The art of making a useful todo list

I have a tenuous relationship with todo lists. Rather than helping me focus on getting stuff done, they usually only give me something to tinker with and feel better about having slightly mitigated my procrastination.

I’ve used Kinkless, OmniFocus, and TaskPaper. The latter is helping more, due somewhat to its more spartan nature. But mostly, I’m simply wiser and more pragmatic about the extent to which a todo list app can improve my life as the years have gone on.

In that wisdom, I’ve eschewed working from my todo list much lately. Instead, I’ve just glanced at it a few times a week to make sure I’m not forgetting something crucial.

For no particular reason, I went back to working from a list last weekend. To my surprise, it worked out for the better. Things got done, a feeling of accomplishment was achieved, stress levels were down, greater relaxation was had.

I suspect this success was due to a confluence of factors:

  • I made sure my list was minimally aspirational; everything on the list was something I could achieve in less than an hour
  • The list was focused on what I need to accomplish; if something was nice-to-have, I did it in the rest times between working items on the list
  • A little bit of novelty can’t hurt; working from a list after a few weeks not doing so is perhaps just different enough to yield temporary productivity gains

All that said, I’m starting to think there’s an art to making one’s list of things to do on any given day. Something that is achievable, but moves the ball. Something not too aspirational, but worth doing. Fresh, but with some long-standing items that feel good to knock off.

Perhaps a good todo list is equal parts excitement, tedium, and accomplishment.

Adam Keys @therealadam