The to-do list. It seems every few months, a new app or analog system shows up with the intention of turning your to-do list on its head. It's supposed to make you more productive, more mindful, and in many cases, more frustrated. Some systems try to combine other things, like a calendar or journaling with your simple task list. It can get pretty complicated very quickly and before you know it, you've abandoned yet another productivity methodology in favor of the tried and true "I'll remember it later."
Narrator voice: You did not remember it later.
I've tried everything. Omnifocus, Bullet Journaling, Things, Apple's Reminders app, index cards, pocket notebooks, and countless other ways of jotting down my daily to-do list. There was always a reason I couldn't stick with it. Either the app was too bloated, or the user experience wasn't intuitive, or the setup at the beginning of each month was too cumbersome.
However, the main reason none of them stuck? They were all focused on the wrong thing. With a new job on the horizon, I wanted to find a system that would allow me to track:
- My daily to-do lists
- How much time I was spending checking my work email
- Why I wasn't getting the important things done each day
Almost all task systems are focused on getting as much done each day as possible. Add an item to the list, cross it off, add an item, cross it off. It's not about doing your best work--it's about getting the work off your plate as quickly as possible. Analog systems in particular tend to combine personal and professional tasks into one list, which can get confusing and overwhelming quickly. Or, they might recommend two notebooks depending on the type of tasks you're recording, but do you really want to lug around multiple notebooks everywhere you go?
What if there was another way? An ideology that put the focus not on checking things off a list, but getting you to focus on what really matters?
I call it the Work/Life Task System.
How Does it Work?
The Work/Life Task System (WLTS) allows you to keep your professional and personal tasks separate in the same notebook, while accounting for how most tasks come into our lives in the first place: email. It also encourages you to track how often you're checking your email or taking work calls, specifically after hours.
The goal isn't to knock out your whole work list in one day. It's to focus on a few key tasks, so you can make time for what really matters: the rest of your life.
Trust me, you won't be laying on your death bed, grateful that you were checking email until 11 pm each night and working on your vacations while your family learned to live without you.
Note: This system can be done in a Field Notes or similar pocket notebook. However, it works best in an A5 or larger notebook, where you have more room to write.
Step 1: At the beginning of your notebook on the page after the cover, write the month you're starting WLTS at the very top. Underneath, write the numbers 1-30 (or 31 depending on the month) in a column. Split it into two columns if you run out of room on the way down. This is where you're going to write the time of day when you last checked your work email/took a work call.
You'll repeat this at the start of each month.
Step 2: After the front matter is complete, flip to the back and on one page, write all twelve months again, but not the days.
Step 3: Going back to the front of the book, turn to the first full two-page spread after the completed month and days. At the top in the center where the two pages meet, write the date (Month Day is fine, unless you want something like "mm/dd/yy"). At the top of the left page, write "Work." At the top of the right page, write "Life."
Your "Work" tasks will be catalogued on the left page, while your home or "Life" tasks will be tracked on the right. Pretty simple, huh? Wait, it gets better.
Step 4: On the next three lines of the Work page, write down the three main things you want to get done by the end of the workday. Do the same on the opposite page, but for personal tasks.
Step 5: Leave a little space underneath, then draw a line to separate the rest of the page.
Tracking Work Tasks
Work tasks fall into two main categories: Email and Phone/In-Person.
Let's break it down.
A task received via email will be indicated by a checkbox:
A task received via phone or in-person conversation will be indicated by a circle:
- Directly after the square or circle, you'll write the time when you checked your email to get the task. In the case of phone/conversation, you'll note when the task was given to you.
- Add a dash (-) after the time.
- Write out the task itself.
- Add an @ symbol.
- Note who gave you the task. This is usually the person you'll be responding to.
If the end product is meant for someone else, add an arrow underneath and the other recipient's name. Either way, you want to make sure you have both the requestor AND the recipient noted:
When the task is complete, check off the box (I like to make a little V so it looks like an envelope, adding to the "email" theme).
When you send the end product back to the requestor/recipient fill in the box completely.
The two step checkbox allows you to see what was only completed and what was actually sent back, saving you from wondering whether you still need to email that report back to accounting, or let your supervisor know the data was inputted into the system.
Life tasks are even simpler. They're indicated by a dot, followed by a single letter context:
- E = Errand (i.e. pick up milk, send your mail-in ballot, buy stamps, etc...)
- H = Home (i.e. put up laundry, sweep the floors, change the bathroom lightbulb)
(Feel free to add your own contexts if you want.)
That's it. No times, no recipients or requestors. When they're complete, check them off. Done.
End of Workday Review
Schedule some time toward the end of your workday, maybe 15 minutes before you shut everything down. Go back to the top of your Work list where you wrote those three bullet points of what you had hoped to complete today. Did you get all three things done?
If not, write "Why?" In that gap beneath the third item, followed by a reason. Were there too many random requests from your boss? Did you get sucked down a YouTube rabbit hole? Coffee break take a little too long? Be specific.
This is where WLTS really tests your mettle.
- Make sure your notebook goes wherever you go.
- Every time you check your phone or laptop for new work email and you get a new task to add to your list, write it down just as before. Pay close attention to the time.
- Before you go to bed, you're going to do three things:
- Ask yourself "Why?" Regarding any uncompleted Life tasks, just as you did on the Work page at the end of your workday.
- Transfer any uncompleted tasks on either side to the following day's spread.
- On the Work side, circle the latest time you noted a task on your Work list:
At the front of your notebook where we set up the month and days, go to the number corresponding to the current day and write that same time right next to it.
The goal for tomorrow is to write down an earlier time. Even if it's only by a few minutes, you want to change your habits until you stop checking after hours entirely.
At the end of the month, go through your list of 30 or 31 days and circle the latest time you wrote down.
Transfer that time to the back of the book under its corresponding month.
Just as with the the daily tracking, you want to get that time earlier and earlier. If the latest you stopped checking your emails in September was 9 pm, aim for 8:00 or 8:30 pm in October.
Ideally, the Work/Life Task System is something you want to stop using at a certain point. Once you've trained yourself to leave work at work and not religiously check your email until 11 pm every day, you can go back to standard to-do lists or something like a Bullet Journal.
With our work lives and home lives now blended until further notice, it's getting harder and harder to separate the two. By implementing something like WLTS, you can see exactly how office life is cramping your style when it shouldn't be, so you can spend more time with your family and doing the things you love.
Work is not life and life is too short to be checking email. Break the habit. Embrace WLTS.