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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)
  • Thomas Scibilia

    great post. i love this concept

    i’ve been using which only has 17 lines to enter daily to-dos and if you dont get it done, it automatically pushes them to the next day. awesome application and its free!

  • Kimberly

    Brilliant! I’m always looking for ways to reduce the stress in my life. Thought I’d found it with one of those To Do List managers, but really it’s demoralizing to end the day with a longer list than you started with . I think I’ll stick with my calendar and a post it note! Fantastic!

  • Mark McGuinness

    I must try Teux Deux after all the comments on here…

  • welcomebrand

    We’re just starting to get into managing workflow with #Kanban and it’s looking like a great system.

  • Deni

    I need to go buy more post-its! My lists now are miles long with post-its stuck all over them..i think it’s time I start making things easier for myself, thanks for the tip :]

  • Scott Belsky

    My biggest concern with “automatically bumping undone tasks to the next day” is that you lose the granularity and “feel” of what you fail to complete.

    The points are made in this post on the benefits of ANALOG productivity:

  • Niekmilder

    my life litteraly changed when i bought a old leather bound notebook, In which i wrote down that i needed to do, what and where i wanted to be in the future… All makes more sence writing it down and reading it out loud. Wasnt it lincoln who read the newspaper out loud in order to remember every article to later bring it up in discussions?..

  • J.D.

    I support the idea of closed to do lists for one day!

    I also found it useful to write down what you’ve done after you’ve done the task. Especially it helps if you are doing something new (like now I am programming, but I haven’t been doing it on a regular basis before, so I am not sure yet how much the task will take). Thus I have a timer running and every hour it notifies me to write down what I’ve been doing.

    At the end of my 5hr work day I look through what I’ve planned to do and what I actually accomplished and then can plan the tasks for the next day with better estimation.

  • Sofiatou

    Thanks for this post! I think I’ll try the post-it method in conjunction with my electronic system – Action Lists app for iPhone. It is based on the David Allen Getting Things Done method, which I like because it categorizes my ToDos to make the most of what I can do, depending on where I am. For example, I set aside time for Phone Calls and try to knock them all out at once. The virtual “Inbox” allows me to dump all my uncategorized ToDos and go back to them later to sort for processing. The Post-It method would force me to really prioritize and decide on the most important tasks that need to be done today. I like it!

  • allison maze

    I agree! It’s incredibly overwhelming to have a massive to-do list. Plus, it zaps your motivation to get started. Now I find myself using way too many of those desktop post-it notes to manage my daily to-do list. It’s time to shake up the routine. Thanks for this post!

  • Bttrfly21m

    Great tip! Thanks.

  • John

    I ditched my massive demoralizing to-do list several years ago and replaced it with a to-do list of just 5 things. That’s it. I put 5 things down and once those are done I allow myself to move on to more. This immediately forced me to prioritize. Then some time over the last year, I encountered Allyson Lewis’s suggestion that you should start each day with a list of “5 before 11”. This pumped up the volume on what I had been calling ‘My Big 5’. Working to accomplish those 5 before 11 a.m. taught me to stay focused and delay attention to interruptions until my priorities were complete. This system really works for me.

  • Chrissy Baptista

    Hi, my name is Chrissy and I am addicted to Post Its. I use them for everything, put them everywhere and lose most of them! I scribble on things and stick them on my monitor, in my planner, in my wallet, tossed into my purse, on my phone, etc.. When I finished something, it gets a huge slash across it. (That’s the best feeling!)

    I like this post and John’s Big 5 idea, I’ll definitely try them out. (sorry!)

  • SteveMoorehead

    I use “Things” from Culture Code. It allows me to break up my to-do list into several categories and even allows me to segregate hole projects into smaller more palatable and achievable goals. I limit the number of items that go into my Today list and file the rest of the to-dos for tomorrow. Following the same approach as listed above minus the paper.

  • Iria Prol

    Thanks! this is very helpful!:)
    My to do lists are usually endless, crazy, and completely unrealistic… have to work on that…
    Ill keep searching for the secret formula of productivity

  • T. Dixon

    I use a 3×5 blank index card. I have room to make arrows and circle things as I change priorities. And it’s stiff, so it doesn’t get lost in my purse or in my pocket.

  • carrie jaffe pickett

    Thanks for this helpful “post,” no pun intended. I actually use post-its in a different way. Each month, I color code them, and line them up on my bulletin board, with each color representing a different project. For example, orange is for my e-newsletter, with notes on each story. Yellow is blog post ideas. Green is household or personal errands. That way, as soon as I sit down at my desk, I know what projects need to be done. For urgent or unexpected tasks, I use pink, and place it at the front of the row.

  • LIFEcontained

    Super concepts! Especially like the closed & open idea combined with the notion of considering today’s list closed. I’ll have to practice deliberately…and learn how to integrate with processing email.

  • Cathy

    Hi…I liked this so much I signed up for the course!

  • Conor

    Great post. I love the “Do it Tomorrow” interruption management plan 😉 Thanks… it could well be the secret to unlocking my magical powers of creativity.

  • Pau Todó

    good one. really like it. thanks!

  • Mark McGuinness

    Welcome aboard!

  • Mark McGuinness

    Great example of less = getting more done.

  • Mark McGuinness

    A brave experiment! I must try it one day…

  • James

    I’ve always liked, and tried to follow, the ‘Do it tomorrow’ method. It seems much better suited for creatives. But sometimes my to-do list still gets out of control. The post-it idea (or limiting your to-do’s to 8 items or so) is a great idea. Thanks.

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