Before You Create a To-Do List

For several years now, I have profited from using a “Master Task List.” This is a way to group your work-related activities so that you do what you were hired to do and keep from getting side-tracked by “trivial pursuits.” It is something you should develop before you start throwing together a to-do list.

Photo courtesy of ©, Image #7195918

Photo courtesy of ©

I first learned this technique from Todd Duncan, whose book, Time Traps, published by Thomas Nelson, is a must read. It is subtitled, “Proven Strategies for Swamped Salespeople” but don’t let this put you off. Even if you aren’t in sales, this book has news you can use. Every page is loaded with time-saving tips and techniques for managing your workflow.

“Master Tasking” is the process of identifying your five to seven most productive, most important work-related tasks. A Master Task List is similar to a job description but more useful. It answers the question, “What was I really hired to do?”

Here are some characteristics of master tasks:

  • They are usually important but not urgent.
  • They spell the difference between success and failure.
  • You have a hard time getting to them.
  • They are things you usually do on your own.
  • They can be scheduled but usually aren’t.

The purpose of developing a Master Task List is to enable you to focus more easily on those activities that really add value to your department, your division and your company. Once you have a Master Task List you can measure your performance against it. More importantly, you can schedule these activities so you accomplish the most important tasks related to your job.

Master Tasking will enable you to become more productive, more successful, more confident, less frustrated, and less stressed. It is one of the reasons why I have gotten as far as I have in my career. Others who have practiced it have reported similar results. It’s a high pay-off activity for a relatively small investment of time.

Your Master Task List should be written down and periodically reviewed. Each Master Task should be stated as a broad activity area; for example, “Manuscript Development,” “Copywriting,” “Travel Planning,“ “Financial Review,” etc. Then, you should list three to seven bulleted subpoints that represent the specific activities related to that particular Master Task.

For example, I have a master task called “Business Planning.” Here are the activities associated with that Master Task:

  • Casting corporate vision
  • Defining corporate strategy
  • Reviewing Group and Divisional Strategic Plans
  • Reviewing Group and Divisional Annual Plans

Notice that each Master Task list activity begins with a gerund (i.e., a noun formed from a verb). The idea is to make these action-oriented. These are things you do.

To give you a real-life example, here’s my current Master Task List:

Master Task List
  1. Managing Up
    • Meeting with the Board
    • Responding to the Board’s requests
    • Preparing for Board meetings
    • Providing our equity sponsors, investors, and lenders with agreed-upon reports
    • Making presentations to our equity sponsors, investors, and lenders with agreed-upon reports

  2. Business Planning
    • Casting corporate vision
    • Defining corporate strategy
    • Reviewing Group and Divisional Strategic Plans
    • Reviewing Group and Divisional Annual Plans

  3. New Business Development
    • Identifying new internal growth opportunities
    • Identifying new acquisition opportunities
    • Meeting with and courting prospective sellers
    • Evaluating acquisition opportunities
    • Recommending acquisition opportunities

  4. Employee Development
    • Coaching my direct reports
    • Chairing the Executive Leadership Team
    • Meeting bi-weekly with my direct reports and ad hoc as necessary
    • Preparing for and conducting direct report performance reviews
    • Recruiting and hiring new executive team members as necessary

  5. Author Relations
    • Building relationships with our top authors
    • Attending author planning meetings with our top authors
    • Visiting each of our top ten authors on an annual basis
    • Monitoring the performance of our top authors

  6. Customer Relations
    • Building relationships with the CEOs of our top customers
    • Monitoring the revenues of the company’s top customers
    • Monitoring the business strategy of the company’s top customers
    • Visiting each of our top ten customers, in-person, on an annual basis

  7. Media Relations
    • Monitoring our brand online.
    • Maintaining a social media presence online via my blog, Twitter, and Facebook
    • Representing the company to the local and trade media
    • Returning calls to the media and answering questions
    • Building relationships with the media

  8. Financial Oversight
    • Chairing monthly financial review meetings with group and division leaders
    • Reviewing and approving financial decisions that exceed the approval level of my direct reports
    • Providing direction and guidelines to the annual budget process
    • Insuring that we exceed our financial objectives

Once you have completed your Master Task List, you can begin scheduling these on your calendar. This is a process Todd Duncan calls “Time Blocking.” It ensures that you schedule your priorities and make time to do the things that are truly important.

