Task Management – Open Lists vs Closed Lists



Let’s face it – you’ll never have enough time to complete everything you want to do.  There will always be more articles to read, e-mails to check, projects to do and reports to write than you can possibly fit into any given day.


The way most of us deal with tasks and projects is to add each one to a never-ending open list – better known as the traditional To-Do list.  So we work away at tasks every day, ticking each one off the list as it is completed.  The problem with this system is this:  We also keep adding tasks to that list! So we never reach the end of the list, and in fact, often the list has more items on it at the end of the day, than at the beginning of the day.


There is a second, more critical, problem with the open list method.  It is the problem of prioritisation.  No matter how you decide which tasks to do first, there will always be types of tasks that remain undone.


For example, if you always choose to do the most urgent tasks first, the less urgent tasks will remain undone until they become urgent.  The same is true for easy tasks.  We often choose to do the easy tasks and leave the more complex tasks “until later”.  The problem comes in when “later” arrives to hit you on the head – crisis!


And then there is the third problem with the traditional open list:  It is de-motivating.  Since you never seem to arrive at the end of your list, you might start feeling overwhelmed, de-motivated and uninspired.  This is not a good space to work in.


The alternative to the open list is of course, the closed list. This type of list has a line at the bottom of the page.  This type of list is limited – no further tasks can be added to it.  This type of list – the closed list – has many benefits compared to the open list.


So, how does a closed list work?  It really is quite simple.  It all comes down to a quick analysis of each task, as it arrives on your desk.


As a task makes its appearance in your life, spend a few seconds analysing it.  Do you have to take action immediately?  Do you have to do it or can you delegate it?  Is it really an important task?  If it is important and you have to do it, add it to a list for tomorrow or the next day.  Be careful not to over-schedule yourself.  You can only do so many tasks per day.  Once a day is “full”, draw a line under it – that list is now closed.


Each day, you work on the tasks scheduled for that day – from your closed list.  Each day, you need to complete all the tasks in your closed list.  If you don’t, it will have to be carried over to the next day, which will eventually result in a backlog.


Clearly, there will be the odd occasion where a real emergency occurs.  These are tasks, which you absolutely have to attend to – today.  But if you think about it – and I mean really think about it – very few tasks fall into this category.  We are often too quick to categorise a task as highly urgent – “have to do it now” type of tasks.  If you plan properly, most tasks can be scheduled for tomorrow or the next day.


The benefits of a closed list, compared to an open list, are many.  Working with closed lists creates a feeling of accomplishment.  At the end of a day, you have actually completed everything you set out to do that day!  That’s a great feeling.  Secondly, when working with a closed list system, you are more in control of your day, your time, your tasks and your stress levels.  You control every bit of work you do during the day – you are no longer at the mercy of random time thieves.  This system is also a great solution to the “crisis mode” we tend to work in.  If you schedule a task to be done well before the deadline, very little of your time will be spent franticly completing “urgent” tasks.


Commit to trying the closed list system for one week and measure the difference it makes in your life.