We only get a measly 24 hours in a day, but some people manage to capitalize on all 86,400 seconds. Take Leonardo da Vinci, for example. One doesn’t simply paint the “Mona Lisa,” design myriad futuristic inventions, and become an expert in science and mathematics all in one lifetime without managing his time well.

On any given week, da Vinci’s to-do list ranged from minor tasks such as ice skating to slightly more ambitious projects such as measuring and painting the entire city of Milan. He was a multifaceted man, to say the least.

You might not be da Vinci, but that doesn’t mean your to-do list is any less hectic. Big projects such as building a company and small tasks like making coffee in the morning compete for our time, but our subconscious mind doesn’t sort them based on scope or priority. Our minds want to get everything done now, which is why so many of us feel overwhelmed and without a clue of where to begin.

When you have a daunting number of tasks on your plate, prioritization is the deciding factor between a productive day and a wasted day. David Allen, an expert in productivity who wrote “Getting Things Done,” believes “it’s possible for a person to have an overwhelming
number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control.”

By combining a few different tactics, I’ve found a way to keep my head clear and stay on top of the endless tasks that accompany 21st-century living.

How a Backlog Changed My Life

It all started when I used a product backlog to track everything I needed to do while I built an app. The backlog was a life saver professionally, and that experience caused me to wonder what a similar system could do for my personal life.

Using Allen’s organization system and my own experience, I created a master backlog of everything that occupies my mind. The list includes everything from immediate things I need to take care of — getting groceries or going to the gym — to larger goals from my bucket list. I also have a weekly backlog of actionable items that I must complete during that week.

Whenever a new task pops into my head, I record it on a checklist on my smartphone. At the end of my week, I take stock of my tasks and add them to my master backlog to prioritize. This technique allows me to focus on what I am doing at any given moment instead of obsessing about the various things I need to get done.

Many successful people swear by task lists. Sir Richard Branson believes his “culture of notes and thoughtful to-do lists” (and following through on those lists) is the reason Virgin has been so successful. Tim Ferriss, author of “Tools for Titans,” has a morning routine that includes writing down three to five goals and acting on just one of them for a few hours a day. In her book "Lean In," Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg talks about how she carries a physical notebook and pen to track her to-do list. Regardless of your profession, a backlog can help simplify your life.

Steps to Create Your Own Backlog

If you frequently feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish your various tasks and duties, a backlog is exactly what you need. Here are five steps to help you begin building your own backlog:

  1. Put it on paper. Write down everything you want to get done. The tasks you want to accomplish occupy space in your mind, and putting them on paper opens space to instead focus on tasks. A study by Dr. Gail Matthews shows you’re more likely to accomplish a goal if you write it down.
  2. Prioritize, categorize, and schedule. Once you’ve put your plans on paper, go through the list to perform task triage. If something needs immediate action, mark it with “IM.” Everything else should go into “have to,” “nice to,” or “someday” categories. Add the immediate tasks to your calendar, and set a
    timeline for the other items. You can’t tackle the whole backlog at once, so
    take on one project at a time.
  3. Focus on minimal viable progress. For bigger projects such as writing a book or building an app, focus on minimal viable progress. Figure out the smallest amount of progress you can make toward achieving a massive project, and then do that. Don’t waste time on nonessentials; just get the small task done. As Greg McKeown states in his book “Essentialism,” ask yourself, "What is the smallest amount of progress that will be useful and valuable to the essential task we are trying to get done?" Add that task to your backlog.
  4. Revisit your backlog regularly. Check your “have to” list every morning and choose one to three items you’d like to get done. Spend a few hours that day accomplishing those tasks. Once you’ve completed your “have to” items, move a few “nice to” items to that portion of the list.
  5. Complete your tasks, and be present. The point of this method is getting things done instead of thinking about all the things you need to do. Strive for larger goals by first accomplishing smaller tasks and being present with whatever you have in front of you.

You might not be as ambitious as da Vinci and want to paint an entire city or learn to master several different subjects. And that’s OK. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks we all must complete on a daily basis. Rather than let the work overwhelm
you, create a backlog to give yourself some peace of mind. Hammer out your own list and take advantage of endless opportunities afforded by the next 24 hours. Your brain will thank you.

Author's Bio: 

Meghdad Abbaszadegan is an advisor with Coplex, a Los Angeles- and Phoenix-based startup studio focused on truly collaborative product design, development, and growth strategy. Coplex builds startups and digital products using lean and agile techniques. He is passionate about entrepreneurship, tennis, travel, and fostering connections between people. Follow Meghdad and Coplex on Twitter.