The Multi-Level Todo List

Time Management

Since becoming a “lead of leads” I’ve found that a simple todo list of tasks no longer fits my needs. Given I spend most of my energy delegating tasks and following up on their progress later, I had tasks on my todo list that would be on there for weeks, sometimes months as they progressed. I also found that my attention was being pulled in a number of directions at once and I struggled to identify which tasks were important and how I should spend my time.

There are a lot of words written about how to effectively manage todo lists, how to manage your time, how to prioritise, etc and I’m aware this adds to that massive pile but I think it’s important to find a process that works for you. So here’s mine.

Weekly Goals

This is the thing that keeps me on track when I’ve got multiple things on. Just like I would expect for a team, I set myself a one or two (never more) weekly goals which I use to help set direction for my week, and to help me measure if I’m making progress. I tend to set goals large enough to fill my week so that I’m somewhat stretched to complete them e.g. Set up hiring pipeline for Senior Software engineer (which might include a number of meetings, writing a job spec, setting up and interview funnel) or if something is particularly important I might have a small task as goal to ensure it’s done that week e.g. Set up 1:1s with new managers.

Any time I pick up a new task or have some down time, I refer back to my weekly goal. Does this task help me get closer to those goals? If not, then it goes to the bottom of my todo list.

As the week progresses, I regularly check in on how I’m doing. If I’ve completed a goal I’ll mark it with a ✅. By the end of the week ideally both of my goals should be ticked, if not, I’ll mark any incomplete goals with ❌. I keep a record of all of my previous weekly goals and how I did so that I can look back over time and see a high-level summary of the work I’m doing.

The Inbox

The concept of an Inbox is from Getting Things Done by David Allen. This is a space to collect everything that you have on your mind at the moment, no matter how big or small. I use it as a scratch pad during meetings as well as a space to jot things down as I remember them so nothing gets lost. Send a slack about project y – in the Inbox. Define a process for incident debriefs – in the inbox.

I like to go through my Inbox at the start and end of every day and, just like you would if you were running a team, triage anything that I’ve added over the course of the day. Anything that takes five minutes or less gets done there and then. If a task takes longer than that, it then gets moved into my Prioritised backlog.

The Prioritised Backlog

For me, the Prioritised Backlog is the key to keeping track of everything I have going on. Everything that was gathered in the Inbox is sorted into a item in the backlog, either a larger item that might hold a number of todos (such as a long running project with multiple steps) or on it’s own as a standalone task. If an item has more than one task in it I tend to keep a short summary at the top that reminds me what the latest status of that item is – in some cases a project I need to keep track of could run for multiple weeks where I don’t need to be actively involved.

A screenshot of an empty backlog

I’ve found I only need four categories for items on this board: Planning, Waiting on Others, In Progress and Done, with tasks regularly moving back and forth between In Progress and Waiting on Others.

Tom - 2024-01-11