Attention management for writers, part 1.2: Make your to do list work for you

By now, we’ve got a to do list app that we like. We’ve figured out the features that allow us to divide and conquer tasks – projects, tags, status flags, priorities, due dates. And that’s great for keeping things tidy, but we’re after more than that: we’re after peace of mind.

One thing you can do this week: Know you’re working on the right thing at the right time.

Priorities and peace of mind

When we start the workday, we should ask ourselves one question: What has to happen today? By “has” I mean “There will be an actual cost to putting it off”. Knowing that means we know we’re working on the most important thing. That’s peace of mind right there. Anything that can happen tomorrow with no additional cost is a lower priority item today, and if we don’t get to it? Well, we’ve already established it can wait.

This is especially powerful when we realise there’s really only one thing that has to happen today. How’s that for taking the pressure off? Once we get that one task done, any additional task we manage to complete is a lovely bonus.

Prioritising is a very obvious way to manage a to do list, but we often don’t fully implement it. Instead, we decide to get rid of some smaller tasks first (letting that really important task nag at us from the bench). Or maybe we go help someone with a less important task because postponing a non-human task like writing a draft is emotionally easier than telling a human they’ll have to wait (and we’ll talk about the emotional burden of ignoring people in a later post – one that will probably have the words “email” and “Slack” in the title). And of course, we may be forgetting that urgent isn’t the same as important.

The most important task is the one that gets our most productive, distraction-free portion of the day. We’ll talk more about scheduling uninterrupted work time in a later post, but for now we’ll just remember the principle that our most important task deserves our minds at their sharpest.


Switching contexts is really hard for the human brain. We often convince ourselves we’re fantastic at multitasking, in the way parents convince themselves they’re fantastic at funny voices – we simply don’t see a way out, so we pretend we’re good at it. But most of us have, while procrastinating, read something about multitasking being a total myth, and how we can’t switch tasks every three minutes.

Now I want us to take this a step further: as much as possible, in a single day, we should stay in a single domain. If we work on multiple projects, as many writers do, we should try to dedicate each day to just one of them.

Project-hopping is sometimes a necessity of company-set schedules, but often it’s more about not wanting to keep someone else waiting (this, too, will come up in that future “ignoring people” post). But switching context to a different project is a mental chore, and we should avoid it when we can. At the very least, we should try to bunch tasks from each domain to the same part of the day – even if that muddies the priority ordering a bit.

I told you we don’t fully implement prioritising. Sometimes for good reason.

Types of tasks: splinter and focused

I got this idea from Cal Newport, who calls these deep work and shallow work.

Splinter tasks are two minute bits that need to get done but require approximately zero brain power. Office jobs, tech writing included, are full of these. Many of them are simple communication tasks: send a short email, review meeting invites, complete some bit of paperwork. Because they require zero brain power, they don’t require us to be at our sharpest. And because they’re tiny, they are an interchange of context switching. I like to group them to some largely useless part of the day: a 30 minute block between meetings, the first 15 minutes after a heavy lunch, a boring Zoom call. They deserve no better.

Focused tasks are the high skill work that suffers greatly from interruptions and context switching. These tasks – researching, writing, editing – require a lot of brain power and staying in the right context non-stop for as long as we can. These are the tasks we do when we have time blocked off on our calendar and have turned off all notifications (more about both in a later post, and probably in one of Cal Newport’s books).

I mark my tasks with a task-type label on my to do list app. When I’m in one of those useless bits of the day, I look at the splinter task label. When I have time to focus, I look at the focus label. In the morning, when figuring out priorities, I look at both, because a splinter task can be very important: some days, the most useful thing you can do is spend two minutes unblocking someone else. But when I’m trying to focus, I never look at the splinter task label; I don’t want to be distracted by the dark cloud on the horizon.

Sub-tasks need dates, too

Sub-tasks are one of the reasons I like to do lists and don’t like Jira – when we’re working with a big team, the way we sub-divide each task isn’t likely to go well with the official Jira workflow (or any other team or company-wide task accountancy tool).

I look at sub-tasks in two waves:

  • When I create a big task, I try to populate the sub-tasks. I give them their own due dates, so that if my big task is due in two months, the sub-tasks are spread out at sensible intervals.
  • When I’ve picked my big tasks for the day, I check the sub-tasks and see if I can make them even smaller (mostly because then I get to cross lots of things off my list, which I find immensely gratifying). Then I start working through the sub-tasks, one at a time, while ignoring the overall size of the list so I don’t stress out. They should be in a logical order, by the way; “Send for proofreading” isn’t going to come before “Write draft”.

Sub-tasks are also why I don’t like hand written to do lists: somehow I always end up not leaving myself enough space on the page for all the sub-tasks and their details and status. Especially if I keep adjusting them, which I do because I keep remembering little things that need to happen (those “oh, must do this too” moments are why I only use to do list apps that have a global keyboard shortcut for a simple input field).

Tag, hide and follow up on blocked tasks

Blocked tasks can dirty up the to do list: we can’t do them, so we shouldn’t have to look at them all day long. Much better to filter them away. I tag them as blocked, and create two filters for my to do list: today’s unblocked tasks and today’s blocked tasks. I look at the blocked tasks just once or twice a day, to see if any have been unblocked, or if I can do anything to speed up unblocking them, like chase someone whose answer I’m waiting for. The rest of the time: out of sight, out of mind.

Coming up…

Next week, we’ll talk about planning the week, then the day, so that we can focus on those big, important tasks we’ve identified.

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