Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Energy, Time, Priority, Work/Life: 4 New Ways To Organize Your To-Do List

Traditionally, to-do lists embody the Theodore Roosevelt quotation “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Most of us write down our tasks in no particular order, with no way of prioritizing them. To really supercharge your to-do list, however, we need to add “contexts” to our action items.

Contexts are the meta-data for our to-do lists. Not all tasks are created equal. As our workdays become increasingly complicated, we need efficient ways to focus on the things that matter. This starts by adding deeper meaning to the items on our to-do lists. Here are some ideas of contexts that go beyond the norm to get you started:

1. Energy-based Context

An energy-based context works incredibly well because how we are feeling energy-wise is something we can recognize no matter where we are. Using this context allows you to move things forward even when you’re not feeling up to certain items on your to-do list. 

I assign high energy to anything that is going to take a lot of my mental energy, low energy to anything that is fairly easy to complete, and normal energy to anything that falls in between. Using an energy-based context requires honesty. If you’re feeling great, then do the things that require higher levels of energy — don’t cheat yourself by doing something lightweight instead.

One of the greatest benefits of using an energy-based context is that if you’re not feeling all that well (or even have called in sick), you can still make some progress with low energy tasks. Even the smallest steps forward are at least steps that are moving you in the right direction and a few low energy tasks can sometimes give you momentum to tackle the bigger fish. 

2. Time-based Context

If you’re trying to manage your time and tasks for different parts of the day, then using a time-based context to enhance your to-do list is a smart move. These contexts are especially useful if you’re trying to work on building a business outside of your day job, which often requires work outside of “normal” office hours.

Let’s use your inbox as an example. You will want to check email more than once per day, so writing “check email” won’t be nearly as effective as “check morning email” and then assigning it with the morning context. The flipside of this is that you may only check email three times a day and assign contexts like morning, afternoon, and evening to the task “check email,” which will keep you out of your inbox a lot more (which is usually a good thing) and completing that task only during the assigned time of day. Further, when you find yourself feeling “lost” in the midst of your day, you can just look at the appropriate column on your list and get back on track. 

When you find yourself feeling “lost” you can just look at the appropriate column on your list and get back on track. 

3. Priority-based Context

Another former president of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower, used a decision-making tool widely known as “The Eisenhower Method” (although it was popularized years later by Stephen Covey as “The Priority Matrix”). The Eisenhower Method offers four categories for tasks: urgent/important, not urgent/important, not important/urgent, and not important/not urgent.

These work well because it allows you to quickly decide whether or not it is something that needs to be done now, later, or perhaps not at all. You’ll get better awareness with tasks and projects that are more important as well as more urgent, which allows you to complete your to-do list in a more balanced way (as opposed to just focusing on every item on your to-do list and not getting to the important stuff on it in time). Again, not every task is created equal.

4. Work/Life-based Context

Your to-do list item of “washing the dishes” does you little good at the office. To help you focus on the right task at the right time, try dividing your tasks by their location. For example, tasks or projects that are purely work-related can be titled as work, while ones that are life-related can be labeled as life. This context is especially useful for remote workers or freelancers who can easily be reminded (and distracted by) household chores throughout the workday. 


Keep in mind that you can use a combination of these context types. No matter which way you decide to go, it’s important to add meaning to your to-do list in a way that uniquely makes sense for your workflow. 

More insights on: Task Management

Mike Vardy

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Mike Vardy is a writer, speaker, and productivityist. He is the author of The Front Nine: How To Start The Year You Want Anytime You Want, and co-hosts Mikes on Mics on the 5by5 network. You can find him on twitter as @mikevardy.
load comments (37)
  • Paul Jarvis

    Great piece Mike! My office is right beside my kitchen, so “washing the dishes” unfortunately pseudo-applies in both places. And according to my wife, takes priority over work ;-)

    • Mike Vardy

      You’re not alone there, Paul. :-) (Thanks for reading!)

  • growthguided

    Thank you for the great reminder of the Priority Matrix. Very effective tool for the tool belt !

    • Mike Vardy

      Glad I could bring that tool to the front of the belt again! :-)

  • Terri Davies

    Love it! This is a great article. I am going to start making use of it – definitely already used the “energy” context as a concept, but I never used it ‘on paper’. Is there an app that you know of where you could set contexts? I like AnyList, but I am not sure how I could do this, other than perhaps separating it out into different lists – a high energy list, etc.

    • Mike Vardy

      Apps that use contexts/tags include Asana,, 2Do, Todoist, Flow, and several others (including the Apple-only OmniFocus and Things). Task managements apps are best suited for this kind of deeper dive, as they can act as a to-do list on the surface but go much further for you in the long run.

    • David

      How about using the categories as tags in Evernote? then you could filter them as needed :)

  • mweeks7

    So much to do and so little time. I use all the above and have an ever growing to do list, piles of stuff like today will last forever! My new thing is not to make everything an ‘A’ priority and once I start tackling a to do I use the Swiss-cheese method until it gets done.

  • Anon

    A visual example of this would be really helpful!

    • Mike Vardy

      I’m up for putting together a visual version. I’ll get started on that and let you know where it winds up living…

  • nickbundy

    echoing the visual example sentiment.

  • Tushar K Motwani

    Great article on task management. Can we expect these updates as new features on Action Method ?? :-)
    Also, yes a visual display of such tasks and contexts would be wonderful to look at. Wondering if all of these contexts can be plugged in together for all tasks of a work-day

  • Tama Lancaster

    Great article, Mike! I just realized that my task management is a mix of priority and time-based context. Looking forward to the visual version!

  • Salvatore

    This is a great article and thank you for it. I have actually set up a spreadsheet based on 1, 3, and 4.

