The Thread: Tackling The To-Do List

When it comes to conquering the daily to-do list, what works for you?

One of the first things I do each morning is write a list of all the things I hope to accomplish that day—work tasks, meetings, and personal errands. I dream of reaching a point when my to-do list is so well managed that I have that lovely "crossed everything off my list" feeling seven nights a week. In large part that's because the list is full of non-work tasks like exercising, booking a haircut, or working on a personal writing project that are most likely to be left undone (though there are nights when I move work tasks from today's to-do list to tomorrow's to-do list, which is an awful feeling—especially the next morning).

This year I am determined to take control of my to-do list, whatever that might mean.

Perhaps I need to make my to-do list shorter, or do a better job of estimating how much time I'll have between meetings and other appointments. Gina Trapani suggests breaking to-do list items down into even smaller pieces.

I wonder if I schedule meetings inefficiently—the venture capitalist Juliet de Baubigny schedules all of her medical and dental appointments on the same day, which seems smarter than interrupting several days throughout the year.

Maybe I'm not thinking about my priorities in the right way. Fast Company expert contributor Edward Hess recalls speaking to an entrepreneur who puts off tasks that don't directly impact one of his three priority areas (in his case: customers, quality, and cash flow).

Can technology help me? Even though I love my iPhone and am a very plugged-in person, I've always preferred writing my to-do lists by hand.

When it comes to conquering the daily to-do list, what works for you? Share your advice in the comments section below, or tweet us @FastCompany.

[Image: Flickr user kkirugi]

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  • Chaoqing

    Why do we need ToDo list in the first place? It helps us to manage priorities and releases our minds to focus on the tasks at hand. So I do not think the goal is to conquer everything on the list, but to focus on the few things that create the highest value. 

    Technology sure can help us, but we should also be mindful about the behavior change. For example, if I had been using my notebook to manage ToDo list and just switched to apps, how intuitive is it to use? How much time I need to spend on it everyday? The smaller the change, the easier I would adapt.

  • Keith Nerdin

    Two Tips:

    1. Get Rid of To-Do Lists. I'm a huge GTD fan and lover of all things Covey, but when I accepted a challenge to get rid of to-do lists and place everything on my calendar, I began achieving the clarity and peace of mind desired in this article. Think about it. Everything you do--EVER--is accomplished (checked off) during some minute of some day. And what tool do we have that represents every minute of every day? Yep. Our calendars. This allows us to be honest about everything we have on our plates and injects a great deal of accountability into all of our tasks/commitments. 

    2. Plan for the Unplanned. Ask yourself, "How much time each day do I spend doing things that simply can't be planned for--the truly unexpected?" Sure, as you master effective time management techniques, this group should shrink, but for many of us, there will always be a certain amount of time each day that we spend doing things (i.e. - taking an unexpected customer call, providing praise to an employee for doing great work, spending time jotting down notes about a new genius epiphany we just had) that we could never see coming. For some people, this can be 30 minutes and for others, maybe 4 hours. Whatever the number, just be certain to leave a cumulative equivalent of that amount of time unscheduled on your calendar each day. If you have 8 hours available in your work day and schedule it with 7.5 hours of tasks and then end up doing 3 hours of unexpected work as well, you'll never end your days with the peaceful sense of control and accomplishment you desire.

    Remember, GETTING organized never lasts, but BEING organized does!

  • Arun Saxena

    Effective management of ToDo lists start with prioritizing the goals one wants to achieve - both in the short and the in the long term. This means allocating time to think about and do things that at - 50,000 feet - life goals, 40,000 feet - 3-5 years goals, 30,000 feet - 1-2 years goals, 20,000 feet - current responsibilities (current performance year at work or such), 10,000 feet - current projects (this month - upto 6 months) and 0 feet - current activities (today and this week).

    Covey's four quadrants still remain the universally used tool to prioritize -

    do now - important and due now
    plan to do - important but not due now
    reject and explain - not important but due soon
    resist and cease - not important and not due soon

    Having prioritize and prunes the TODO list, Next steps that helped me -
    eat that frog (Brian Tracy) - do the least interesting first
    follow up with the smaller tasks next
    do the longest task the last

    Choice of artifact to manage the list
    Does not matter much
    Main criteria for selection - must have high visibility to constantly remind us

  • Gene Hammett

    In the past, I also suffered from the incomplete to-do list depression of moving new items into the next day.  I am currently using an approach that is not new, but very rewarding.  I make a list of 3 items that are very important and accomplish one first thing upon sitting at my desk (before checking email), then I finish another before lunch.  And let the 3rd hang around until end of the evening sometimes, but I usually get it done.  The list is one 3 items and they are all important.  Plus it allows me to be INTENTIONAL to complete those items.  It is not perfect and not for everyone, but works for me.  Sharing with you incase someone wants to try something new.

