Every time you look at your “to-do” list is it causing you to feel stressed out?

Are you overwhelmed trying to decide what to work on next?

If that’s the case, I want to share a few steps to help you gain control of the beast!

My own breakthrough was several years ago when I was working in Singapore and managing teams spread across several countries. My “to-do” list was overwhelming. It was a giant hodgepodge of tasks, projects and ideas. Honestly, sometimes it was easier to simply hideout in my inbox and stay caught up in the endless stream of meetings.

While on a business trip, I bought the book Getting Things Done by David Allen and it was exactly what I needed. Although I didn’t implement the entire system described in the book, there were fundamental shifts that transformed how I managed my “to-do list” that have stayed with me for over a decade.

Here are the first 3 steps to help you get started on your own transformation.

Step 1. Create one master list of projects.

If you keep your lists in separate places — on your phone, on your desktop, on Post-It notes, in your planner — this is a recipe for feeling out-of-control.

I know. I’ve been there. I love making lists. There were everywhere.

While it took a few hours to create a thorough inventory of every task, assignment, idea, project or commitment,  it was worth the effort. The new master list gave me an instant feeling of re-gaining some control over the tidal wave of work that was coming my way.

For your own list, you might be thinking that you have lots of tasks and only a small number of projects.  But, in reality, when you roll up your sleeves to tackle many of your tasks, you might discover they actually require multiple steps.

Any task that cannot be completed in a single step is actually a project. So, they go on your project list.

Step 2. Start using a “next actions list.”

Once you have your master list of projects, you’ll want to review it every day to identify the next actions to take  to move forward. Thinking in terms of the exact next step to take can help you improve your focus and enable you to get more done each day.

Let’s say you’re driving the car with the guidance system on because you’re heading to a place you’ve never been to before. At a critical point, all it says is “Turn.”  You won’t have enough detail to know where to turn.

On the other hand, if it says, “Turn right in 50 yards onto Boylston Street” you’d know exactly what to do.

The same is true with most “to-do” lists. When you write down a vague action like “client proposal” or “team presentation” you might stare at the words feeling a bit uncertain on the actual first step to take. If you don’t immediately know what to do, you may quickly decide to work on something else on your list. Maybe a task that you can tackle easily so you feel like you’ve accomplished something.

Instead, you might write “read client’s latest email on their requirements” or “schedule meeting with client’s account manager.” You only need to write down the very next step to move forward.

Step 3. Organize your “next actions list” by venue.

Now that you have a “next actions list” you’re ready to make progress.

But, let’s say you’re at a conference and there is a 15-minute break. You check your list to see what you might be able to accomplish quickly.

You scan the list for several minutes but most of the tasks require that you either be in your office or at your computer.

You give up, grab a cup of coffee and head back into the conference.

Instead, if your “next actions list” is organized by venue, you’d have a list of “Phone Calls” or “Anywhere” actions. You could quickly scan those lists to see what you could accomplish while you’re on the break.

Examples of venues I’ve used in the past have included: Phone Calls, Errands, In the Office, At My Computer, Anywhere and the various locations where I regularly traveled to, such as Tokyo or Manila. When I was in those locations, I had a specific list of actions to take while I was there.

Whatever system you use or process you follow, the key is to use them consistently.

As David Allen says, “Small things done consistently, in strategic places, create major impact.”