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If It Won’t Fit On A Post-It, It Won’t Fit In Your Day

Does your daily to-do list look like Mount Everest? Check out this super-simple approach to streamlining your everyday tasks for more sanity and productivity.

Have you ever had a to-do list that was so long it felt like you’d never get to the end of it? Or have you ever started the day with a manageable list, but by the end of the afternoon it was longer than when you began – because of all the things that got added during the day? Too many days like this, and your to-do list starts to look like a wish list.

This was a familiar scenario to me a few years ago. It was compounded when I started using digital to-do list managers, which enabled me to create a literally endless to-do list. However much I prioritized, however hard I worked, I always seemed to end the day with a longer list than I started with.
The solution turned out to be counterintuitive: I got more done by making my to-do list shorter.

One of my most valuable productivity tools is a stack of Post-It notes. Not the smallest size, but the 3″ x 3″ squares. The top Post-It contains my to-do list for today, and today only. Because my day is a limited size, I figure it makes sense to limit the size of my to-do list. If I can’t fit the day’s tasks on the Post-It, I’m not likely to fit them into the day.

Because my day is a limited size, I figure it makes sense to limit the size of my to-do list.

The top left corner is reserved for the “One Big Task” I need to accomplish today. It could be an article, a presentation, a training plan, a client proposal, or the draft of a poem. As I wrote in The Key to Creating Remarkable Things, I start the day by devoting my full creative energy to the most important task on my list. The rest of the Post-It is taken up with everything else I have to do today, roughly in order of priority.

And once I’ve finished the to-do list, I’ve finished work for the day. As a self-employed creative workaholic, after years of feeling there was always something else to do at the end of the day, I can assure you this is a magical feeling.

But what about all the rest? All the phone calls, emails, and requests that come in during the day? Not to mention all the new ideas that pop into my head as I work? Good question. There’s a place for all of these things, and that place is the second Post-It on the stack, a.k.a. my to-do list for tomorrow. Unless something is seriously urgent AND important (e.g. an emergency request from a client) then I never add anything to today’s list once I’ve finalized it first thing in the morning.

This is a variation on the Do It Tomorrow approach to productivity advocated by Mark Forster in his book of the same name. Mark draws a distinction between “open” and “closed” lists. The endless to-do list I described at the beginning of this article is an open list, because new items can always be added to it. The to-do list on my Post-It is a closed list, because it’s finite in size and I don’t add anything new to it.

Unless something is seriously urgent AND important then I never add anything to today’s list.

Mark points out that we are more motivated to work on a closed list than an open one. If I know that I have 20 things to do today, and I do the first one, then I only have 19 left, and I feel like I’m making progress. But if I work through five items and then another six are added to the list, then I feel like I’m going backwards. And it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for going backwards.

Two great things about my Post-It system are that, firstly, it forces me to think hard about my priorities at the beginning of each day. Every item has to earn its place on that list, so it keeps me disciplined about doing the most important things. And secondly, when I start work I know – barring emergencies – exactly what I need to get through today. If it’s a full day, I can see that at once, and it spurs me on to do more and waste less time. And if it’s a relatively quiet day, then I get to use the extra time creatively.

Obviously your mileage will vary depending on the nature of your job and working situation. If you’re working in a fast-moving agency and it’s part of your core role to handle incoming requests and turn them round immediately, then you’ll need to be more flexible than me. Although having consulted with a few agencies like that, I’d say that if everything is urgent, nothing is urgent: you can’t do everything at once, so you still need to prioritize. And a short to-do list with very strict criteria about what gets on it is a great way to do that.

How Big Is Your Day?

How do you manage your daily to-do list?

Could you get more done with a shorter list?

Comments (82)
  • Levi Smith

    I use this method not for tasks, but for weekly planning. I find that if my daily and weekly goals and priorities are clear, it’s easy to work through task lists regardless of length.

  • Mantel

    I use it for both tasks and weekly planning, it works perfect believe me, one of the best I’ve ever used! You should try it once, Levi, I bet you won’t be dissapointed. http://www.originalmontgomery….

  • Of Wit & Will

    Great article! I bought one of the to-do list pads recently, and I find myself wanting to do more at the end of the day. The big task in the beginning of the day then the others following seems like a good system to get the important tasks done.

    The Scarlett O’Hara “I’ll think about it tomorrow” mentality when it comes to the next Post-It note is a logical way of looking at your to-do list, especially working from home. Bravo!

  • Chris Ciolli

    This tip looks like a great way to control my daily to-do list. I’m looking forward to trying out!

  • Lekha

    I thought this was I really Helpful post. As a student, I managed to study for Finals more effectively using this methods. I have a whole wall filled with post-it notes!

  • Alex Stevens

    This is exactly how I manage my day! I love the post-it system so much I wrote my own post about it last week. Always worked great for me.

  • Milhealth

    Your comment was written 3 yrs ago but in case you ever revisit this post (which is GREAT Mark, thank-you!!) recently Evernote added Post-it Notes camera feature. Still tinkering around with it but at the least, if you have the post-it images … you’ll be able to retrieve the info from them. Make sure you delete them from time-to-time.

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