A to-do list trick

I’ve been relying heavily on a little 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 still catching up from our recent family trip to the beach. My list for pre-departure tasks (last week) and list of putting-my-life-back-together to-dos (today) plus all the back to school tasks is still 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 4, 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 journal. I rely on that trick daily. I also sometimes use post-its in the books I read. We go through A LOT of sticky notes around here!)

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. Plus 3 time management rules I wish I’d learned ten years ago.

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  1. Kara says:

    Good idea! When my to-do list starts to get too long, I try to put a note next to an item that indicates if a certain day of the week would be best for it. That way, I can see the task (and not forget it), but I can also see the notation that this task is best for another day and not let it worry me until then.

    I also try to put something fun or whimsical on my otherwise “official” to-do list like eat ice cream or dance party with the kids. These items serve as reminders to make room for fun in my life, and I still get the satisfaction of crossing them off when I’m done!

  2. Mariana says:

    I do this too and start with the task I’m dreading the most. If there’s a call that I don’t want to make for whatever reason, I make it first so that it’s not weighing on me for the whole day.

  3. Lizabeth Snell says:

    I like this! AND I’m 73. I have come to a major life realization about To Do lists: I wrote them. I can do whatever I want to do with them. I can cross off stuff, I can do none or all of the things, I can rip it up and or just throw it in the shredder. I do have the luxury of being a retired person with grown up kids. I also am finding great happiness in being in charge of the list, not the list being in charge of me! Evaluation points are essential. 🙂

    • Pam says:

      Same here! Retired 62 year old. If something stays undone on my To Do list for several days, I question the necessity of actually doing it! Most of the time, items that make it to my daily/weekly to do lists need to contribute to my two key retirement priorities (health, wealth/finances). Of course, I define those two key priorities inclusively!

      I also give myself lots of time to do bigger or multipart tasks around the house. I call that list Three Big Things, write it in my BuJo, and set a completion time of three months or so. Lots of time to complete, and because they are bigger tasks, they give me a real sense of accomplishment when I check them off.

      • Linda G. says:

        I agree. Being a senior, when something remains on the ‘To Do List’ for a week or more, its priority changes. Edit to eliminate it, reschedule realistically, or consider getting help.

    • Miss Liz says:

      You said, “I also am finding great happiness in being in charge of the list, not the list being in charge of me!”
      Thank you! I’ve taken your comment to heart & it has already turned my life around. I’m an information hoarder & it was a joy to toss a pile of information gathering to-do scraps of paper into the trash. I realized the world won’t come to an end if I don’t collect information about every shiny object that crosses my path.
      I’m going to apply this philosophy of not being controlled to other non-relationship aspects of my life.

  4. Nancy Posey says:

    I am a post-it fan too. As a teacher, I went to the annual conference for English teachers where we all scrambled for copies of the speakers’ handouts (almost always too few for the number in attendance). So many of them were ready to use in the classroom. Instead of taking notes on the clean copies, I took them on post-it’s so I knew the little fine points.

  5. Maureen says:

    I love my To Do Lists. I use a spiral notebook. In the evening right before I go to bed I get out my notebook, tear out that day’s to do list. On the new empty sheet of paper I write the next day’s date and transfer the unfinished items from the current day’s list to the new list, then I add on new tasks. I keep the current day’s to do list open on the kitchen counter. As I pass by, I see what I’ve accomplished so far that day and cross off the completed tasks. Ah, such a feeling of accomplishment.

  6. Laura J says:

    My children are grown so I have a quieter life these days. On the left side of the page of my weekly bujo, I have my appointments/ non-flexible items. On the right side I have my to-do list. First, an underline area to write a letter for the day I think would be best to do it. This way I can group errands together or tasks that fit together. Then a box to check off when done. That is my favorite part! I could never keep a calendar before my success with the bullet journal.

    Love reading your blog Anne. The book component especially, but the part about clothing too. I don’t want to spend much time thinking about clothes but want to look more put together sometimes. I wear scrubs at my hospital job, so I need fewer clothes than most people. You wouldn’t know that looking in my closet. ; )

  7. Judy Burkavage says:

    We always have to-do lists.
    I keep mine in a small spiral bound note pad that fits easily in my handbag. Cross off what is finished and the remainders stay there staring at me.
    A fresh page for each new day, and I always refer back to those things that still need doing, from yesterday or from last week.
    This keeps me from forgetting things, and keeps me from rewriting items repeatedly day after day.
    It works great for me.😊👍

  8. Suzy says:

    I’m a To Do Lister, on post it notes (yes, I use a ton, too) and I especially love writing up a new list every evening, because TOMORROW always seems so full of possibility (and I can put some things off)!