    • L.Sanders

      Hi, Salvatore,

      As someone who has used the Priority Matrix for several years, maybe I can help. Note that the “not” indicators do not apply to both words around a slash. Instead the list should be read this way:

      A. Urgent (has an impending deadline)
      AND Important (must be done for various non-deadline reasons)

      Not Urgent (no deadline) but IS IMPORTANT

      Not Important but IS URGENT (has an impending deadline and must be done)

      D. Not Important/Not Urgent

      The questions to ask yourself about
      each of these are the following:

      A items: These usually have to be
      done, for various reasons, but ask yourself if they are someone else’s
      responsibility (i.e. they’re about to miss a deadline because they
      procrastinated and want you to do the work for them), your responsibility, or
      could be delegated to someone else. The big question is why is the deadline
      Urgent and how could this be handled in the future so that it doesn’t become “Urgent”?

      B. These are the truly important
      items: strategic planning, advance preparation, rest and renewal, etc. and have long-term implications if not done. Am I planning these into my calendar all year round, not waiting for them to become Urgent?

      C. Could these types of items have been prevented by doing more of B?

      D. If it’s Not Important and it’s Not Urgent, why am I doing it? If you have an answer to that question than the item probably needs to move to one of the other categories. If you don’t have an answer then the item needs to be removed from your list.completely.

      Stephen Covey’s discussion of this matrix in 7 Habits is very good and worth the read.

      • Salvatore

        Thank you, L. Sanders! I appreciate you taking the time to answer my question in such detail. You explained it perfectly. I will definitely check out Stephen Covey.

  • Jane Meep

    Re. #1. I suspect this concept is already familiar to those of us living with disabilities. Managing the allocation of one’s spoons is part of making it all work. (Spoons? Wha..? >>>

    • autdrew

      Unfortunately very familiar with spoons. Handed most of mine out already today & it’s just 2pm. But, tomorrow is another day

  • erniebornheimer

    I wonder…is there a tool that supports these contexts?

    Another thing I would like to see is something that relates tasks to projects.

    • Lorena

      Check IQTELL, I wouldn’t say it supports all of these, but it’s a great start.

      • erniebornheimer


      • 50 something

        Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Just dusted my book and got an app for my mac and iPhone.

    • idee

      Also try Wunderlist — I use it every day for both work and personal use. It supports multiple lists e.g. “Work” and “Home”, and automatically creates smart lists for “Today”, “This Week” etc. Highly recommended.

    • idee

      Or Trello, which is great for project management.

    • Miroslav Kostic

      Luumin is what you need.

  • Jennifer Coyle

    This is very GTD-esque and so important to take into account energy and time and location contexts. I need to work on being more honest with myself and doing those high-energy tasks when I have a lot of energy instead of cheating myself out of the opportunity with menial tasks. Great article, @TheMikeVardy:disqus !

    • Mike Vardy

      Thanks so much, @hellobrio:disqus – and happy new year!

  • Julien Torriani

    Great post!
    For me the priority matrix works best.

  • Dmitriy Tarasov

    Thanks for the post Mike.

    Yes, contexts are very important part of any productivity routine. It’s great to see that you mention energy-based contexts since I personally find this type of contexts most important.

    Anyway, I lead a small team which develop Chaos Control app which is basically goal/task management solution working on any device (we support iOS, Android, Windows, Windows Phone, WEB, etc) and it utilizes Contexts concept as well as GTD Project, Chaos Box, etc. What do you think about such solutions? Do you use any? Which functionality do you think such apps should provide to satisfy your needs?

    Here is the link to the app:

    It would be my pleasure to provide you (as well as anyone reading this comment) with a promo-code to the version of the app, just let me know if you want to check it out.

    Thanks for the post again.

  • Sofia

    Thanks for this. Very useful, I shall try soon

  • Kelly Miller

    Thanks for this post, it was a great read! It contains some wonderful suggestions.

    All too often people become consumed with their activities and become overwhelmed and unproductive. This list provides great solutions of different types of to-do lists because one type of list isn’t going to work for everyone. I found this especially relevant to me because I am a PR student at the University of Oregon and often find myself overwhelmed by the number of commitments I have. I wrote a post on my own blog about my experience with to-do lists and what they do for me in my daily life. Here is the link to my post:

    Thanks again for the post, Mike!

  • Shiela

    I cannot tell you how much this blog post saved my life this week. I had so much going on but I had no idea what to do or where to start. When I read, about the Eisenhower Method, it totally clicked. Prioritizing from the most urgent to least important totally worked and I was able to finish everything I needed to! Thank you!

  • Kristin

    Many jobs require the juggling of many different kinds of tasks. I organize my to-do lists by category (i.e. general tasks as an assistant, media projects, event planning, bookkeeping/finances). My job is getting increasingly complex so I don’t think I can fit all the categories and to-dos on one 8.5×11 sheet anymore. Any practical ideas of how to keep the various long lists organized? … maybe I just need to work more ;) By the way, my boss and I really appreciate the 99U articles–that’s why I’m commenting on this to hopefully get some advice.

  • Flyingbuzzybee

    I used to use an excel sheet, with column of categories, priorities, task start and end – but categories was the really useful one for large numbers of tasks. You can then run a pivot table to display what tasks needed to be completed and when. Good if you like excel :)

  • gabrielleherbert

    Thanks Mike for sharing this article! In the digital era we live in I decided to downloaded an iPad app called Beesy. It is an all in note taking app that helps be organized and helps me productive. What they have done recently (which I find great) is that they have partnered with Livescribe 3 smartpen, so everything you write down/draw are sent automatically to the app. You should check out!

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