What bull riding taught me about to-do lists

A few years ago I had a goal to ride a bull. One weekend my wife, Maria, was out of town so I decided to get it done. I looked up bull riding schools on the internet and found Terry Don’s Bull Riding School in Henryetta, Oklahoma. I called Terry Don late in the week, confirmed that he had room in the class and learned what equipment I’d need. Since I had to work on Friday I’d need to start the second day of the three day course.

Not to be deterred, I woke up at 4AM Saturday, drove to Oklahoma, bought boots and bull riding glove from Paul’s Western store and made my way to the bull pen. Within 30 minutes of arriving (just enough to sign the waiver, get geared up and get a 5 minute overview), I found myself in the chute on the back of a real bull.

My mind raced with adrenaline and I started to wish I’d arrived a day earlier for a proper introduction. As they wrapped the bull rope around my hand, my heart tried to pound out of the kevlar vest I had borrowed. I gave them the nod just like they do on TV and three things happened in quick succession. The chute opened, the bull leapt out and I promptly tumbled right off the side.

What just happened? How hard could it be? I had it all figured out but when it was “show time” my performance was pretty lackluster. Video here.

How many times have I intended to conquer a new day with a list of things I wanted to get done only to be bucked off course as soon as the day started. Whether it’s a kiddo waking up at night, a customer that needs help or an unexpected desk “drive-by,” there are always going to be things that require our immediate attention. Regardless of the reason for deviating from our plan, the bottom-line is that we need a system with flexible tools that allows us to stay the course.

The most important tool in our toolbox is an amazing “to-do” list. Regardless of the medium, here is what we need to shoot for:

  1.  CONCISE: Only the time period or subject you are working on is visible
  2.  ACCESSIBLE: Interaction from anywhere at any time
  3.  PRIORITIZED: Ordered with the most important item you need to work on topping the list
  4.  ACTIONABLE: Specific next action clearly listed at the end of the task
  5.  SEARCHABLE Within the text of a task or across tasks
  6.  QUICK: Fast to add new items or change existing items (visible or otherwise)

Let’s dig our spurs in a bit (it doesn’t hurt the bull by the way).

1. CONCISE: You only want to see what is relevant to you in the moment you want it. If it is the tasks for the day or the week, that is all you should see. Period. Keeping everything on the same list allows you to quickly move things in and out of certain views by using flags as a means of filtering. For example, I flag items with an “ATD” for things I need to do today and “ATW” for things I need done this week (the “A” simply helps keep them towards the top when they are sorted) Use your own system! Whatever medium you chose, use your flags to filter to a subset of the list.

Note: Outlook has a pane that lets you view a subset of filtered tasks. This is a great place for outlook users to keep their daily lists:

Outlook To-Do List

2. ACCESSIBLE: Do you always have a pencil and paper? Probably not. Do you always have your smart phone? It is a great place to create your list. In addition, if you spend time in front of your laptop or tablet, your list should be synced there as well so any changes or additions will be available everywhere. Outlook does this in most cases through an exchange server but there are many other software providers.

3. PRIORITIZED: I’m not sure about your day but when I’m trying to knock out a task I do my best to put all my focus there. When I’m done I need to mentally “switch gears.” At that point I usually don’t feel like getting back into planning mode to figure out what I should be working on next. Having the next most important task at the top makes it easy to stay in the flow and move from one task to the next.

Now if something urgent comes up and the bull tries to throw you, compare it to the top item on the list. If it is truly urgent, acknowledge that it needs to be done now and take a few seconds to add it to the top of the list. Note: rarely should the YouTube link your friend just sent classify as urgent!

4. NEXT ACTION: A task might be larger in nature and may even be a project with many sub-tasks. Limit the subjects themselves to the topic, flags (including people) and next actions. Consider including any sub-tasks or supporting details in the body of the task itself. For example if the task is to complete an expense report, then any details would be included in the task notes.

