell myself about contexts.

Contexts are frameworks that you use to add structure to your tasks. I am writing with Todoist in mind here, but the concept can be applied to any system, even pen and paper.

Your contexts can be:

  • Location or place (like home, office, commute)
  • People (family, friends, boss, manager)

or my favorite, time.

Time-based frameworks

Adding my time context is easy with Todoist labels

Flow is very important to creatives when doing work. Distractions affect our ability to remain in that state of flow that allows us to conduct deep work. A brutally long to-do list is a distraction in itself when you’re constantly being demotivated by the things that you still have to do.

To avoid that, what works for me is to remove the decision of what to do next.

My tasks are all labelled by the amount of time I’m expected to complete them.

I have them labelled as either 5min, 15min, 30min, 45min, 60min and 90min.

Only have a few minutes to spare? I’ll do any 5min tasks that I have. Free for another two hours? Tackle the 90min or 60min tasks.

I don’t think about what to do; immediately after finishing something, I know exactly what I have to do next. I focus more on doing than thinking of what to do.

The time labels also can loosely be contextualized as my energy levels. On a weekday evening after a busy day of work I would never try to tackle tasks that require deep concentration. I’ll only try to check off 5min or 15min tasks to do.

Going forward

Less time working, more time for reading

Although I wrote this with Todoist in mind, contexts are pretty versatile. You can set custom folders on Outlook to triage tasks that come via email by time. In Evernote you can use tags, and with Gmail you can set custom star colors to denote your time contexts.

Hopefully this helps anyone with to-do list overwhelm as much as it did for me. Let me know what systems or habits you use to help you tame your daily work in order to remain sane in the comments below. I’d love to read about it.

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