Scott H Young

Daily To-Do Lists


I’ve picked up hundreds of different techniques for productivity but relatively few of them stick. Some of them may be good ideas but I just don’t see them fitting well into my life and others are downright lousy.

Four months ago I dumped a huge proportion of the built in habits and productivity techniques I had gathered up over the past year and a half. Consider it like a bit of personal development spring cleaning. Although many of these techniques were effective, I found that their subtle costs were becoming restricting in a new environment.

I think the most interesting part about this whole adjustment was simply what stuck. Those techniques that were incredibly valuable and easy to use seemed to stick with me despite my vigorous overhaul. One of these techniques is keeping a daily to-do list.

Every night before I go to sleep I write inside a binder all of my goals for the next day. I put a little checkbox beside each one of these items. I keep the binder open all the time for reference and whenever I complete one I check it off. After I finish this blog entry I’m going to check off that item.

This may seem a little simplistic and mundane, but out of all the things I have tried (GTD, day-planners, calendar systems, various lists etc.) this one has been the easiest to maintain and has an incredibly power to keep me productive during the day. I notice my productivity drop to only half or a third of its normal effectiveness if I somehow forget to do this.

Even more importantly than checking off the items is that I write an ‘X’ next to any item that I failed to do that day. These checks and x’s seem to form a very minor reward/punishment system that keeps me productive each day.

If you want to add this little productivity tidbit to your life here’s how:

  1. Get a binder or book that you can record things in.
  2. Place the binder in a place where you can refer to it often, especially where most the tasks will take place (office, home, in briefcase).
  3. At the end of each day mark an ‘X’ next to each item you failed to complete. Then write down your goals for the next day.
  4. When you look at your book and notice you’ve completed an item, give it a check.

Soon you will start being able to determine how much you can do each day, what are reasonable goals and how to effectively plan your goals.

I’ve been using this system for over a year now and if there was one tool I would recommend to get you more organized and productive, this would be it. Complex ideas may sound slick but they just end up being a hassle to use and manage. Sticking simple is the first step to stress free productivity.


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12 Responses to “Daily To-Do Lists”

  1. Reese says:

    A cool to do list tool that I love is called Ta-da list and I find that since my computer is always on, that this removes the only thing that I don’t like about to do lists, lots of paper! anyways check it out at http://www.tadalist.com/

    ps: I have no affiliation or earnings potential from Ta-da list

  2. Helgi says:

    I’ve been doing this for a while also, writing down tomorrow’s to-do list before going to sleep, only I use post-it notes. Sometimes I’ll use my sketchbooks, but mostly post-its.

    Project to-do lists and other longer term stuff I keep in my Backpack, but I’ve found it much better to keep my daily list on paper

  3. Dave says:

    I, too, use a similar system. I have a top-bound notepad at work and at home where I’m always writing down to-do items. When I begin one I place a check mark next to it (let’s me know it’s in progress or has been attended to). When I finish an item I put a line through it… and on to the next task.
    Been doing this for over 5 years now. Seems to work for me!

  4. Anthony says:

    I’ve been trying to implement GTD policies in my life but my problem is this, my day job is completely unpredictable. I might do a,b,c,d and e today, tomorrow f,g,h,i and e, and the next day might be a,b,e,d,h,a,f,c,g,e,z,t and s (lather, rinse, repeat). Not only day to day is it unpredictable but hour to hour as well. I am basically doing 15 different tasks each day and spend half my day multi-tasking out of shear survival.

    So how do I keep things organized and structured (even in a limited format) so that I have the energy at the end of the day to enjoy life?

  5. Scott Young says:

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

    Anthony,

    Life is unpredictable. If your job is mostly spontaneous, trying to organize that chaos may be a waste of your time. Instead focusing on building a storehouse of personal energy and just handling stuff as it comes.

    You must have goals, however? This to-do list also functions as your daily goals. Not necessarily items that need to be done, but what you’d like to achieve and improve upon. So even if you can’t write as many specific to-do items, setting daily goals for improvement can have a similar function.

  6. Norbert says:

    Dear Scott,

    I have posted my take on this in my blog because I thought my friends would benefit from it too: http://norbert.mocsnik.hu/blog/archives/223-.html

    Best Regards,
    Norbert

  7. Wulfen says:

    I am using a simplified version of GTD now. I keep just a binder with loose sheets within, each sheet being a project or an area of work (examples: car, finances, housekeeping and so on. At work – both my day job and my side business – I keep a sheet for each subarea or subproject). I also keep big binders for archiving memento and reference materials.

