Make a list, clear your mind…and the key to productivity

January 28, 2008 by Jared Goralnick

I made a list yesterday of everything I have to do. It felt liberating at the time, and it still does now. Here’s the why and how.

The most important lesson I took from Getting Things Done was that the key to productivity was to get your thoughts out of your head and into a system. For instance, while you’re working on a proposal it doesn’t help to think about the bills you have to pay or the presentation you’re delivering in an hour. Those items belong in a system that you can trust–so that you won’t forget your bills or your presentation, and you can focus on the task at hand. David Allen referred to this as Mind Like Water.

Yesterday my mind was not at peace–it needed to be emptied. I felt I had to write a blog post, to work on AwayFind, to organize my photos, to work on taxes, to see a movie, to read–I was stuck and overwhelmed. So I went through the exercise–I started with blank 8.5×11 sheets of copy paper and listed, line-by-line, everything I could think of that I had to do. I didn’t categorize or order anything, I just purged. When I felt I had everything I could think of, I looked around my house, and then at my Outlook and Basecamp calendar and to-do lists–I didn’t want to miss anything. Four pages later I felt in control.

That afternoon I tackled a few easy things on the list and crossed them out. This morning I’ve completed more, placed a bunch on my project list, scheduled a few as appointments, and delegated many of them. I even came up with and planned an idea that some of you might appreciate: Elizabeth and I are going to have a project weekend where I spend one day helping her with personal projects and she spends one day helping me (like making a collage of all those photos I printed and organizing the garage–two things that are begging for some company to complete).

So I feel at a peace–I know what I have to do and when I have to do it…and I can relax a little. If you ever feel overwhelmed, you should try purging–just be sure to give yourself lots of time for the exercise as it won’t work if you’re rushed. And, if you haven’t got great to-do and calendar systems in place that you trust, think about how to build a reliable system (and let me know any of your thoughts on that in the comments, as I’d enjoy learning or offering up my own ideas). Good luck!

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8 Responses to “Make a list, clear your mind…and the key to productivity”

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  1. Victoria Pickering

    Jared -
    You’re so right about the freedom and productivity that comes from creating a list and a system that you trust. I’d be really interested if you would post again in three months about what has happened with your system – the initial stage of getting it all down and defined feels so good, but the maintenance phase is tough work. If you have any insights into how to keep the enthusiasm going during the maintenance phase, especially at times when new tasks accumulate at a much faster rate than accomplished tasks, that would be very useful.

  2. Jared Goralnick

    Hi Victoria,

    Thanks for the warm thoughts. However, I can’t really report back in three months because, not to be defensive, but my system has been working for a few years now. And it’s a big part of what I try to preach to clients. Every once in a while I get the feeling that I need to purge stuff on my mind, which was the activity from this weekend, but once it’s in my system I’m golden.

    I’ve talked more about my system a little more here and here, but essentially it’s mostly a combination of Outlook Tasks and Calendar items. My spin on it is that I try to find the fastest ways to get stuff out of my inbox and either filed or into my tasks/calendar, but it’s nothing revolutionary. The important part is that I don’t miss filing things and that I have it synchronized with a handheld. I also use Basecamp milestones and tasks for my employees.

    I hope that helps explain the purpose of my post here–which is to re-address an important step to productivity that is not only the first step, but one that from time to time needs to be revisited.

  3. Conrad

    Getting the right system is the key – you’re right. I’ve found such system at Wrike developers support the GTD idea and even posted bout it in their product blog –

  4. Victoria Pickering

    Jared -
    Thanks for pointing me to your previous posts and the systems you have created – very helpful and impressive. While I really like GTD approaches, I’m always interested in answers for maintaining a mature GTD-type system, one that has worked well in the past but is crowded with business/personal/family/volunteering tasks that can at times seem to explode exponentially. I don’t always know whether it is more useful to try to re-tool the system, or just to bring renewed enthusiasm to it. Your purging on Sunday may be one example of something that helps renew enthusiasm.

  5. Randy Farnum


    Thanks for your thoughts on getting your life organized as it is an effort I continuously engage in myself.

    I ran across a web based tool that I have found very helpful in keeping project teams organized around a common goal/objective. You may be familiar with it but you can learn more on it at


  6. Josef

    When I was in my late teens I had serious problem concentrating, especially while reading. I solved the problem by a very simple idea, I keep a notebook and a pen next to my bed, on my desk, where ever I am at the moment and immediately write down everything that is on my mind. Believe it or not but it takes every burden out of your mind and you are free to concentrate. (It changed my not being able to read more than a few paragraphs without rereading to being able to read hundreds of pages with hardly stopping.)

    I also use a list of tasks to accomplish. I have a sheet of paper where I always write everything I need to do and cross items out when accomplished. I find that some items become irrelevant over time and that’s why I rewrite the entire list at least a few times per week while eliminating tasks that become non-important.

    I had also problem with tasks that were parts of a longer term goal, for example taking a course or improving at the gym. To solve this problem I started using a small piece of paper where I write “Areas that I need to concentrate on”. This includes items such as 1)sleeping well 2)finish TESOL 3)learn Korean 4)super body (meaning gym) etc. I draw a line under these items and finish the paper with a list of tasks that I could accomplish today without caring if I actually finish all. The major Areas above the line are the priority. I keep this paper always in my pocket to check what to do if I am not sure. I rewrite it everyday to make sure that it is up to date with my life.

    All of this doesn’t take more than 10 minutes a day, doesn’t require any equipment that you couldn’t find anywhere, and keeps me up to date and motivated.

    Works for me super well; however, I tend to prioritize ‘fun’ activities. (Any hints ?)

    (NOTE: Some bits came from reading books and articles written by others but I no longer remember where I found it and what are my original ideas. Sorry for not referencing the authors! I am now 35 and I’ve been using this system with some changes for more than 15 years.)

  7. Jared Goralnick

    Thanks for your thoughts here, Josef! I’m a huge fan of keeping a list by my side to enable me to keep moving forward with the task at hand. These are some great suggestions : ).

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