To Do List Hack

I’m terrible at To Do lists.

I’ve tried countless approaches of keeping lists of things I have to do. Each time, a few weeks or a few months in, the lists fill up, overflow, and then mutate. They transform into an ugly, too-long litany of all the things I never got done.

Once that happens, I stop using them daily, meaning they’re essentially useless.

For a while I thought this was a software problem. Most To Do list software have endless features I don’t use. For the way my brain and my days work, I don’t want a project management solution, I just want a list (or a few lists).

I had some success with uber-simple software: I used Wunderlist successfully for more than a year, and Remember the Milk always seems appealing.

But, in the end, these too broke down. My system reverted to the tried-and-true combination of inconsistent handwritten lists in notebooks + my email inbox (where emails marked unread are a “to do” of one kind or another). This really doesn’t work: it reinforces a tendency to focus on urgent over important things, and it also results in some stuff slipping through the cracks.

So I’m at it again, using Asana thanks to peer pressure from my 60 Decibels teammates, but intentionally using 1/100th of the feature set. It’s only working because of a great, super-simple hack suggested by a teammate.

For each of my To Do lists (I have four of them, three for work and one personal), I was told to create the following four categories:


This week

Next week

Longer term

That’s the hack. It’s absurdly simple, I know. But it’s really working.

What’s great is that, without using lots of features, dependencies or due dates, this helps me use my lists for both tracking and prioritization. It also forces me, in a very direct way (and in a way that due dates never have) to be clear with myself about what I’m going to get done today, this week, next week, or later. Plus, since most real-life tasks have multiple steps, this structure helps me track them easily without needing to put every step as a new To Do: instead, I just change a few words and slide the task from one category to another.

(For example:  I’ll have “Reach out to Samitha about scheduling a call this week” in the “Today” category.  After I email her, it change it to , “Follow up with Samitha about a meeting this week” and move it to the “This week” category)

I’m finding this hack to be the perfect middle ground between a single endless list with due dates (that I make up and ignore), and an elaborate, futile attempt to schedule and project manage everything—which feels a lot spending too much time on the list and too little time doing important work.

I hope this hack helps you too. Other ideas are welcome, just share them in the comments.

6 thoughts on “To Do List Hack

  1. Great post, I use something similar. I make a list of all the things that have value in my schedule, but then I pick the top 3 based on service, goals, and ROI. Then I stack my top 3 priorities for the day, week, month, BHAG/long term. Once I knock out those 3 I go to the next 3 on my list. If I get one off my day, I move the next one up to the bottom of that list. I like the simplicity and flow of this strategy that you shared, thanks for sharing this! Thanks again for consistently good content that you share with your readers. 🙂

  2. Thanks Sasha – this was a really helpful post. I’m also a fan of Asana but agree that you can waste a lot of time trying to use too many of the features. Taking the simple approach is sometimes better. I’m currently using a Bullet Journal to organize my to-do list. It’s not a perfect solution, but I like how it allows me to create to-do lists with various time horizons. Since I spend so much time staring at a screen, there is also something nice to having this on paper.

  3. I feel you. For me, all prioritization hacks smack of arbitrariness. I have an uncontrollable revulsion toward them that always overpowers my mental exertions to box in my creative flow. One tech hack that has stuck and seems to work for me is Gsuite’s multiple inbox beta. I use it to create 3 inboxes in one interface. One for emails from others. One for emails from myself to myself (my version of Sasha’s unread to-dos). And one for ideas related to my book writing.

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