We look to to-do lists to bring order to the chaos around us.
Yet, often, they leave us more stressed out than ever.
Because we often cram more things into our lists than we can get done in a day.
And, at the end of the day, when we cannot tick off every task on our lists, the feeling of disappointment and failure kicks in, making our days seem wasted.
So, how do we get around this problem?
In this blog post, I'll talk about a strategy I've been using to keep my lists humble and how you can use the same process for a more achievable and meaningful to-do list every day.
Let's start with:
The Bento methodology
Before jumping into the Bento process, let's have a look at what makes for an ineffective to-do list:
- Too many tasks to complete in a limited time
- Filling the list with low-value tasks that don't help you make real progress
The Bento methodology aims to tackle this issue by having a brief and straightforward to-do list system which has:
- A handful of well-intended things to do
- A mix between high and low-value tasks in the list
Here's how it works:
Imagine a traditional Japanese Bento box like this:
The box has 3–5 compartments of different sizes to hold a variety of food you can pack for lunch.
Applying this concept to to-do lists, a Bento box represents your to-do list for the day and can hold up to 3 tasks:
- 1 large task: Task that requires deep focus and works towards your goals. Takes around 90 mins & up.
- 1 medium task: Task that is usually busy work like organising reports. Takes about 45 mins or less.
- 1 short task: Daily chores you must do at home or work, like paying your rent. Takes around 15 mins.
Here's how a regular Bento box looks in the Bento app:
If you're new to the to-do list system of getting things done, this method will work wonders for you.
It's straightforward and helps you get meaningful things done every day.
For the more seasoned to-do list users, we can optimise this system further by:
Accounting for our energy levels
Our body energy levels fluctuate over the day in the form of Peak-Trough-Rebound, like this:
But wait, what's a peak, trough and rebound?
Peak is when your mind and body are at their highest functioning form.
This is when you can entirely focus on mentally challenging work and get it done.
I'm using my peak moment to draft this article as it requires a significant portion of my brainpower.
A trough is the opposite.
During this period, your body and mind are exhausted from work during your peak period and need time and rest to replenish.
During this time, your mind is more prone to distractions as the part of the brain that bounces off distractions is low on energy.
You can either rest during the trough period or finish some light chores, like answering emails or organising paperwork.
Rebound is when your body is recovering from the low-energy trough and is ready to get back in focus mode for another few hours.
The limitation of the Bento method is that it only accounts for the peak moment in your day with a single task that requires deep focus.
Although you can spread your single high-value task over the peak and rebound sections of your day, often, with laser focus, a single job doesn't require that many hours of your time.
You're wasting much of your high-energy time on non-challenging tasks like answering emails or collecting documents for a visa application during the rebound period.
How do we solve this problem?
The 5-Task to-do list system
Building on the Bento box constraints, I use a to-do list that is slightly longer but mindful of my energy levels throughout the day.
So, instead of a maximum of three tasks per day, I aim for five.
Here's how a regular day looks for me:
In this list, I've got:
- 2 high-value or deep work tasks assigned for the peak and rebound
- 2 medium-value or admin work tasks assigned for the trough
- 1 low-value or busy work task aimed for the trough or towards the end of the day
And, I use a slight variation of the MoSCoW prioritisation technique to assign priorities in Todoist like this:
- P1: Deep or high-value work. Example: Writing an article or a report, solving complex problems at work, learning a new concept.
- P2: Admin work. Example: Collating data for analysis, organising invoices to pay, sending reports to a coworker.
- P3: Business or household chores. Example: Catching up on emails, taking your dog for a walk, renewing your car insurance.
Let's walk through a typical day to understand how this system works.
It's 8 am, and I have five tasks for the day, neatly organised according to my expected energy levels.
I'm at my peak energy level at the time, so I pick up the first task on the list and work on it until 10 am or until completion, whichever is earlier.
After I've worked on the first task, which was preparing and sending the newsletter, my to-do list looks something like this:
Since I don't work on Hulry full-time, it's time to switch gears and work on my office tasks while I still have some peak energy.
Then, after the peak comes the trough.
This is the time to catch up on medium-complexity tasks like "calculate increase in API calls".
Although it's not a chore, it's a small task that can be juggled with other ad-hoc priorities at the moment.
When I'm done with this admin work, it's time for my lunch break.
I use 5–7 mins out of my lunch break to swiftly complete a household chore, "Set Forex card pin".
This was a deferrable task, and if I didn't have the time to do this task that day, I could've rescheduled it for later.
Thankfully, I had the time, so I got this task out of the way.
After a cycle of peak and trough for the day, I was down to two more tasks:
Looking at my past track record, I've noticed that my rebound starts late afternoon to evening.
After I'm done with office work, I take a micro break and sit down to work on these last two tasks for the day.
Now, here's a thing:
The rebound is usually not as energetic as the peak.
Therefore, I had intentionally picked the more creative and mentally challenging work during the peak period, which was working on my newsletter.
The other high-value task, working on a design change for this blog, is not as brainpower intensive as the first one, so the evening rebound is the perfect time to work on it.
With an hour or two of working in the evening, I'm done for the day and have checked off all tasks from my 5-Task to-do list.
And if you look at the list, I've made significant progress in the day with just five tasks on my plate.
The saying is true. Less is more.
Before you dive into this to-do list technique, here's a preliminary assessment you need to do:
Observing your energy levels
Your body might work differently than mine.
And therefore, your peak, trough and rebound timings might differ from what I've illustrated in the last section.
To properly distribute your tasks during the day, take a few days to understand your body first.
For the next 1–2 days, mentally note when you feel most energetic during the day.
You might be bursting with energy and motivation at 10 pm rather than 10 am.
Understanding when your energy levels peak and dip will help you assign the right tasks at the right moment each day.
But, here's an important reminder:
Your to-do list doesn't have to have five tasks every day.
For optimum results:
Build momentum as you go
Start slow if you've never used a to-do list or have a tough time dealing with them.
Start with a 3-Task list like the Bento method:
- 1 task that moves you towards your long-term goals
- 1 task that's not so interesting but requires to be done
- 1 task that fulfils your daily obligations
Harness the knowledge of your daily energy levels to schedule each type of task for the right moment throughout the day.
Here's how I would do it on a calendar:
Then, once you're comfortable executing your concise list daily, aim to add more tasks if need be.
However, don't get carried away with the notion that you can complete a hundred tasks in a day with the right strategy.
Your time is still limited. And there's a life outside work too.
Keep a sensible number of tasks on your plate each day that you're at least 90% confident of getting done during your time.
Don't beat yourself up for not checking every item off your list.
If you're able to work on even a few of your goal-oriented tasks, you're making progress every day.
Little progress snowballs into significant results over time.
The 5-Task to-do list is a handy guideline to keep you grounded while chasing the stars.