    I don’t do the 1-folder-per-day-of-month thing. Too cumbersome. The stuff I need to program for the future, I add it to Google Calendar. I might start using Gmail as a GTD tool:
    (http://saw.themurdaughs.com/gtd-with-gmail-whitepaper/)
    But only when I have permanent connection to the net via PDA or something. The good thing about paper sheets is that I have always fast access to them no matter where I am.

    Each day I take a blank sheet and go through all the others looking for things that need to get done and write them, so for each individual day I do the same as Scott suggests.

    IMO once you are very organized and you can keep track of more things in your head you can go simplifying systems because you’re abstracting the mechanics behind them. But when you’re pretty chaotic and disorganized (as I was not too long ago) complex systems like GTD might be needed to get you “in track”. Once you develop the proper mindset you can leave the training wheels behind.

  8. Scott Young says:

    Wulfen,

    I found a lot of the GTD systems too complex for my life. They might be great if you have tons of things to look at and organize, but they were overkill for myself. Worse, when you don’t end up putting information on a list constantly you stop referring to it constantly and it becomes ineffective.

    Organizational techniques are great for reducing the mental burden, but the law of diminishing returns is at work there as well. Good to see someone else is keeping it simple.

  9. Antonio says:

    Hi Scott, I’ve been reading your blog for some time now, and I’m amazed at how well you put a finger on life’s little problems that most people are bothered by, but never really take the time to deal with. About the to-do list, I think you said it right when you said an idea needs to simple to be useful, and the to-do list is as simple example of leverage as it gets. Well, i just wanted to say hi and keep up the good work, and thanx for all the great advice!
    Antonio from Croatia

  10. Scott Young says:

    Antonio,

    Thanks for the kind words. Daily to-do lists are pretty basic and highly unoriginal. That being said, it has had a huge impact on me. Just thought I’d let the rest of the world know.

  11. […] Hi Yalpe, I am sure that a quick Google search will find you an enormous amount of info and free software for to-do lists, but here is my experience. There is a huge range of needs from a student through to a senior executive and you will not find one system that fits everyone’s needs. Executives have sectretaries to look after their to-do lists, but that would probably be out of the question for you (certainly it is for me!!). Although GTD, 7 Habits etc tend to decry to-do lists as outmoded, they are actually very efficient tools for daily work. Nobody expects to sort out their life’s purpose and meaning on a scrappy to-do list, but for keeping control of the next few hours they are hard to beat. Scott Young (a member here) wrote about this recently, see Scott H Young Daily To-Do Lists I have tried various software solutions from Word or NotePad through to freeware custom software, but I find that I finish up printing the list on a daily basis anyway. Perhaps it is an age thing, but I am still more comfortable with seeing a bit of paper on my desk with the to-do list. It gives a great deal of satisfaction to be able to draw a thick red line through a completed item, and when you get to mid-afternoon and see that 7 of your 10items are already crossed out it helps to motivate as well. While I believe to-do lists are great for daily work, there is a need for longer term planning that does not go well with to-do lists. Here I am talking of your major goals – the life’s purpose and meaning stuff. For this category the 7 Habits and GTD methods are great and you can get those books cheaply in paperback or from a library. The Simpleology system looks to me to be very similar to GTD (I suppose the GTD enthusiasts will roast me for saying that) and it provides some useful templates. Note that the first Simplology course is free. Some of the first few lessons are rather cheesy, but it quickly gets down to the nitty-gritty stuff. […]

  12. Venkat says:

    I really really agree with you actually….I try to make Daily To Do Lists myself and I have noticed, like you, that it increased my productivity a lot. I noticed your comments too and I agree that I think many GTD systems are way way too complicated…. To Do Lists should be simple and flexible. I actually like using online systems though (I know you mentioned a “binder”; but that’s just too… well I mean imagine you go somewhere, you’d have to chug your binder around)… On that topic I think a good Daily To Do List that’s simple and flexible is zotodo.com. It’s pretty primitive at this stage, but I think that’s what makes it so goood.. simplicty. Anyway, good post.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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