My To Do List Hates Me or, why your daily task list is defeating you

April 3, 2010


We all make the Daily To Do List. Problem is, most of the time, we do it wrong. There, I said it.

This list, which should be our problem solver, becomes the problem itself. Like some huge, looming, cartoonish thing from our nightmares, the incomplete items from each day’s lists grow until we feel defeated under their collective weight.

Instead, you should have two To Do Lists, one called the “Daily To Do List”, one we’ll call the “Overall To Do List”. You can think of your own pithy names when you adopt this system.

The first step is to know, each day, what your most important tasks are. If you don’t know what your true priorities are, either at work or at home, your list will be a meaningless schedule of tasks. If you’re unsure as to how to prioritize, read this book. If you know what you truly need to do each day, you can then set about step two.

Each evening before finishing work, make tomorrow’s Daily To Do List. This should take less than 5 minutes to do.

This list should have 3-4 of your highest priority items on it, each one with SPECIFIC goals, like this:

    1. Check in with pending clients  - 10 clients
    2. Get product shipment ready for Monday
    3. 1pm Meeting with Jennifer

…If I get that done, I’ll move to:

  1. Work through sales leads – 12 calls
  2. Emails – spend 1 hour getting email inbox cleaned out.

See how specific each item is?

Also, notice that, by separating it into items 1-3, and then 4 and 5, you give yourself room for the day to actually happen. Things take longer than we expect. Emergency items come up. You set yourself up for success by ensuring your top 3 items get done. Then, if you are able to move to items 4 and 5  (which are also very specific and serve to “chunk out” larger projects) you can feel you got ahead by the end of the day, rather than always feeling overwhelmed and behind.

While I use my favorite Bob’s Your Uncle grid paper notebook to keep my daily to do list in line, I’ve also had great success with the online tool Teux Deux. I like that it doesn’t try to be all things to all people. It’s super simple graphic interface just enables you to quickly and easily do what you’re there for: keep and update your daily task list.

Whether you use paper and pen to create your list, or an online tool, if you know what your priorities are and are specific with the items you put on your list, you’ll end each day with a feeling of effectiveness. And, maybe, you’ll have just enough extra energy to go get a margarita. Wouldn’t that be refreshing?

What strategies do you use when creating your Daily To Do List? What’s working for you and what isn’t?

I was really excited to get to share this advice on Hatch’s Organization Blog Fest this year.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Amanda @ Serenity Now March 21, 2010 at 12:15 pm

Good post, Meredith! I am guilty of making a very very long to-do list that has no hopes of being completed, and then giving up b/c it wasn’t even doable in the first place. Thanks for the tips. :)

Jessica at Lavender and Lilies March 21, 2010 at 12:58 pm

I have been trying to use my iphone and it’s not working like at all. There are way too many steps to enter in one task that I don’t have time to enter in what I need to do. I bought an agenda but my only complaint with it is that it will not lie flat so I have got to find something that works better for me. I might have to try the grid paper. That seems like a great idea.

Denise March 21, 2010 at 6:31 pm

This system works! My to-do lists were getting out of control. I would get to work and I would have 8-10 things that I would had assigned myself for that day. Way to set myself up for failure. Even thought I would have crossed 4 things of my list I would leave work at the end of the day feeling like I didn’t accomplish enough. Reality was there was no way I was going to get it all done. Meredith actually helped me reprogram how I create my task list. I never set a number to a task. Instead of saying make 12 phone calls I would just say make phone calls. I would get so bogged down with phone calls that I wouldn’t get to anything else because I didn’t assign myself a stopping point. I know use this new system and I have never felt so efficient. Now when I get to the extra items I feel so great but if there isn’t time I don’t get down on myself. I really hope Meredith’s post helps people like it helped me!!!

Lori March 21, 2010 at 6:38 pm

Thanks for this article! I am one that makes lists way too long and then gets frustrated when they don’t get done either. So this is very helpful. I’m going to check out the Bob’s Your Uncle Journal.

Piper March 22, 2010 at 10:52 am

I can’t tell you how glad you posted this today. I was feeling so frustrated with my GIANT to-do list this weekend. I tend to have these superwoman sized to do lists and then feel like I failed if I don’t get it all done. The other thing I’ve struggled with is finding a system that works for me. I have my to-do list on excel but it’s not working out great. I wonder if I need to go back to pen & paper. I’ll have to check out bob’s your uncle and the online site you recommend. I love that you said to only have 3-4 priority items (instead of my usual 20!). I think the hard thing for me is trying to figure out what’s priority.

Meredith Meredith March 22, 2010 at 3:02 pm

I’m so glad you guys are finding this method useful. I know it’s saved my sanity.

@Denise: After working with you, I’ve been so impressed by how you embraced a new way of organizing your day. I’ve seen that you’re not only getting more done, but you’re also not so stressed out. That makes me feel really good. Thanks for sending in this feedback!

