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.
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.
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?