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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)
  • Phil Hackett

    love it, I am converting my to do list to a post it note as of today, my current to do list is in a blank notebook and I transfer anything not done from one day to the next or it drops off the list altogether because it was not a priority or has resolved itself, but the list would regularly grow and grow… That will now be my open to do list and the post it note will be my closed to do list – I especially like the work is over once I have finished my closed list approach as I too can work too many hours…. thank you

  • Deskthoughts On...

    I know from my experience that on average you’re capable of doing three significant things and three “small” things that you list. Post-it-notes-method is a great way to limit the tasks to the important ones. One more crucial thing to plan accordingly to your long-term goals, as much as it is possible.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yes, if the 3 significant things are tied to your long-term goals and you get through them most days, that’s when you really amp up your productivity.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Glad I’ve made a convert! 🙂 Hope the experiment pays dividends for you – would love to hear how you get on.

  • Aaron Weyenberg

    Interesting approach. What appeals to me is the self-imposed limitation as a way of making you really prioritize and *think* about what you can reasonably accomplish in a one-day timeframe. The analog nature of it, however, is a drawback for me.

    I use Things pretty religiously and it’s been working for me. It solves the problem of making sure my task list is always within reach (in mobile app form). My accomplishments are logged, tagged, grouped and prioritized. It has the concept of Today (analogous to your post-it note). But what Things does not provide is a sense of the scale of day-sized compartments; what can I *really* do in a day? That’s where your post-it mechanism shines.

  • Jan

    I do not limit my list to a to “do” list. Deming figured out that there are a few general phases in a process, the PDCA cycle (plan, do, check, act), and I classify my tasks in these phases on a A6 paper.
    Plan: tasks I have to do but I haven’t assigned a date yet. (most new tasks end here)
    Do: important planned tasks (tasks I have to be aware of and I can do if there is time left)
    Check: dicussions, meetings, contacts, … (where other people get involved)
    Act: this is my to “do” list of to day, these tasks have to be completed today.
    That way I can group tasks; isolate me for the act items, try to do as much ‘check’s during breaks and meetings, and plan the tasks of the plan-list at the end of the day.
    (I know it is not the exact way that Deming meant it, but it works fine for me)

  • Wishing

    I’m a writer for an internal marketing department — make that, THE writer. I write for all projects dolled out to 3 graphic designers and 2 web designers. How I long for such a simplistic “to do” list. Sigh.

  • rubberonion

    that’s a GREAT tip

  • Mr. Tunes

    Really nice post! I know this is more about the simplicity of analog tools. But if I could recommend only one digital one that would fit into this workflow it’s Teuxdeux

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yes, my ‘post-it’ system only applies to my daily to-do list (the ‘Act’) part of your model. I use spreadsheets for the big picture (projects, ideas, backburner stuff), which as you point out, is more complex.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yes, my post-its aren’t available in the ‘cloud’ (yet!). It’s not perfect, but I realised that 95% of what I need a to-do list for takes place at my desk. If I take on a commitment when I’m out and about I usually email it to myself via the phone.

  • Donna

    Funny, I recently started using this post-it process for my home “to do’s”, but never considered it for work…until now. Kicking it into gear today – thanks for rattling the cage.

  • Kevin P. Mahan

    Thank you for the confirmation with this post. I thought I was a little crazy not using an online to do list like Don’t Forget the Milk or TeuxDeux. Neither of them helped me much.

    I work in a “talk to each other in person” creative office and I found a final Post-It note that helps my creativity greatly. I noticed a lot of wasted walking around time going to talk in person with coworkers. Instead, I put one final Post-It on my workspace that has a list of the usual suspects that I need to converse with. When things hit my mind, they hit the Post-It. When that person comes into my workspace they get a barrage of things I’m thinking about too. It prevents me from interrupting coworkers’ workflows and it has increased the amount of time I stick to mine.

    Thanks again!

  • Sue Bates

    Im always trying to find new ways for a to do list. I think a visual is the best. & on the walleorks for me too! Thanks for the reminder of post it’s!

  • Roberta Mansfield

    I’m sure you meant “doled,” not “dolled,” but that one made for an interesting visual in my head. (It’s a mixed blessing to be an English major…but I didn’t mean to annoy.)

  • Elizabeth Archibong

    I do exactly this, but use a notepad with just 20 ruled lines and if that page is full, anything else will just have to wait to go tomorrow’s list. I only ever add anything if it is ‘house falling down’ emergency and i make sure i move something else to the next day’s list to compensate for it.

  • Mark McGuinness

    I like the idea of moving something onto the next day’s list to compensate – thanks!

  • Stripeyhorse Creative

    Its late in the evening, reading this post has been put onto tomorrows to do list. Hope its worth it.

  • Smashley

    But, what if you have really tiny writing? :p I don’t really bother with lists. I’m more of a white board fan.

  • Smashley

    By the way, do you set time limits for tasks throughout the day?

  • Mark McGuinness

    Then you use really tiny Post-Its. 😉

  • Mark McGuinness

    Not normally. I’ve recently started experimenting with the Pomodoro technique, but the jury’s out at the moment. Rest assured I’ll write about it here if I make any great discoveries…

  • Cassie Viau

    I love using a Post-it as my daily to-do list!
    Once a week we have a big, company production meeting. I create a detailed to-do list in a notebook during that meeting. Then, each day, I use that big list to create a smaller, Post-it sized list of tasks I need to accomplish. It really helps to make my big to-do list feel more manageable.
    Somehow one Post-it is exactly the right size. If it overflows to a second Post-it, generally that turns into a day where I work late or don’t finish everything.

  • Taxwork

    I agree. The smaller the list the more motivated, the more confident, and the more positive we will feel about accomplishing the task on the list. Plus we have the challenge to peel down the list to the most practical and important. It focuses the mind; forces one to zoom in one the most important task at hand.

  • Wyatt Kirby

    Couldn’t agree more…

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