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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)
  • zane matthew

    I use something similar, before starting the creative mind set, i make a “power post-it” which has the first 5 items I’m doing.

  • Asdfsadfas

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  • Sdsd

    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 ‘

  • Asdfs

    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 ‘

  • Marv IN

    I disagree. Just as a long to-do list won’t fit someone’s day, a short to-do list is often too useless to be a to-do list other than serving as an alarm clock.

    Lists aren’t reminders alone or else it would just be any random scribbled note.

    The topic also straw mans the issue by a mile. I doubt the article author really believes that if you fit a bunch of project-related to-do tasks unto a post-it, it would be easier than doing the project with an estimated long term idea for when the next stage will take place.

  • Xyzwriter

    I think the two of you may be speaking of different types of tasks. You sound like you work with large, extended time period projects involving a team.
    On the other hand, what the author talks about can be very helpful to me, a self-employed writer. I am distracted easily, and tend to lump everything I need to do into one level of importance, “A”.
    So, I find his advice to be helpful in my situation.

  • Xyzwriter

    I like the calendar design of post-its on your wall or whatever. Unfortunately, my office is generally the local coffee shop. Do you see a problem with using smart phones, laptops, or PDA’s instead of the tried and true paper post-its?

  • Mark McGuinness

    Xyzwriter is right. I’m not talking about project management, I’d never do that on a post it. I use spreadsheets and a calendar for managing projects.

    The post-it is for the tasks you boil down into a daily task list, once you’ve made the big-picture decisions.

  • Mark McGuinness

    The problem I’d see would be that with a digital list, it’s easy to ‘stretch’ it by scrolling down the screen. Unless you have an app with a limited space, but then it’s never an exact number of items for me. The post-it just gives me a feel for the constraints I’m working within.

  • Julie L Ruud

    When I finish my to-do list I feel accomplished, and therefore: sleep well at night.
    I use post-its too, which, in fact, is the only way I could ever finish a list :p
    Great article!

  • Marv IN

    No, I’m also talking of the same personal issues like what you are referring to.

  • Marv IN

    It’s really a wide open issue.

    Especially when you are referring to Mark Forster’s system. That is project management via to-do lists.

    Ultimately though I feel it boils down to how productive you are with your current task. (The GTDer may argue for making the task actionable)


    If it’s something you can do, regardless of how un-reminder it is and how much in post-it form it is…it’s a reminder.

    You pick it up – you do it.

    If it’s something you need to do and let say have swiss cheesed a bit so that it doesn’t require a full on project management system…there’s a good chance a small daily task list won’t really help much because once you hit that task entry – you still have to think and in many ways create sub-tasks for it. In turn the smaller size either makes you feel annoyed by the compressed space or it has little to no impact at all except for a slight guilt reliever which won’t help much once you’re still stressed out with trying to “complete” that task.

    That said I wouldn’t mind offering the challenge for anyone to prove me wrong. Currently NaNoWriMo is running and there are many authors that are under-scheduled. If someone is willing and able to do a competently designed survey of how much a small post-it causes people who normally wouldn’t have been productive to be more productive (as in finish their novels), I’m willing to admit my mistake. Even a 15-30% boost in complete NaNo novels for example (especially during this mid-event) would be evidence enough for me to say I’m wrong.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Thanks for the reply Marv. Productivity is a personal thing – I don’t think it’s possible or even desirable to find evidence for the ‘right’ system. All I can say is this works great for me – and to judge from the other comments, there are others keen to try it. But your circumstances may demand something completely different.

  • Marv IN

    No problem Mark. I’m glad we agree on the point of personality at least.

    It is for this very reason of personality that I feel it is necessary to “at least attempt to cut away the fluff” through some form of verification.

    Had productivity been an underground issue still, I have no arguments with simply sharing our experiences.

    Nowadays though it’s not. It’s a self-help genre by itself. One could even say it’s engineering or strategy for the masses. But is it masses of unproductive people or masses of productive people who want to feel “more comfortable” with a productivity idea. (and minimalism is a very in thing in productivity…almost to the point where the most in-demand free productivity software still falls along the lines of a to-do list because it’s the software least likely in need of explaining or demanding of scrutiny)

    I realize I’m not helping much by sharing a solution though but I don’t really have any clear alternative unfortunately. I just spot some of the trends when it comes to blog articles. For example, a majority of these people praising the article – most of them are in favor of it because post-its aren’t bad.

    To the contrary – post-its are great! There’s a line though between great and “If It Won’t Fit On A Post-It, It Won’t Fit In Your Day” great.

    In order to really confirm the headlines, there has to be some form of mechanism where the latter can stand by itself without having to piggyback on the praisers of the former.

  • Philip Karpiak

    I’ve been using the same method for a while, but I prefer to create my todo list at night—for the next day—when my mind is still fresh and I have a better idea of what I want to accomplish tomorrow (I’m not a morning person).

    This is the system I’ve settled with after years of trying to use tools like GTD, Action Method,, etc. for me you just can’t beat something that forces you to be concise and a bit relentless at trimming the fat.

  • Tony Waghorn

    It’s very satisfying to see a little stack of completed Post-It notes stacking up.

  • Sarah

    I totally do this and I thought I was the only post-it crazy around! I have post-its for finances, list of things to do today post-it, holiday packing post-it, christmas shopping post-it… the only downfall being when I loose the post-it. I wish I wasn’t so intimidated by my iPhone so I could use that instead.

  • Mark McGuinness

    You know, I hadn’t even thought of keeping them. I find it satisfying to throw them in the bin!

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yep, I like to keep a nice big stack of post-its, to avoid post-it-under-the-desk-itis!

  • Jethro7

    Good advice

  • Danny E

    What a splendid idea you have here, Mark. For your common sense and for your commitment to its wisdom, I bow.

  • Olawrencetranslations

    In essence: you go faster when you can see the finishing line, and if the finishing line keeps moving forwards then it gets dispiriting. I maintain a to-do list in my desk diary (nice and compact, like a Post-it) and a separate “good ideas” list, for useful but non-essential tasks, which I make time for several days a week.

  • Minipad

    I’ve started to buy smaller and smaller notebooks to write my to-do lists on. Not only is it compact and portable, I feel more accomplished when everything is crossed off my list for that day, since the text takes up more of the page.

  • Carol

    I use the Post-It method, but I keep what I think of as a “Master List” so I won’t forget something or lie awake “remembering” not to forget something. Then each day I choose from the Master List and put those items on the Post-It. When I go out to do errands, I take a Post-It list of places I’m going, listed in order, so as I drive, I can listen to books on CD or think about other things or look at whatever is blooming and plan future photographs.

  • Rmcfarren

    How can I use this in my “retired” life that is full of grandchildren and requests because people assume I have an endless amount of time with nothing to do.

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