Warning: This post will only appeal to productivity nerds and people who are super busy.
And I'm talking the trying-to-juggle-127-different-tasks-at-once type of busy. Because a few years ago, that was me.
I tried every possible to-do list method to keep my brain from exploding ... but I'm so scatterbrained that nothing worked. So I kept experimenting with other people's methods until I said screw it, and created my own system.
Progressively, this led to a to-do list system that has helped thousands of people.
And no -- that's not an exaggeration.
About six years ago, I introduced this to-do list system to a few friends. My friends passed it on to their friends, and before I knew it, I was introducing it to the masses (including the 700,000+ subscribers behind AppSumo). It has since spread like wildfire.
To this day, three years after introducing this system, I still have people thanking me for sharing it with them. Because they have been using it every single day. Crazy.
But here's the crazier part -- this system only requires pen and paper.
Yup, you heard that right. And I promise you'll be getting work done faster than using some fancy digital to-do list app. Because from my six years of to-do list system optimization (yes, I'm a freak) ... digital to-do list apps always become more distracting than they help.
And speaking of how it works, I'll shut up now so you can see it in action.
1. Visualize my wacky to-do list system.
Here's a quick overview of how it all works:
And here's a visual recap from the video, with explanations for each section:
Effective To-Do List Techniques
Write the date on top.
List all tasks for the day.
Write meeting times.
Keep track of your hours.
Create a daily summary.
Make the to-do list the night before.
1. Write the date on top.
I like to write out the day (ex. Sunday) as well, so my brain doesn't have to think what "October 7th" is.
2. List all tasks for the day.
Here I write down the realistic amount of tasks I'll do. But I am cautious not to overload myself (six tasks maximum), or I know I won't finish.
3. Write meeting times.
On the top right, I write my scheduled meetings (ex. meeting with Noah at 2 p.m.) This really helps solidify in my head what my day is going to look like. Super helpful.
4. Keep track of your hours.
At the end of every hour, I write down what I accomplished. This kicks me in the butt to get back on track if I realized I slacked off that hour. It also gives me a snapshot of the hours that I was most productive, so I can optimize my daily energy.
5. Create a daily summary.
At the end of the day, I write a quick summary (typically just a single sentence). This helps me recap if I've been productive or if I've been a lazy monkey.
6. Make the to-do list the night before.
Before I go to sleep, I'll write down all the tasks I'll be doing for the next day. It's a core component of my evening routine.
I get ancillary benefits from this nightly pre-planning as well, such as sticking to my workouts more. Instead of hoping and praying I hit the gym, I keep it scheduled in my to-do list the night before.
So there's no question that at 6:30 PM I need to catch my Bikram Yoga class. (Don't judge me.)
7. Be specific.
When creating your to-do list, make sure your tasks are clearly defined. By breaking down a large task into smaller action items, your goals for the day will be less intimidating and more manageable.
2. Leverage the psychological effect of scratching tasks off.
I'm a totally digital guy, so people find it hilarious that I carry around an old school to-do list like this still.
I've tried all sorts of digital versions, many of them are good ... but they always managed to distract me more than help me. So over the course of six years, I've resorted back to pen and paper for one main reason -- the scratch-off.
We are creatures of habit. Just as we reward a dog by giving him a treat for doing something good, we can reward ourselves for getting stuff done. This leverages the psychological principle most of us learned in Psychology 101, called classical conditioning.
So what's my reward? It's getting to scratch a task off my to-do list. There's something so rewarding about it, even after using this to-do list method for 6+ years.
But most importantly, using pen and paper forces me to focus by using this trick.
I get distracted easily. To avoid that, I grab a sheet of paper and cover all of the other tasks I'm not working on at that time. When I finish the first task, I scratch it off, then slide the paper down to the next task.
This puts me into hardcore focus mode, as I'm locked on only one task at a time:
I've found this is nearly impossible to do digitally. There isn't an efficient way to hide all tasks, except for the one I'm working on. The physical piece of paper narrows my focus on the one task.
No more bouncing back and forth between to-do list apps. The pen and paper simplify my day and decreases my digital distractions.
3. Try it out to save two hours per day.
I'd estimate I've saved about 2 hours per day since switching to pen and paper:
2 hours per day x 5 days per week x 50 weeks = 500 hours
730 hours = 20 days saved
This rough math tells me I probably gain an additional 20 days to my work output each year because of this to-do list system.
Now it's your turn to save two hours a day, or 20 days a year.
Get started by grabbing a blank sheet of paper. Now outline the to-do list according to the illustrations earlier in this article. Write tomorrow's date, the tasks (six maximum) you plan on accomplishing tomorrow, and any meetings you have. Now slip that sheet of paper in your laptop (or in front of your computer).
Pull out the sheet first thing tomorrow, and start scratching off tasks as you finish them. And record what you worked on each hour.
I promise you'll feel so much more productive. And if you're looking for more productivity tips, read about the science behind mental preparation next to help you perform better.
Originally published Jan 22, 2019 5:36:00 PM, updated June 15 2021