Grooming your to do’s

If you think about it, it likely sounds obvious, that need to consider your to do’s before you actually start working on them … but do you really practice this most obvious of activities before you charge ahead to deal with that immense list of indefined stuff you need to deal with? Or do you consider such preparatory activities a waste of time, yet another task which you can easily eliminate? Do you actually groom your to do’s before you engage in doing them? And what is grooming?

I know, lots of of questions, but it’s worth considering some consideration before you get going.

How “stuff” gets in your to do list

If you are like most people, things get into your to do list because someone suggested you’d do something and you considered it “not a bad idea” at the time. In other words, you did not say “yes” with full conviction, you just did not say no.

For this article, allow me to make abstraction of how the “stuff” gets to you. The channel is less relevant, albeit that in our current day and age, it will often be your email inbox.

In a search for “productivity”, to do list applications make it very easy to quickly and without much consideration transfer things to your to do list. Most email programs, for example, have one click links to most popular to do list applications. So yes, I can click from Outlook to Tasks with one button.

In such a context, it is easy to get confused: “Hey,” you may think, “I’m on a roll here … I go through my email and whenever I think I should do something, it’s just one click away from my to do list.”

Moving “stuff” around

Well, if you have that high a degree of self-control to only click when “stuff” is really relevant, congratulations. I admire you. Also, let’s be clear, if that is you, you are not like most people. If, on the other hand, you are like most people, it’s much more likely you’ll go through your email inbox or whatever entry point for “stuff” you have and just click-click-click it into your to do list.

In that case, and I am sorry to have to say this, well … you’re not managing your tasks … you are moving stuff, undefined blobs of information that may or may not contain actionable items around from one system to another. But you are not thinking about those actionable items or their relevance to you. Because, and this is key in understanding, it is not because an item is actionable that is should be your action.

A better way

Let’s look at that blob op undefined “stuff” in your system. Now, in an ideal world, you would be able assess anything anyone throws at you for its relevance to you or your objectives immediately. But in reality this is not the case. There are three main reasons for that:

  • Not everyone has clear objectives or has them readily available in their head;
  • Not everyone can drop all other thoughts and think straight about “stuff”;
  • You are not your mailbox, patiently waiting for someone to task you to do something. You have a life.

So, in order to make optimal use of your time, you’ll need to take some time to consider what is being asked of you before you consider whether it is something you want to do. In other words, if you want to optimize your time, you need to spend some time. We call that action “grooming”, as in animal grooming.

As to actionable items thrown at you, you need to realize that yes, you do have the option not to do them. That decision and its consequences are your decision.


Grooming is a concept from the equestrian world: it denotes the hygienic care for a horse. Now, a horse is a big animal, and cleaning up a horse takes some time, if you want to do it right. It is also a very, very calming activity, but that is a subject for another blog post. The use of grooming in the context of tasks is also about care, but it is care for our to do list, where we try to understand, clarify and refine our task list – out of the undefined list of stuff thrown in our inbox – and prepare a more detailed, sometimes prioritised list of actionable activities to undertake. Including the activity of saying no to people who asked us to do things.

Grooming is the calm, focused and considered assessment of what is being specifically asked of us, the decision on whether or not we will do it and the formulation in such a way that the task or tasks are easy to execute when we start the work. It is the optimization of your to do list prior to execution.


Now, when grooming, we need to be calm, focused and consider what it is that we actually find in our inbox. Let’s examine these considerations a bit closer:

  1. Consideration 1 – Do we actually understand what is being asked of us? instead of blindly saying yes to everything, we need to be clear on what is being asked. Do we fully understand what the expectations of the person asking us to do something are? If not, we need to clarify this by asking questions before we say yes to a task.
  2. Consideration 2 – Does the task align with our current focus and priorities? Our lives, our areas of focus are ours, ideally based on a prior effort to define what we want and where we want to go (development of principles and vision.) If the task aligns with that, well, then we can perhaps do it, if we are the best placed person. If however there is no alignment, then there is no reason why we should execute the task … because it will take us further away from our stated objectives.
  3. Consideration 3 – Are we clear how to actually perform this task? A task in an email can be quite generically formulated but very difficult to complete. Therefore, even when we understand (1) and when the task aligns with our objectives (2) we need to consider whether we are capable of doing it now and whether we are best placed to do it.


In essence, this is what grooming is all about. It is a clarification exercise as to your to do’s and whether or not they align with your objectives.

Because after all, you can do what other people ask you to do, not thinking for yourself, and ultimately either running around in circles or – even worse – living someone else’s life.

Or you can think about what you are doing, and make sure you are as clear as possible on what you are being asked, whether it aligns with your principles, visions and objectives and whether now is the best time. Those considerations, which come before considerations about added value, are essential grooming activities. And they are worth every minute.