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.

  • Reese

    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

  • Helgi

    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

  • Dave

    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!

  • Anthony

    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?

  • Scott Young

    Thanks for the comments everyone.


    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.

  • Norbert

    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

    Best Regards,

  • Wulfen

    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:
    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.

  • Scott Young


    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.

  • Antonio

    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

  • Scott Young


    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.

  • Venkat

    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.

  • Imaduddin Sawal

    Now that tadalist’s offline, what utility you use to record your to-dos?