Do you ever get bogged down by the sheer number of tasks you need to accomplish?  It happens.  And it happens to all of us, even those of us who plan everything. Sometimes, the number of things that need to be done can appear overwhelming.  But, I’ve found a system that works for me and I think I can teach you how to prioritize your to-do list.

What do Brainstorming and Tomatoes Have in Common?

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The best way to start is to make a list, and I’m not talking about a regular to-do list that you might create each day.  Instead, we need to create the master list, that full out list of everything that you need to do.  Whether it’s work, play, self-care or the drudgery of cleaning, it all goes on the list.  Everything from cleaning the toilet to calling business contacts to date nights with your spouse.  Anything that you have to do goes on the list.

Now some people (like me) call it brainstorming, others call it brain dumping. But the goal of this exercise is to sit down for 15, 20 or 25 minutes and just write a list of the things that you have to do.  And this is where that elusive tomato comes into play.  The tomato is a reference to the Pomodoro technique.  This technique was created by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980’s and it’s called Pomodoro (Italian for tomato) because of the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that he used.

The concept is to break down any project you are working on into 25-minute intervals, with 5-minute breaks in between.  The key is to walk away from the project for those 5 minutes, but come right back and start the next 25-minute segment.  During the 5 minute break, you have to step away from the project and take a few minutes to do something else.  I like dancing, but you can do sit-ups or get something to drink or clean up your work area for the next round.  Anything at all, as long as it only takes 5 minutes.  After the 5 minutes is up, you start right back on your project.

For the purposes of this exercise, however, I needed only one interval of the Pomodoro timer and I set it for 15 minutes.  When I started doing this exercise, I used to set it for 25 because about 10 minutes were wasted doodling, making sure my paper was lined up correctly and sometimes checking out Facebook. But after doing this a few times, with only 15 minutes on the timer, it focuses my attention on the task at hand.  By the time the timer went off, I had 44 items on the list.

Color Code 

After I was done creating my list, I then used highlighters to color-code everything into different groups. I had different colors for things for my mother, things for my household, things for my blog, etc.  I’m a very visual person and this step really helps me to put things into perspective.  For instance, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed and bogged down by all the things I needed to do for my mother, to the point that I couldn’t even begin.  But once I color coded the list of 44 items, only 3 were for my mother.  That made me chuckle and also made me feel better.

Break It Down

This is the step that takes a project from overwhelming to do-able.  On your list of items that you brain-stormed above, you might have included something like ‘finish novel’ or ‘restore car’ or even ‘renovate the kitchen.’  Taken as a whole, these are not projects that you can complete in one day.  Instead, you need to break each down so that you have do-able tasks.  Things that you can accomplish in one day or less than one day.  So renovating the kitchen might start with calling contractors or making plans.  Finishing the novel might actually break down into how many words you need to write each day.

The Ivy Lee Method

I don’t know about you, but Ivy Lee sounds like a film starlet from the 30’s and 40’s, but no.  Ivy was a man known for his Public Relations skills and for being an efficiency expert.  The story goes that in 1918, Charles M. Schwab, then President of Bethlehem Steel, asked Lee to help him find a way for his team to get more things done.  Lee asked for 15 minutes with each executive.  He told him that in 30 days, if he was satisfied with the result, Schwab could pay him what he thought it was worth.

Lee’s technique involves just six things….that’s 6 things on your to-do list.  At the end of every day, you should look at what you need to accomplish (pull out that list that you just created.)  Pick the 6 most important items that need to be completed the next day and write them down in the order of importance. The next day, start at the top of the list and work on the first task until it’s done—don’t forget that Pomodoro.  Once it is finished, only then you can move on to the second item on the list. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to the top of the list for the next day and create your new list of 6 tasks.  You can transfer your to-do list to a date book like The Passion Planner Agenda.

Sounds simple.  So simple it’s brilliant.  The story goes that Schwab wrote out a $25,000 check for Lee, which by today’s standards is around $500,000.  Not bad at all.

I’ve found this to be the system that works for me, so I even started doing it in work, not just at home.   I hope this technique helps you, and if you have a different system that works for you, please share in the comments below.