    Gene Hammett with Core Elevation
    Atlanta Business Coach

  • Nicolas

    Check out Trello, ( which is a Kanban ( style project management app. I've spent more time than I care to admit looking for a task management solution that felt right, and this one feels pretty good to me. It's a different way of thinking about/visualizing tasks, but to me it feels pretty intuitive.

  • Alex Hughes

    i like due ( this app which runs on phones tablets and computers lets you write a to do like you normally would instead of selecting calendar dates etc. and can be worse than a nagging mother when you fall behind, which is good for me

    other than that i haven't used it yet but google now looks like it might just solve that problem for all of us. i'm waiting for a few more reviews but the new nexus phone might finally get me to switch to droid.

  • Greg Dudley

    I like to think of a to do list not as a task list but a 'Priority List'. My priority list is always full I manage my list with Windows Live Hotmail and Microsoft Outlook utilizing the To Do - Tasks utility. I can add things to my agenda with my phone, netbook or desktop and I have select individuals that I allow to manage the list in addition to myself. My schedule and tasks (priority list) are always in flux as I check items off as complete, in process or incomplete with high, medium or low priority. I can include others from my contacts in my task - to do lists and schedule. The key to successful time management is to allow others to assist in the management of the 'Priority List' and schedule as one can never do it all or know it all ;)

  • Corrinne Armour

    Thanks for the great ideas.  Mine:  1) Look at your top three priority list (rather than the full to do list) and NOT email when you have a 5 minute window.  Email is typically other people's priorities.  2) Taking a tip from Stephen Covey, 'sharpen the saw' by taking time out to regenerate.

  • Michelle Sybesma

    Never forget, the goal is not to have an EMPTY task list, it is to have a manageable one.  If you have and empty task list, you might not really be needed. 

  • Michael Benson

    The most common mistake is believing that everything on your list is competing to be done today.  Some can wait, freeing up time today.  Schedule your tasks with your calendar and only put in as much as you can realistically manage on each day.  Low priority items soon get pushed out and the important things get focus when needed. 

  • Michael Kazazis

    you wake up, before looking at your smart phone or tablet, identify the two or
    three things you want to accomplish....these are the important things you do
    for yourself. After catching up on the emails, you can add to the list those
    things that you primarily do for others. This will help you take back some
    control of your life.

  • M2najjar

    I know I'll only do three things, so I list the three must do things and leave the rest to my weak memory

  • Susan

    Would you like a radical approach? I refer to myself as a time liberator because I am working on developing the principles of time investment and usage in the 21st century's open source modeled world.  The model you are trying to use (time mangement, planners, to do lists) is based on the industrial age (IA) model of linear time. Like many IA models-schooling,the economy- the model is broken  because that age is over.

    I am theorizing that we are in a transitional place between linear time and what I refer to as fractal time. We do need to use the clock and calendar for coordinating our time with others - appointments, events, meetings, deadlines and the like. But when working on our own projects and priorities we can actually leverage fractal time and use our natural ability to experience time as passing more slowly or more quickly - time has a pulse and rhythm - to be and accomplish more while doing less. 

    What this looks like on a daily basis is a shift from just doing to both being a doing. Group linear time activities to create larger chunks on non-linear fractal time. With a general sense of who you want to be in this world, let intuition play a bigger role in choices-incoroporate the concepts of of the open source model (collaboration, transparency,sharing and empowerment -Don Tapsott's work) to create accomplishment and reconnect with a more natural state of being and interacting with the world.

  • Noah Yeh

    So we're working on a todo list that categorizes todos into 3 categories, "do later" "doing it" and "done", this helps remove the aweful feeling of the many tasks left on your to-do lists because there's always a section to put things on hold, we make it extremely easy to change task status for our users. We wonder if we can play a part in the follow-up article, please let me know if it's possible thanks, the app is coming out on app store next week

  • Michelle Sybesma

    Sample post-it style note to help paper piles match to-do lists. Printed as sticky pads or just paper clip/staple. #productivity

  • Michelle Sybesma

    Only allow yourself 3-4 "HIGH PRIORITY" tasks/to-do list items per month.  If you are a paper note taker, highlight these.  Keep a separate log of what makes this special list.  Watch for patterns that will help you better anticipate them in the future.   It is not about time management, it is PRIORITY management that will make you better organized.  And remember, if everything is a priority then nothing is really a priority.

  • Michelle Sybesma

    Create categories to process your emails into 5 types.--Calls, Meetings, To-dos, Awaiting Follow up (from Others) and Research Items.  
    This helps you productively manage your energy, mood and time.  Use this system also on your desk piles. Saves time and makes you process happier and more focused!

  • Joanne Morgan

    Time management... how much money has been made in the last century building apps, models, writing books and creating training to help us with time management? 
    My favorite: still my Franklin Planner, the tactile function of recording at the end of every day, so I can release my mind of work and focus on family. The next morning, prioritize and work the plan.
    One of my favorite books: Eat that Frog by Brian Tracy. Human nature to procrastinate those things we consider distasteful, so get them done 1st.
    Time is finite, make sure to use it wisely to fulfill both work and life objectives.