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Jarett Hailes
Jarett Hailes

Spring Cleaning Your Personal Backlog

As spring begins to plant its roots in the Northern Hemisphere, many people will begin an annual spring cleaning of their home.  All the clutter that has accumulated over the past 3, 6, 9, or even 12 months since the last cleaning is collected, assessed and then dealt with (either by moving stuff to a better location, actually using the thing, or throwing it away/selling it).

Like our homes, most of us have a bunch of ‘to do’s’ that build up over time.  Whether you are someone who meticulously manages all the tasks that you must do or you are someone who will try and keep all their ongoing duties solely in your head, chances are that you have a list of things that you have wanted or needed to do but have never quite found the time to get around to.  I like to call the list of outstanding tasks that someone has to do (whatever their context; personal or work-related) a personal backlog.

While there’s nothing wrong with not crossing off all your tasks (after all, who really has time to do everything they need or want to?); over time you can develop a level of ‘accountability debt’ to yourself.  Most active and high-achieving people strive to get as much done as possible, and when they can’t complete everything that everyone has asked of them they usually take it personally, either at a conscious or unconscious level.  This could be manifested as internal guilt, frustration, stress or other negative emotions. 

As you feel bad about not being able to accomplish everything you start to make more and more mental reminders of all the things that you haven’t been able to do as if this action itself will help get more tasks completed.  This action simply clutters up your brain, which has a finite amount of space for keeping track of things.  As your personal backlog list continues to grow, you end up crowding out more pertinent or relevant information from your mind.  This can lead to feelings of confusion or lack of focus on the tasks at hand that matter the most.

So, if you’re feeling like you have a million things on your mind, it’s time to perform a little spring cleaning.  This activity will involve 4 steps as described below.


Write down everything you can think of that someone has asked you to do or that you’ve pledged to do.  Nothing is too big or too trivial to be included in this list.  This should span your work and personal lives; don’t forget about promising to clean Aunt Martha’s eaves troughs (you know she won’t).    Include problems that you need to solve (for instance, figuring out how to make your sales estimates more accurate going forward or what to do about your son’s late nights) and that you may need some dedicated thinking time to properly ponder.

This may not be something you can do in one session, but allocate some dedicated distraction-free time to this effort.  You will be surprised how many little items come bubbling back to the surface once you get on a roll.

If you already have one or more to do/task lists, this is a great place to start.  For this activity you will want to consolidate all of your task lists into one big master list.  You may be used to segregating certain aspects of your life and find it effective to manage them that way, but from a spring cleaning perspective you will need to look at everything holistically.

Don’t be surprised (or daunted) if this list grows into hundreds of items; instead take satisfaction that you now have a single point of reference for all your outstanding action items.  You no longer need to carry these about in your brain’s short-term memory.

Break Down/Up

You will want to review your list for items that are not immediately actionable (that is, there is something that you would first need to do in order to accomplish the stated item).  Those items should be moved to a second reference list and be linked in some way to the one item that is currently actionable on the main list. 

This way your to do list becomes a series of ‘next action’ steps, not some nebulous list of end goals that may have dozens of steps that need to be performed in order to be accomplished.   Having a list for achievable next steps will add value to this list when you’re looking for what you should do next or at a given moment.


Once you have your master list, it’s time to prioritize. The goal of this prioritization is to have a single ordered list from the highest priority item to the least priority item.

 Some of you may want to categorize your items into work and life at this point.  I personally find that my life is not so easily segregated (and I would suspect that with modern working practices most people’s are not either), so I would suggest you try and come up with a single prioritized list.

Similarly, you may have a desire to have ‘high/medium/low’ or similar buckets and then just place all your tasks into one of the priorities.  While this may be a good starting point so you can manage prioritizing elements further, having buckets of items doesn’t help you actually get any of the tasks done later on.  When you’re in working mode, you will want to quickly scan the top of the list and see which of the items are actionable at the moment.  Having a list of 10-30 ‘high priority’ items doesn’t help you make a decision at that point, and can lead to feeling overwhelmed and helpless right at a time when you could be easily getting started to work on something.

If you need help getting started, associate due dates to the items that jump out at you off the page as stuff that has to be done by a certain time.  This should help you figure out where some of the items fit on the list.  Others may not have a set due date but still need to be placed higher up the list.

The end product doesn’t have to be perfectly prioritized; you shouldn’t spend more than a few seconds debating whether one item is above or below another.  The goal is to have a general order of importance based on your current life situation that can be easily referred to going forward.


Once you’ve prioritized your list, start scanning the items from top to bottom.  After each item ask yourself “do I really need to get this done?”  Once you start running into a steady sequence of ‘no’ answers, start looking for a place to cut off the list and remove all the items below it.  Then quickly scan the remainder of the items to see if there’s anything you actually do need to do and bring it back to the pruned list (or perhaps add a couple of items to your pruned list for ‘Sorry I can’t do this messages’).

You need to be honest with yourself and look at your available time, your other commitments and obligations and your personal energy levels and goals to figure out where the line should be drawn.  But you do need to draw the line somewhere; I haven’t met anyone who is able to accomplish everything that they put down when they’ve done a brain dump.

Ongoing Maintenance

Once you’ve done this activity, you now have an actionable, up to date and realistic list that you can use going forward to take on your tasks and duties.  If you use this opportunity to manage this list on an ongoing basis, you will likely find that your mind will be less cluttered and you will be able to easily find tasks that you can do in any given situation (e.g. those 10 minutes between your meetings) by keeping this list up-to-date and close at hand. 

Spring cleaning can feel like a chore, but when you do it on your personal backlog the benefits of a clearer mind and the ability to focus easier without worrying about forgetting to do something can be a major energizer for the months ahead.

This entry was published on Apr 18, 2010 / Jarett Hailes. Posted in Project Management, Soft Skills. Bookmark the Permalink or E-mail it to a friend.
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