Blog Post

Get to the Bottom of Your To-Do List by Making it Tiny

In recent weeks, we’ve talked about the useful concept of a Not To Do List, allowing you more room to focus on what to do.

But still that leaves the question of what’s left on your to-do list, and how to manage it.

It’s a question that many of us grapple with daily, and there’s no single right answer. But I’m here to propose that you embrace the concept of a Tiny To-do List, and eschew your old long, neverending to-do list(s). [digg=]

Many of us have created to-do lists (or the multiple context lists of GTD) that have gone on way too long — a list that we couldn’t possibly finish in the foreseeable future. As we work hard to knock those tasks off our list, cranking them out like there’s no tomorrow, more tasks come in and are added to the list. There really is no tomorrow, because there’s no end to the list.

Instead, I suggest you adopt a Tiny To-do List: one with only three important tasks for today, and perhaps a few smaller and unimportant tasks that you can group together (emails, calls, paperwork, routine stuff). You could have a second list called “Someday” of tasks you’d like to do, or need to do eventually, but cannot do right now, but the list of stuff you’re actually going to do should be tiny.

Why a Tiny To-do List is Better
Let me name just a few of the reasons you might want to adopt a Tiny To-do List:

  1. Simpler. A shorter list is simpler, which means it’s less stressful, and more sane. Simple appeals to me, and if it appeals to you as well, you might consider a Tiny list.
  2. Focuses on the important. Actually, this is the most important benefit of a Tiny To-do List. Too often, we try to crank through the tasks on our list, without worrying about whether we should do a task, or whether it is important. Each day, when creating your Tiny list, ask yourself what the three most important things you could accomplish today would be. Ask yourself which three tasks will have the most long-term, far-reaching impact on your life and your business. If a you could do 5 tasks that wouldn’t mean anything next week, or one task that will make a huge name for you or bring in long-term business? Focus on the huge tasks.
  3. More likely to be completed. You’re more likely to complete a tiny list of 3 tasks than a long list of 10 or more. We often think we can do more in a day than we actually can. Make your list doable, and you won’t finish the day with a long list of stuff that didn’t get done. And if you know you can complete a list, you’re going to be more motivated to actually do that, rather than try to tackle a neverending list.
  4. Easier to remember. If you have 3 things to do today, you will have a hard time remembering what you have left to do. If you have 20 things on your list, you’ll have to keep referring to it to see what’s next. And that causes stress, wastes time, and is a bit of a productivity drain.
  5. Satisfying feeling at the end of the day. When you look at your to-do list at the end of the day, and all your items are checked off, and you know you accomplished something important, it feels great. You feel satisfied, and productive. If you go home with a long list of things not done, you don’t feel so great.

How a Tiny To-do List Works
A regular, neverending to-do list works something like this: you add any tasks that come in to your life to your list; you pick something to do, and try to complete it; you do the next thing on the list, or pick from the list depending on priorities, time available, energy, tools available, and then try to complete that task; when new tasks come in, you add them to the list, and so on, forever. The next day, you do the same thing.

Here’s how a Tiny To-do List works:

  1. Someday list. Just add tasks to a long list as they come in. You don’t need to be discriminate at this point — just write them down.
  2. Tiny List. At the beginning of each day, look at your Someday list, and decide what the 3 most important things you could accomplish today are. Just three. They should be of long-term benefit. One of them should be a task that helps you get closer to your single most important goal at the moment.
  3. Batch list. There may be some smaller things that you need to take care of, including email, calls, paperwork, maintenance stuff, errands, etc. You don’t want to focus on these, you don’t want to spend too much time on them, and you don’t want them to interrupt your 3 most important tasks. Batch them together as much as possible, and knock them off when you can. Don’t put more than 4 small tasks on the batch list, though, or you’ll end up not completing your 3 important tasks.
  4. Do important tasks first. Don’t try to do the batch list first. Get the important stuff out of the way — you want to look back on your day, at the end of the day, and say you accomplished something. If you get the important stuff done, but not the batch tasks, you can say you did something important. Devote the first part of your morning, or your entire morning if possible, to your important tasks, as well as any other time that might be your peak energy time.
  5. New tasks. As new tasks come in, you can add them to your Someday list, or to your Batch list if it’s a small task that should be done today. If it’s really important, and it needs to be done today, you can replace one of your 3 important tasks with this new task, but I’d be careful of doing that too often. You want to remain in control of your day if possible.
  6. How to batch. Schedule time to batch your tasks. For example, you might schedule 30 minutes at 10 a.m. and another 30 at 4 a.m. for batch processing your email and phone calls. Or you might schedule 4-5 p.m. for all of your batch tasks. Don’t let them interrupt your important tasks. Stay focused on the important stuff.
  7. Review your day. At the end of the day, be sure to check off your completed tasks, and see what important tasks you finished. If you got them all done, celebrate! Feel great about it, and let that enthusiasm carry you into tomorrow. A great way to end your day is to also plan tomorrow’s 3 important tasks ahead of time.
  8. Simplify. About once a week, you should go over your longer Someday list and simplify it as much as possible. It can grow quite long over the course of a week, but in truth, you won’t be able to finish all those tasks. Weed out the ones you can’t really do, or don’t need to do, or don’t want to do. Let go of the unimportant tasks. Delegate as many of the others as possible. Put others on a maybe list in a drawer somewhere. Just leave the essential tasks, if you can.