Outlook Task Details

The key to easing into the task during the day is to make sure it is decomposed with the next action called out in the task name. If the task is to change the batteries in the smoke detectors, the next action may be to check and see if you have batteries or to buy batteries at Walmart. This makes it much easier to get started. For example: “ATD 1 change battery in smoke detector NA go to the Walmart.”

5. SEARCHABLE: Putting flags in your to-do list makes it infinitely more usable. In the example above if the next action for me is to go to the store, I may want to use that as a key word in my task. For example “ATD 1 change battery in the smoke detector STORE NA Go to Walmart” That way when I search on STORE, things I need to pick up around town are visible.

We should be able to do this with anything including people. For example, if my boss calls and I need to quickly see what topics I want to talk to him about, that’s easily done if I’ve included his name in all relevant tasks.

6. QUICK: Your best bet is to move as fast as the bull does. When a new “to-do” or idea hits, the goal is to get it down and KEEP MOVING on whatever task is at the top of the list. If a new task needs to be done today, flag and prioritize it with a next action when you add it. If not, get it down as best you can and circle back at the end of the day to add any missing details and flags.

Note: if it takes longer than 15 seconds for you to add, prioritize or re-prioritize an item on your list, you need to rethink your medium and process!

Alright so why do I call it a Digital Next Action (DNA) list?

I’ve been a long time student of “To-Do” lists. At the young age of 13, my parents gave me my first “Franklin Planner” along with the cassette tape on how to use it. For years I was a faithful student of the system and dutifully copied the tasks from one page of my planner to the next each day.

When I joined Intel in at the turn of the century I found that my planner was having a hard time keeping up with the e-mail and day to day activities in a tech company. The searching, accessibility and reprioritization simply wasn’t available so I had to rethink my strategy.

When I moved to a DNA list, in addition to the things I described above, it made daily planning fast! In ten minutes it was possible to do a quick scan of the weekly goals, scrub the calendar for the next two days, and prioritize some of the weekly tasks for the next day. No rewriting!

Oh and one more thing. Everything and I mean EVERYTHING needs to be captured on your to-do list.

What! Everything? That sounds like a bunch of bull!

Okay, let’s talk loops then start roping.

David Allen, in his book Getting Things Done, describes the concept of open loops. Essentially, our minds know all the things we need to do and continually reminds us when they aren’t getting done. These are essentially open loops that keep popping up in our heads, vying for our attention and distracting us from the tasks at hand. The only way to quiet your mind is to get all the these open loops into a system where you know you’ll revisit them regularly.

Does this happen to you? Each time you walk past your messy desk, does a little voice remind you that you need to clean it? Does an e-mail or text you need to write keep nagging at you? Give your brain a rest! Wrangle them all onto your to-do list and review them periodically!

How often do you need to review the list? The short answer is, only as frequently as you need to. I suggest reviewing all the tasks each week in a weekly planning session to decide which ones you want to flag for the coming week. During the week only review that shorter “current week” list to decide which tasks you want to do the next day.

Remember, with the exception of your weekly review, you should never need to look at the whole list. Just review the tasks filtered to the day, week or subject area!

Well Long Gamers, I’m not going to win a belt buckle anytime soon. That stated, Terry Don was able show me how to make adjustments that helped me stay on the bull.

At the end of the day, you might not be able to control all the twists and turns, but you can put a good system in place with a DNA list to make it whole lot easier to ride!

Post a comment if you’d like more details or questions on a specific area!

Also published on Medium.

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As a father, husband, plant based athlete and life-long student, I love continuously learning and reflecting on things that contribute to long, healthy, successful lives. All our choices on nutrition, physical fitness, community, spirituality and finding our purpose make a difference in living long, fulfilling lives. Thanks for reading - feel free to reach out with comments or questions!


As a father, husband, plant based athlete and life-long student, I love continuously learning and reflecting on things that contribute to long, healthy, successful lives. All our choices on nutrition, physical fitness, community, spirituality and finding our purpose make a difference in living long, fulfilling lives. Thanks for reading - feel free to reach out with comments or questions!

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