I have been fascinated with personal productivity for most of my adult life. I’ve tried everything, every plan and scheme, from Franklin Planner training back in the 80s to Kanban. But now, I’m going to share my thoughts on that most simple of tools, the old-fashioned To Do list.
Most of us have to do lists, even if we don’t think we do. Some of us just keep them in our heads, but we still have them. I’m not a fan of keeping anything in my head, because my memory is terrible, and that just leads to stress. Is there anything worse then that feeling that there’s something critical that you should be doing right now, but you can’t remember what it is? And someone you love or respect is going to be so disappointed in you for not doing it. That’s why I write down everything. Every single thing. My standard reply when someone asks if I’ll do something is, “did you see me write it down? If not, then don’t count on it.” My wife doesn’t ask me for anything verbally anymore, except maybe a hug. She emails requests. And bless her for it.
But I digress. The to do list. It’s a tool we all use in some fashion, and its primary function to ensure that things get done. But that’s not what it really does, is it? It’s a source of stress, of worry, of self-flagellation, of despair. And while I think there are far better tools than the to do list, even that simple tool can stand a lot of improvement.
To do lists come in two basic forms: time-limited and unlimited. A time-limited to do list is like a daily to do list. It’s a list of everything that we plan to do today. Another form is the running to do list. It’s a potentially huge collection of everything we ever agreed to do or hope to do.
The idea behind a running to do list is to get everything done by forcing you to do things in the order in which you commit to them. So even if your list grows to a hundred items, and you really want to do item number 98 today, if number 3 isn’t done, you’ve got to do that first. It’s a way of fighting procrastination, and over time it forces you to think carefully before commiting to anything.
The running to do list alone didn’t work for me, because it grew too fast, soon spanning several pages and including things I might never do and things that didn’t need to be done for weeks or months, and so it became distracting when I was trying to figure out what to do now. The daily to do list used to be my biggest enemy, until I gor some brilliant advice from my last boss’ wife, fifteen years ago. She told me that on a good day, she got two or three important things done. Any executive might do dozens of things in a day, but a good day was one in which one or two of those dozens of things was important. So she suggested a to do list with no more than three things on it, as long as those three things were really valuable. That advice changed my life.
I used to have daily to do lists with a dozen or more items, and I’d usually do them in the order of easiest to do up to the easiest to put off. The problem is, that every day I’d do 50-70% of the items and them move the “easiest to put off” to the next day. Some of them never got done and others they just got moved until they became emergencies. Once I shortened my daily to do list to include just two categories of things, my problems were solved. Now, I start my day with a very short list that includes only things that satisfy these two criteria:
1) Something really bad will happen if this isn’t done before I go home
2) If I only did this today, and then went home, it would still be a great day.
Rarely does the list have more than three items in it. Sometimes it has only one. One thing that must be done or I’ll lose a client, or get hit with a lawsuit, or get fined for late tax reporting or one thing that if only it was done, I’d feel like I’d done something really important to advance my goals or build my business. On most days, my whole to do list is done before lunch. I can spend the rest of the day any way I like, whether it’s going for a walk in the woods or getting a head start on the next day or dealing with the usual stuff that comes up at work.
But of course, I’m a Kanban guy, and I use personal kanban with Kanbanery at work. What kind of a Kanbanery employee would I be if I didn’t use and love my own product? One column of my Kabanery board is my daily to do list, and it has a really tight WIP limit. I collapse all the other columns before it and get to work on that list first. Once it’s done, if I still feel like working, I can always pull tasks from the running to do list which is the first column of my personal Kanbanery board, or I can take a run along the river. That’s part of the beauty of personal kanban. Done right, it gives you the freedom to choose how to spend your time, safe in the knowledge that you aren’t forgetting to do something that’s terribly important right now.
I’ll be writing more about the evolution of my personal productivity system, which has been featured in Business Insider and Forbes, but for now, if you’re still using to do lists to plan your day, consider keeping them short. Really short. Because in the two decades since Amy Arden gave me that great advice I’ve consistently found it to be true.
Whether I’m in my role as a husband and father planning my weekend, as a worker planning his day, or as an entrepreneur or executive, there are rarely more than three things that I do in a day that really have to be done to make it a good day, and anything else is just a distraction. That’s the 80/20 principle at work. Give it a try, and tell me how it goes in the comments below. Even better, set up a free Kanbanery account now and put a WIP limit of 3 on your Today column and see if it doesn’t make you happier and more effective than you’ve ever been.