25 Responses to “Get to the Bottom of Your To-Do List by Making it Tiny”

  1. Yeaah. good points. I really hate prioritizing tasks just because I feel it’s often hard to assign a numeric value to things, but your idea is simple – tiny list, batch list, someday list. That way I still seperate out those most important things but I don’t have to give numeric values to tasks. I’m the maker of (it’s for making a simple to do list), and I think after reading your article I’m going to add a “Star this” feature to the site…. that allows users to star the most important to do tasks. While this is not actually creating seperate lists, I think for most people just starring the most important tasks is enough. While I don’t necessarily have level 10 important, level 9 importance, and level 2 importance tasks, I can certainlly distinguish the most important tasks from the not so important ones, so “starring” would be of big help….

  2. I am a network manager. My task list is huge, and on a day to day basis so much emergency stuff comes in that needs handled right away, that i hardly ever see my actual to do list. Occasionally my boss will ask me about an item on my regular todo list, especially if he has time to think about it while golfing, but all those things that once seemed important, aren’t really that important after all.

  3. Hi Bruce. Great questions.

    Regarding the large master list of actions, managing it can be done in
    a few ways. Some people like having a “flat” list, with all actions
    ungrouped. Others use the GTD idea of “contexts” – “What can I do
    where?, or alternatively, “What place, person, or equipment is needed
    to do the action?” However, when you start approaching hundreds of
    actions (I had a client with ~400), you will probably need a tool that
    slices and dices appropriately. There are many on both platforms, but
    I’m not familiar with any particular ones.

    And your suggestions are good too: Choosing areas of responsibility
    like heath, business, etc. can work – it’s a personal preference and I
    suggest you try something, see how it works, then adjust. But try it
    for a while – say a week or two. Beware “endless tool tweaking

    That said, having a list this big might tell you something about how
    committed you’ve made yourself. :-)

    >I’m not sure how “organized” my (large, “someday”) Master ToDo list should be…

    I suggest starting simple, and adding complexity only as needed.
    Einstein is reputed to have said “Make everything as simple as
    possible, but not simpler,” which is good advice, I think.

    Hope that helps!

  4. I love this idea of a “closed list” of only the three most important items from your Master list…

    The thing I am wondering about, is… What’s the best way to keep your Master List organized?

    As was mentioned, it tends to be an ever-growing list…. And can easily swell to HUNDREDS of items.. So how can I keep it orderly enough to be able to quickly pick those THREE most important tasks for today…?

    Do I outline each task under sub-tasks & those under Projects, etc… And those by major categories…. like Business, Money, Health/Fitness, Relationships,…..?

    I’m not sure how “organized” my (large, “someday”) Master ToDo list should be…

    And, best organized in what way….?

    Bruce Wagner

  5. I like your original thinking – very nice. I’ve been thinking about a similar variation to Allen’s work, based partly on ideas from Mark Forster’s book Do it tomorrow. It’s basically a daily todo list. However, there are caveats. The basic idea:

    o The night before (or first thing in the morning) create a short list of actions to do for the day from your master action list.
    o During the day work from this list. This gives a sense of closure. This is because it’s what Forster calls a closed list – you don’t add to it, and you finish it all.
    o If you do process new incoming, add it to your master list, unless it’s urgent (must be done today).
    o At the end of the day, tear up the list. The risk is that you’ll focus on the daily list, and ignore work that is more important (or has *become* more important) on the master list. In the morning, start over with a new list built from your master list.

  6. I do the same as anupcs. Basically use GTD but plan out 3 tasks for home and 3 tasks for work to do each day. The difference is, I plan mine out the night before. I found the quiet and the anticipation of sleep makes this easier than in the morning.

    Another thing I do as part of my weekly review is to plan out what I want to accomplish this week. I try to take 5 tasks for home and 5 for work that will directly impact my longer term goals. I don’t plan out what specific day to do them, just that I want to get them done. I found this helps to tie in the daily tasks to the larger picture of your life. Then each night I can pick off this list to make progress to my goals.

  7. @Bueller: The point is that you think you need to get 10 things done today, but in most cases you don’t. Proof: in most cases, even if you tried, you wouldn’t get them done. And life goes on, and you don’t get fired.

    If you actually have 10 things to do every day, 10 really important things, you are probably overloading yourself. Overcommitment. Learn to prioritize and say no. If your boss is giving you too much to do each day, go to him and say, “Pick three things that are super important that you would like me to accomplish today. I will make sure to get those done. If there’s more time, I’ll tackle the next three. But I can’t do all 10, and do them well.”

    If your boss fires you, he’s an idiot and you should be looking for a new job anyway. No manager overloads good workers, because they will be ineffective, get burned out, and look for new pastures. Good managers learn to prioritize.

  8. bueller

    wait what? if you have 10 things that need to get done today, how can you ditch 7 of them so that you will be less stressed? if shit needs to get done, then it needs to get done? Don’t get me wrong I wish this is the way life was, but if I followed this advice at work I would have been fired years ago.

  9. It’s quite fortuitous, because I came at the same topic yesterday but from a different angle.

    If you organize your list properly, the size of your list(s) just doesn’t matter.

    However, I think your advice is going beyond (upwards to) lists and into project management, which is much more high-level.

    Still sound advice, none the less…

  10. cruisenow

    Lots of good advice..I just finished the book the 3 minute work week…an interesting read…batching is a big subject in the book. Always complete the task you dread the most first….that since of accomplishment fro completing that task will power you through the rest of your day…

  11. This approach has the problem of an ever growing someday list too. What I do is kind of you what you suggest but I still use the regular GTD approach with respect to projects and context (I use kGTD) but every day morning, I pick out the top 3 items I need to do for that day (I have separate lists for work and home) and write them on a piece of paper that I carry with me. This seems to work for me.