    I wanted to comment on yesterday’s post, where there wasn’t a place for comments. Anne was so outraged at the suggestion that we NOT take books to the beach! (Three things I like and One thing I don’t). Well, I have to agree with the article, but not for the reasons they gave; I’m not worried about the book. But I am not comfortable reading at the beach, the glare is too great, even with an umbrella, and I’m either too hot or too cold. But mostly, I’m just too antsy to read! I need to be boogie-boarding in the water! Or I need to be walking the beach looking for sea glass. Or taking pictures of awesome scenes. And if I had children in the water, I could never concentrate on the book!

  9. Lori Sassali says:

    I love the post-it note trick when the to-do list is so long that it seems impossible. Another thing I like to do with my to-do list is to divide it into 3 categories: 1) Must do today 2) Would like to do today 3) Can wait until tomorrow (or another day) I have a tendency to push through to-do lists without taking breaks, or going to bed when I need to. During very busy seasons of life, that can lead to tears or irritability that I’d rather prevent. So, those categories enable natural breaks for me to check in on my body (Do I need a rest or something to eat? Is it time for bed?) and gives me permission to leave some things undone.

  10. Amy Simpson says:

    Recently, I was looking for a way to neaten up my to do list, as well as track my water intake, make space for gratitude, and more, ideally all in one place. I was so happy to find this tear-off daily planner in my search:

    Bliss Collections Daily Planner, 50 Undated 6 x 9 Tear-Off Sheets, Blush Floral Calendar, Organizer, Scheduler, Productivity Tracker, Meal Prep, Organize Tasks, Goals, Notes, Ideas, to Do Lists https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08JVF19WK/ref=cm_sw_r_awdo_navT_g_RDHYXM1SM6FYE1X8679R

    Using it has changed my entire desk set-up. I love how it breaks out the most important to-do from the rest of the list, and reminds me to do self-care every day.

    • Christine Ann Goldbar says:

      Hi Amy.
      I just bought the Bliss Daily planner and meal planner. I can’t wait to use them and hopefully get myself a bit more organized as I go into the new school year. Thanks for the suggestion!

  11. JULIA says:

    My personal to-do list trick is to write down *every* single thing I aspire to do that day, the step away for a bit. (I have a whiteboard where I write it.) After I’ve had a cup of coffee and gotten the kids to school or whatever, I look at my list again. If the thing is going to take less than 5 minutes, I do it ASAP. It’s amazing how many things fall into this category. I erase all the things I just did, which is an amazing endorphin boost. After that I’m on a roll. Look at that, I just did FOUR things! Now I’m in a good headspace to tackle my bigger tasks, which I try to do in order of importance. Not everything gets done? Oh well. Start over tomorrow.

  12. Anne, I, too, need to see everything visually. I don’t trust my memory. I use post-its all the time. Right now I am looking at 6 of them lined across the bottom of my desktop screen. Things I definitely don’t want to forget to do. I peel off each one when done.
    Every morning I put a new list of our schedules and my to-do’s next to the coffee pot.
    For years, I have used 5 1/2 x 9 1/2 inch 3 subject college ruled notebooks, where I jot everything down – to do’s, conversations, plans etc.
    (And separate ones for journals.)
    For years I have also used large 17-month FlyLady calendars. The squares have plenty of room to write everything down. I save the calendars and notebooks, so that I can remember what we did!

  13. Betty says:

    When something is very important to me I write it on the sticking note and put it everywhere where I’d like to remember about this thing.It’s very helpful for me in my daily life.

  14. Shelley says:

    I do this too. The first item on the first list of 3 for the day – ideally prepared the night before – is my “frog” for the day, but I let myself start with any of the three tasks if I’m not feeling motivated.

  15. Andrea says:

    This is a genius idea! So much so it inspired me to make a printable with this idea, since my sticky notes always find themselves stuck to something other than my list. 🙂 Thank you for the great tip!

  16. S says:

    I do this every day for work – just the 3 must do items, big or small. It helps to distill my longer to do list down to the highest priorities. For larger to do items, I grab just a task. Recently, I realized I was not getting personal items done so that is a separate post it note of 3 items – a phone call, email, appointment, an errand, whatever must get done that day.

  17. Aubrey says:

    I like to embed something small and delightful in my lists that give me a break after daunting tasks. Like, after making that horrid and necessary phone call, I make a cup of tea and let myself enjoy a solid 15 minute break. Hope this helps!

  18. Susie B. says:

    I have learned over time that items put in a pending pile, more often than not lose importance or necessity. I tend to use that extensively in my retirement.

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