Question: Have you thought about your job from this perspective?
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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are snarky, offensive, or off-topic. If in doubt, read My Comments Policy.

  • Eren- homemaking

    Hi Michael- I actually begain a master task list yeasterday for my home. I'm a homemmekar and still I have humongous lists of thinsg to do – it all exhausts me- LOL.
    Anyways I strated my master task list and it looks pretty huge but I'm still going to keep going because I after I write all of the things out, I can then do as you said separate blocks of time to get thinsg done.
    Thsi post is very timely since this is exactly what I'm working on right now.
    Eren Mckay

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  • Josh Mann

    Very helpful article! I have already been practicing something similar. I find it helpful to begin with more general 'life purpose' items and then list more specific tasks according to each major purpose. Goals might be arranged according to 'this year', 'this month', 'this week', and 'today', and the task-items get more specific (and urgent) as the time frame decreases. Tasks for 'today' must be done, not least because they will affect the accomplishment of goals for the week, month, and even in the year.

  • W. Vanderbloemen

    Excellent post Michael. I've color coded my calendar around my roles in life (disciple, husband, father, executive search consultant, spiritual leader), and it has helped time block my schedule.

    One addition I bet you have heard. Someone told me a while back that it's just as important to end each day with a "what did I do list," a sort of quick audit of the day. It helps give a sober picture of how you invested the day, and if it is invested properly, gives a boost of confidence even when results didn't show themselves.

    Thanks for all you do.

    – William Vanderbloemen

    • Michael Hyatt

      William, I color-code my calendar, too, but I keep it pretty broad. Doing it around master tasks is a good idea.

      I have never heard of the "what did I do list." I do that mentally every day, but I have never written it down. Great ide!

  • Ron Edmondson

    This is over the top good for me right now. Trying to get a handle on all I'm responsible for and want to do has been stretching me lately. I needed a new focus. This helps greatly! Thanks

    Ron Edmondson

  • Rachel

    I was wore out just reading your list! :) I admire you all the more!


  • Daniel Decker

    "Time Traps" is a great book. I picked it up a long time ago when Todd had some dealings with a few of John Maxwell's companies / brands. The book has been a blessing personally and professionally.

    • Michael Hyatt

      John Maxwell was the one who first introduced me to Todd.

  • JMillerKelley

    This is brilliant, but assumes that you have the luxury of handing off the urgent-but-not-as-important non-master tasks to someone below you. I feel like I have no choice but to handle the urgent and squeeze in the important. Sad, but true. I am trying to better manage my time, though, so that the urgent-but-not-important things don't take up more time than they should.

    • Michael Hyatt

      If you don't have an assistant, I would recommend reading Tim Ferriss's book, The 4 Hour Work Week. He talks about elimination and automation. He also talks about virtual assistants, which can be a great option for some.

  • Ed Andriessen

    Hmm…I follow David Allen's GTD quite rigorously. In addition to my Next actions, Project, Someday Maybe and Waiting for list, perhaps there is room for a Master list. I wonder if you could classify this as the 50,000 foot list (or just keep it as the Master list?)

    It's tough to categorize, it appears to be a blend of Next Actions and Projects, but I see the importance of moving these onto a reviewable list. Otherwise, you do get "side tracked" or tempted to defer in favor of the "urgent" (but not necessarily important).

    Thanks for the great post and ideas.

    • Michael Hyatt

      You can also think of them as roles and integrate it into GTD.

