Applying The Four Laws Of Simplicity To Task Lists

Wednesdays are simplicity days at SimpleProductivity blog.

Photo by cygnus921

After bumping into the Four Laws Of Simplicity, I realized that they can be applied not only to physical stuff, but also the aspects of every productivity system. In this series, we have already talked about applying it to “stuff”, as well as calendars . Now we’ll take a look at how to apply them to task lists.

The Four Laws Of Simplicity

Let’s start out with a review of the four laws:

  1. Collect everything in one place.
  2. Choose the essential.
  3. Eliminate the rest.
  4. Organize the remaining stuff neatly and nicely.

It’s fairly straightforward, right?

Applying The Four Laws To Task Lists

Let’s apply this to our tasks lists.


Tasks collect all over the place. I’ve seen fragments of task lists written on sticky notes, mirrors, hands and shoes as well as the standard paper and electronic lists.

The goal for this step is to get everything together. You need scour all the places where you have written stuff to be done down and assemble them in one place.

You will also need to pull things out of your mind. You might wonder how to capture these items of what is essentially a brain dump. There are many methods you can use (such as the one highlighted at How to Do the Ultimate Brain Dump), but I prefer to use a trigger list. The trigger list I use can be found at’s Instructions for Downloading the RAM In Your Brain.

Get everything out of your brain and onto paper, and add it to the other paper that you have collected.


I liked to look at each task hold it up against “Do I need to do this now?” I will separate tasks into five piles: delegate, trash, change, someday and keep. There are several phases involved in this, but the critical factors are this:

  • Am I the right person to do this (keep)? Can I delegate it? (delegate)
  • Is this something I need to do to move my goals forward (keep)? Or is it simply filling time (trash)?
  • Is this the right thing to be doing (keep)? Is there something else that might be better to get me where I am going (change)?
  • Is this something that needs to be done now (keep)? Or something I would like to do in the future? (someday)


Once the tasks are sorted into the piles, two have to be dealt with right away to get them off our plates. The tasks to be trashed should be trashed, with no backward glance. The tasks to be delegated should be handed off to another person.

The rest need to be organized.


Tasks mostly don’t exist by themselves. They are generally steps leading to the completion of something bigger. David Allen in Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity calls these bigger things projects. I use that term, too, simply because it fits well with the ways that I have been trained to think.

Sometimes tasks do have only one step. I call these “one-off” tasks. These are things like putting toilet paper in a bathroom, or cleaning the coils on the refrigerator. At work, these tasks might include updating my hours in the system, or setting up a meeting at the request of my boss.

I like delineating the tasks in this way because I get context. When tasks belong to a bigger project, I can group them together and see the logical order; I can also take into account unforeseen things that might crop up, such as a delay that needs to be followed up . I keep a list of one-off tasks, and also a set of project pages.

David Allen recommends keeping two lists: active projects, and a someday/maybe list. I use these delineations myself just because I haven’t found anything better. However, I find that my someday/maybe list grows and doesn’t get pruned as often as it should, and it supplanted by things that are more immediate.

I do follow David Allen’s definition of a project, however. Knowing myself as I do, anything with more than 2 steps to completion needs to be tracked so I don’t lose sight of it. I keep my active projects in a project book, inspired by Leonie Dawson, but customized to the type of projects that I do. For each one that is entered, I give any due date, and also list what “done” looks like. Then underneath that I have a place to track the actual tasks.

With a project form of organizing, you place the tasks under the correct project and work from these when you review. The one-off task list can also be reviewed at this time.

I like to simplify my tasks lists periodically. By collecting everything, deciding what needs to be done (if anything), purging and organizing, I always come out of this exercise with a firmer grip on what I have on my plate.

Do you purge your tasks lists? How do you organize? Share below.

Photo by cygnus921. Licensed under Creative Commons.