A to-do list trick

A to-do list trick

I’ve been relying heavily on a simple to-do list trick lately. It’s seriously simple, and it might change your life—or at least the way you approach your lists.

Will and I are just back from a whirlwind trip to NYC. My list for pre-departure tasks (last week) and list of putting-my-life-back-together to-dos (today) is long. Too long. Overwhelmingly long.

I can’t get anything done when I feel overwhelmed, so I resurrected a trick that a way-more-organized-than-me friend shared with me years ago:

  1. Get a post-it note.
  2. Smack it on top of your to-dos, so you can’t see your list.
  3. Write the next 3 things you need to do on the list.
  4. Do them!
  5. Repeat.

For step 3, she actually recommends tackling the hardest one first, but I like to do the easiest. (If the hardest task is step one, goofing off on twitter for twenty minutes looks a lot more appealing.)

(This is similar, but subtly different from, the way I use post-it notes in my bullet journal. I rely on that trick daily.)

I hope this little tip makes your to-do list a little more manageable today, and I would love to hear your to-do list tips and tricks in comments.

P.S. The tough love guide to planning ahead (if you’re not naturally a planner), and two big-picture concepts that help me plan my days/weeks/months.

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20 comments

  1. Jennifer Williams says:

    I frequently write to do lists that are way too long, this tip seems like a good remedy to that problem!

  2. Anne says:

    Setting a timer can help me in these instances. I’ve done something similar to you as well. Keep picking three things. You like sports, Anne….maybe you’d like this tip I heard at a homeschool conference recently. A speaker said she laid all her tasks out on a tournament bracket, and she’d see which task “won” each “game,” culminating in the champion: the task that would be completed. I wish I could remember how she handled what to do next. Did she complete the runner up or start the tournament over? 😀

  3. Libby says:

    I love that tip. I don’t do well with a huge list! But this morning I woke up and the VERY FIRST THING I decided to tackle the one thing that I’ve been putting moving over from one day to the next for the past week.
    I gotta say–no matter what else gets done, today. That thing is taken care of and I feel kind of awesome about it!

  4. Sherry says:

    Great idea! I do something similar but I sometimes will separate my to-do’s onto a couple different sticky notes re: phone calls, errands or home to-do’s. That way, i can grab the sticky note & stick it on the back of my phone for the errands. The phone calls can be made while running errands. Home to-do’s are handled by priority and using a timer (as mentioned above).

  5. Mary in Tennessee says:

    I make a list but decide which 3 things are bothering me the most. I do those first. Ahh, that feels better.

    After all the bothering ones are done, I use a variety of tricks and rewards to keep myself going. And usually with good music if possible.

  6. Victoria says:

    Oh that’s a good idea. I can’t bear the idea of only writing down the top three things as I need to have everything written down, but then hiding that so I am not overwhelmed sounds good. I’m terrible at immediately moving onto the next thing and forgetting that I’ve achieved anything so I like to go back and cross stuff off.

  7. Yip, I do what I call eating the frog. Just the 3 most important things – once those are done, anything extra feels like Christmas 🙂

    The other day I had a lot to do and I felt like I wanted to procrastinate so I set my iphone timer for 10 minute intervals so I could churn out 6 bits of writing in that hour. It worked and I got to work at an easier pace the rest of the day.

  8. Erin says:

    This is great. I would add cross out the ‘nice to fis’ when in a crunch. This morning I woke up to a to do list to do before we left on a short vacation and immediately thought ‘Hmmmm I want to do that but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t need to be done before we leave’ so it got crossed off for later.

  9. Marita says:

    I love post it notes! My trick for not getting overwhelmed with my to do list, is to put limits on it. My limit is 5 items/tasks. So on my Daily To Do I do not assign more than 5 items/tasks, if I happen to get those 5 done with time to spare, then I take some off the Running To Do list, but if I only get those 5 done that day that is alright. Knowing that I am never (ideally) starting my day with more than 5 things to do keeps my anxiety under control and allows me to accommodate for and adapt to my chronic back injury.

    • Victoria says:

      Hey Marita
      I have a chronic illness and in a flare period at the moment so my to do list (which I’m too tired to write) would include getting up 😐 Even showering has fallen by the wayside the last few days!
      Have you any other tips for managing a to do list when you have the enthusiasm but not the energy? I’m well known for collapsing on the floor one minute, and insisting on spray painting, pruning or decorating the next. Drives me nuts not to be able to do stuff when I want to.

      • Marita says:

        Hi Victoria,
        Sounds like we might be in similar situations. My back injury, when it flares up, there’s very little that I can do, which sometimes includes having difficulty just getting up and getting dressed. This also makes it difficult because I deal with depression and anxiety, so if I am unable to get out of bed because I’m in pain then I can get depressed which makes me not want to get out of bed and so on and so forth the cycle continues. Without leaving too long of a reply, I’ll just say that I use the four category prioritization system. That means my to do list is broken down into must do, have to do, would like to do, and should do. Must do is the bare minimum of what I expect myself to be able to do in a day, and I’ll just say it is bare minimum, have to do are things that I am responsible for doing if I am in good physical condition that day, would like to do our chores and other tasks that on a perfect day I would love to accomplish and get done, and should do are those tasks that are low priority or not as valuable to me and really I’m only going to do them if I am feeling absolutely great and I’ve got everything else done. With all that said, on an absolutely terrible terrible day my only tasks for that day are to get out of bed, to get a shower, and to stand up and move every hour. I hope this helps you figure out some strategies for yourself.

        • Victoria says:

          Thanks for responding. I also have depression and anxiety and know well that cycle! I’m in pain, which is depressing. I’m anxious, which tightens the muscles and increases pain etc
          I think the idea of breaking down the lists is worth thinking about. It’s funny, in legal terms (sort of my world) ‘must’ is legally required and ‘should’ strongly recommended/best practice, so a should do for me would probably be something I felt strongly I needed to do. So I’d probably change that category to ‘could’ do.
          I let myself off the hook for ordering pizza today as I’m still bad and my partner has a cold. I’m admiring the peonies on my dresser and the way they look with my copper pineapple. Still no washing (!) but we ate, I made my osteopath appt this morning and I took time to admire the flowers. That’s enough for today.

  10. Sherry says:

    Just found your blog. Thanks for the tips. I’m struggling with depression so it’s hard to get started. Where did you get your to do list book/journal? Thanks

  11. Heather Clements says:

    My daughter and I have been looking for journals with graph paper like the one you have pictured above. Do you know a source where we can find a similar journal?

    As always – I enjoy your blog and podcasts!!

    Thanks.
    Heather Clements
    Mason, OH

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