  • @JVelthoen

    That is pretty brilliant! I am off to list out my tasks and see what I can come up with for my world! Thank you

  • FaithBarista

    Like Ed, I use David Allen Getting Things Down quite rigorously also, as a Marketing and Engineering Program Manager launching products in high tech in the past, and now, as a Christian blogger and Mom of two boys.

    GTD is good at exactly what the title says. But, Todd Duncan's Time Trap, sounds like a good resource to add to my productivity portfolio.

    I like the concept of a Master List for higher level life visioning, as it applies to spiritual, family and personal direction.

    Thanks for the pointer to the book, as well as a peek into your Master List!

    • Michael Hyatt

      I use GTD, too, but supplement it with this and other tools I have accumulated through the years.

  • Bryce

    What a great post! The insight into what you do as a CEO is so fascinating.

    I’ve already got a Master Task List in progress for my life goals but I’m going to take another look at my job description and do this for my career specifically. Thanks for the inspiration!

  • Gregg Stutts

    This is EXTREMELY helpful. The five bullets that characterize the master tasks were enough to convince me!

  • Jim

    oof…this is some heavy duty stuff for a messy creative like me…but i'm interested

  • stephen

    You may want to check out, a very nicely built web app designed for implementing the GTD methodology. It's free, clear, focused, easy to navigate, worth a try.

  • mike St. Pierre

    Michael, this is really helpful. Sort of like GTD areas of focus with projects underneath. Definitely something I'll consider.

  • WendyEL

    Thanks to all. These ideas are very helpful. I love learning new tricks about Time Management.

    I am curious, do you have a structure to when you plan each category? For example, I have a colleague who keeps her Mondays clear of meetings so she can focus on financials and reviewing reports (results of campaigns, other statistics she manages).

    When I am overloaded I focus on one product line or project a day. Other tasks get done that day, but focusing on that one keeps bringing me back to it so it is finally completed. I have color coded the days at the top of my daytimer, to add an appealing visual.

    Always looking for new ideas. I like to change it up at times because I get bored with the same routine and want to try something new.

  • @b160allen

    This is such an important piece to making sure that you are truly productive rather than busy. Using this inline with personal core values can increase success tremendously.

  • Doug Smith

    I am going to try this. (And I have ordered a copy of Mr. Duncan's book.) After thinking about it for a couple of days now, I conclude that the best way to think of the Master Task List in GTD terms would be as a special sub-set of the 20,000 foot Areas of Focus and Responsibility where making them a special sub-set denotes the fact that they are of special importance.

    I didn't fully grasp what the 20,000-foot AFR was about until I heard one of Mr. Allen's coaches mention in a podcast that these items do not have a due date because they are never actually completed. So they aren't actions or projects or goals which can be completed or achieved, but rather encompass projects and tasks which need to be completed.

  • @DavidGallery

    I restarted GTD just couple month after read the book. In fact I found your site from Google search about GTD, your articles (on old site) on GTD for outlook – may be 2 years ago. Well, back then my understanding GTD from online articles.

    Long story short, just couple weeks ago my todo list (outlook) just loaded with too many stuffs bunch of projects big and small. I ended up missing a lot of stuffs too. I have to admit that sometime I skip the weekly review, bad move. Till today, I start to ignore couple of the categories. One of my biggest problem is unable to have snap shot on all those projects.

    My biggest problem – Missing Master task list where I can have a quick snap shot what are projects in there. IT department, Engineer Dept, Production support, ….

    Adding more complexity – I'm moving to Mac OS and iPhone since last week. I'm still learning and hoping to find a best way to get GTD process setup on, iCal, missing todo app (saw you mention omniFocus)? iPhone sync and also missing todo app.

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  • Bruce

    Thank you..thank you! This is phenom. wisdom! Your blogs are always so significant.

  • Matt Riopelle

    Your successive points of “They spell the difference between success and failure” and “You have a hard time getting to them” point to where most people get derailed. The stuff that would make the difference is never attended to because of what seems urgent. Great post Michael. Thank you. Oh, and thanks for commenting on my blog post a while back. I was honored to have you there.

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