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Backlogs are dreaded things. They accumulate if you let them, on any setting where a list is present, be it one you make yourself (to-do) or things that just pop in to say hi (email).

Not thinking about specific systems (like Inbox Zero and GTD), are there agnostic methodologies or systems that can be adapted to any kind of backlog processing? Triage concepts, frequency of hitting the backlog vs. dealing with new stuff, any kind of structuring of how you should tackle it, and perhaps systems/software that can receive any text list backlog for working with (or integrate with stuff like email clients and todo apps). As an example, SuperFocus has some hard and fast rules on turning parts of lists into backlog.

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For all the important items in the backlog, you don't have to worry because the will soon be done.

But, for the minor/less important stuff, I think you should reserve some spare time to finish that.

Try to think in a more lean way: if it's too long in the backlog than it's probably not that important and it's probably not worth it. Why not just remove it? I know it sounds king of scary. But, it's that a list of things you must do in order to achieve a final product or is just things you find "nice" and might wanna take a look at in the future?

Don't get me wrong, I've done a lot of TO-DO's listing, archived emails for later reading, and wanna know what I've done with them? Nothing! If you want to keep something because you think you might hit that again, try doing a frequency hitting list, separately.

Again, if you want to take a more efficient approach, try deleting old stuff that is being sitting there forever and will never be done. I've being reading a lot of good authors in that area and their best advice is: it's either really important or nothing. Don't put things in the middle if you want to be a productive person.

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maybe one option could be to put interesting things that could be potentially important under to review, i.e the in-basket and once a week go through that list and actually decide whether to throw away an item or file it in the backlog. Important bit here is you don't actually do the items in your in basket you just decide over them. If this is too much overhead, you could still just move the less important ones to another list called some day maybe. Then the in basket is your backlog. – siamii Dec 15 '11 at 2:23
@bizso09 that's an interesting approach too. – lucasarruda Dec 15 '11 at 14:07

I like @lucasarruda's advice to have a high threshold of importance for what you allow on to your to-do list in the first place. Of course that's easier said than done! And I disagree with the admonition to just delete stuff that's been backlogged for long enough. Well, I don't entirely disagree, just that it's not getting at the core problem.

Here's how I view the core problem, referring to my inbox, though it applies to any backlog (quoting myself from a Messy Matters article on proposed email features):

My email is dysfunctional. I keep things in my inbox because I can't afford for them to go out of sight, out of mind -- but then that's exactly what happens. They get buried deeper and deeper in my inbox by all the other messages I delusionally think I'm going to deal with. It's a given that some things will fall through the cracks. I just need to make sure I have some control over which things those are.

That's why deleting old enough items from your backlog misses the point. You want more control over exactly which things you allow to fall through the cracks.

The above article suggests three features that email clients could use to help, namely:

  1. Snooze (make an item disappear from the backlog for a specified number of days, then reappear in the list)
  2. Re-Ping (make a new item automatically appear in the list in a certain number of days if a condition isn't met -- a reply, in the case of email)
  3. Auto-Expire (when an item first has your attention, set it to automatically disappear in a specified number of days, thus mitigating the painful slogs through the backlog, deleting obsolete items)

For email, I recommend as a reasonable implementation of Snooze and Re-Ping. (Snooze emails by forwarding to, say, to snooze for 3 days, and set Re-Pings by CCing or BCCing a similar address when you send an email.)

But, all of the above are just bandaid solutions for the real problem, which is getting yourself to work through your backlog and get it under control. Here's what I do to solve that problem:

Namely, I'm literally forcing myself (using a commitment contract with Beeminder) to gradually reduce the size of my inbox by, on average, one message per day until it's down to a number I can see on a single screen.

Then hopefully I can just make it a habit to always get my inbox back to a screenful (or maybe I'll try for inbox zero) every time I open my email. If it slips away from me again then I'll beemind it back down.

Disclosure: I'm a co-founder of Beeminder!

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Nice answer. I know that deleting what is not really important or urgent might not fit everyone. But, recently applying to my life, it got me to focus on what really matters. And then, if something that could be deleted, but if it matters enough, it won't. Of course you can always GTD to make the most of those items. It's just that there is a limit of things one can do, and trying to embrace the whole world will make you accomplish less things or is more likely you won't finish a lot of stuff rather than focusing on fewer and going until then end. – lucasarruda Dec 4 '11 at 21:02

5 ways to help you clear your backlog:

  1. Identify the most urgent tasks in you backlog, and file away the rest of your work in a designated folder on your computer or in your filing cabinet. This will be dealt with, but there are more pressing issues to sort out first.

  2. Work out a strategy for dealing with incoming work. Use technology to your advantage; programs such as Microsoft Access allow you to schedule meetings and tasks with one click of a button.

  3. Break your backlog up into manageable chunks. This could be done by project or by priority.

  4. Schedule when you are going to deal with the backlog. Write a "to do" list or input tasks into a computer program. You need only set aside an extra hour at the end of each work day to begin making headway into your backlog.

  5. Turn off all external distractions when dealing with your backlog. Do not be tempted to respond to emails or phone calls during this period. External distractions are often, in fact, the cause of backlogs building up in the first place, so it is worth limiting the time you spend on email and phone calls during your usual working day.

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