Emily Horak March 23, 2010 at 6:05 am

My heart is skipping a beat. An entire article on To Do Lists. Is this heaven? lol I’m seriously grinning from my toes to my nose. Meredith – thanks again for another feel good -and completely life elevating – post.

gamma March 23, 2010 at 9:01 am

To Do lists, for me, are like getting young children to accomplish tasks: nothing works for very long. Currently, I use a (paper) notepad to physically walk around and collect tasks, a Word document to manage the tasks, and my iPhone for lists that must be portable. (I store them in the Notes app, and eliminate the tedious text-entry process by keying them into an email on my desktop, sending it to myself, retrieving the email on my iPhone, and cutting-and-pasting the list into Notes.)

But the info here is invaluable. These new product ideas are attractive and practical. I’m pretty good at keeping my list items measurable, but I am going to try separating the top-tier items from the nice-if-I-have-time items so I can feel the glow of accomplishment at the end of the day.

Meredith Meredith March 23, 2010 at 9:21 am

@ Gamma: Whew! To Do List-keeping can be tiring, huh? I hear you!

I keep my “overall” list in Backpack online, but my daily 3-4 items in my Off the Grid notebook, which never leaves my side.

I just sort of obstinately refuse to do anything that’s not on my list until my list items are done. Yes, it means that sometimes emails have to wait an hour or two to be answered, but, I feel so much better when I stay focused on my most important items, rather than allowing myself to be drawn off.

Kimberly March 23, 2010 at 3:11 pm

I keep a running list, but my top must-get-done-or-somone-will-hurt-me items are placed on my calendar where I block out time during my day to get them done. I really like that you are posting your week’s to do list too.

Natalie Jost | Olive Manna March 24, 2010 at 7:24 am

TEUXDEUX is great! I use it every day. It’s a stationary tab on my browser. I love that I can refresh it in the morning and see unfinished tasks from yesterday automatically bump over to the bottom of today’s list.

I like to organize groups of tasks with a “- – - – - – - – - – - – -” task in the list. I can drag and drop the dashed line to anywhere I want a separation.

In the past I used a calendar and wrote daily to dos on each day, with a perpetual to do on a blank page in the back – things I do regularly or things that will take more than a day to do. Now with TEUXDEUX I can “schedule” a list item to Friday if I know it’s something like my “Friday Favorites” blog post – in much the same way I did with a calendar.

Still, Gamma is right – nothing works for too long, so I’ll probably have a better solution a few months from now. But isn’t that the point of a to do list, that it constantly change (items being listed, then being crossed off). If it’s always the same, it makes actually doing anything much more boring (to me anyway). :)

Meredith Meredith from PenelopeLovesLists March 24, 2010 at 8:43 am

Great idea, Natalie! I love the idea of using the “- – – – – – – – – – – – -” task in the list. Adding that to my To Do List system.

Meredith March 24, 2010 at 9:55 pm

I really love your tips. I’m guilty of not making my to-do lists as effective as they could be. That said, I have been using he Teux Deux system for some time now, too, and I love it! Especially the Someday section at the bottom. It keeps an endless ebb of sticky notes at bay.

Julie April 10, 2010 at 11:43 am

I just use Google Taskbar’s “To-Do” list. I then separate items using
and for each day, I have it listed. So it looks like this:

check PO box
It’s easy and Google TaskBar even has a function where I can save it to a file on my computer for the horrible occasion that could occur if my computer crashed and lost my list.

I use this in conjunction with Outlook, and I keep myself organized and I have four part-time jobs, all with completely different schedules.

Meredith Meredith April 14, 2010 at 2:07 pm

@Julie: great strategy. I’m going to try out Google’s Taskbar’s To Do.

Ria April 21, 2010 at 8:49 am

Fantastic post and I’m new to the site, so Hi! I love what you are doing here. I’m struggling though; how do you get over the feeling that it’s OK to do five things rather than 20? How do you feel ‘good enough’ about that rather than beating yourself up for all the things you haven’t done or are still to do on tomorrow’s list? I really struggle with this issue – the whole ‘good enough’ thing and would love some words of wisdom!

Tasker March 23, 2011 at 7:00 pm

You should try this free online task maker/ task manager called

Natalie Forood June 15, 2015 at 10:30 pm

Great post, Meredith! I have always had trouble creating a to do list and tracking the items. I recently started using Trello (app and Web site) and it is terrific. It creates a To Do list, Doing, and Done card sets and then you can add more card sets. It has helped me keep track of where I am with each task for each project. It also let’s you color code cards, assign cards to people, schedule the tasks, comment on each task, receive reminders. It has many more useful features and they are all free. I highly recommend it. It syncs what you do in the app with the Web site – similar to how Dropbox sync files.

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