Finding focus with Remember the Milk

Couple weeks ago I was listening to a Mikes on Mics podcast episode 43 Routines where both Mikes shared their daily routines. I wholeheartedly recommend subscribing to this weekly show. Omnifocus is the key task management tool in their arsenal and it’s supplemented with 2-3 satellite apps and tools which include Asana, 30/30, Clear, Emergent Task Planner by David Seah. They use these tools to generate focus throughout the day by helping to define the tasks that must and should be done in first place.
This got me thinking about my process of setting Most Important Tasks and focusing on the key items using just a single tool.

In search of focus and building clarity

Everyone has a different approach to building focus in their work day. However the underlying goal is to find a way of defining where do you want to put your attention and making sure that you do accomplish the selected items. Whether you call it daily to-do list or defining MITs, setting few tasks that you consider critical helps make progress. Skipping on this and trying to wing it is a sure fire way to burnout and focus on what’s loudest and most recent. This may work for a while but if you really want to create something either at work or at home with out setting attention your aspirations and goal will never materialize.

I think the process of defining MITs is particularly helpful if you’re following the GTD methodology which helps you capture and organise various action and projects into lists. Overtime these list can grow substantially and present you with dozens or hundred of opportunities to choose from.

How to select MIT?

The process of defining MITs or your small daily to-do list can be painful. You need to say “NO” to all other tasks that sit on your lists and say “YES” to a selected few. I don’t think there is any science in deciding what you should focus on. The key is that whatever you decide to select is in line with your aspirations and these can only be defined by you. Being clear on where you want to go can make things easier. Although it’s nothing concrete I have couple criteria that I use in my own process:

  • you can accomplish it in one sitting i.e. 45-60 minutes of focused work
  • the task will progress a specific project or a goal
  • you will feel good about completing the task
  • I get “reminders” from various sources about the task to do i.e. someone mentions something, I see something related on the news etc.

When reviewing your list allow yourself to add only 4-5 items only. This may sound like a small number but if completed daily for a month or a quarter it can amount to sizable chunk of work and noticeable progress. Going after bigger number of tasks can be tricky and set you up for disappointment if you skip on too many items.

My approach

My personal approach to setting daily tasks and MITs is to stick with a single app. As I mentioned here before, Remember the Milk is my tool of choice and I try to make the most out of it. Usually, on daily basis I will review my context lists and select the tasks that I want to accomplish in a given day. Then for each selected task I assign priority level of 1. Once I’ve done that these actions are automatically added to my @MIT list in Remember the Milk. The list is a so called smart list which is updated dynamically so any time I flag an item as priority 1 it get added to my @MIT list. This is a very efficient way of allocating items and putting them on the right list with out a hassle of dragging thing around.

If you are interested this is the search syntax I’m using to generate this list and make sure it auto updates.

priority:1 and status:incomplete or due:today or dueBefore:today and status:incomplete

You will notice that list also pull up item that have due date set to today. This is intentional so that I can see what I’m already committed and I don’t put too many items on my plate.


For added impact, accountability and ease of reference one of the screens on my Android smartphone has a widget which displays all the important tasks that I should be looking at today.

Note on frequency

Although through out this post I’m referring to a daily to-do list and daily review things are not always that simple. Ideally you want to complete this daily to make sure you take time to reassess and refocus. Yet some weeks are busy with pre-scheduled items that leave very little time for any additional work. In those weeks I treat my list as a weekly focus list. Rather that punish myself for missing on items I will try to accomplish them in a given week depending on available time and energy. Making this allowance helps to keep momentum on those important items even if the time is tight.

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