A Minimalist’s To-Do List

Image by Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay

To-do lists are the subject of many a blog post. In spite of a plethora of tools available for helping us capture and order our tasks, many people are working with broken lists. At a recent meeting of Minimal Quest – a monthly, virtual meet-up for people interested in minimalism – I shared some thoughts on how to establish a better to-do list.

[Note: if you are interested in attending a Minimal Quest meetup, visit www.MinimalQuest.com for information on how to log-in. The group is free and meets for an hour on the third Tuesday evening of the month.]

During our discussion, we talked about problems that many people have with to-do lists. We came up with a few common “to-do list fails:”

1. The lists are spread across multiple locations, including paper scraps, notebooks, notepads, email inboxes, and stacks/objects left out as reminders. Sometimes, we can’t even remember where our list is.

  • Downside -> We lose track of what needs to get done.

2. The lists are too long. We often have a giant, run-on list of everything we ever want to do.

  • Downside -> Just looking at our list is intimidating.

3. The lists are full of broad and/or vague projects, such as “organize the house,” or “get my finances in order.”

  • Downside -> We don’t know where to begin (and therefore, often don’t).

4. The lists are not prioritized. Everything is treated as if it is of equal importance and urgency.

  • Downside -> We gravitate toward tasks that are easy and pleasurable.

5. The lists are not actionable, but instead are full of tasks we cannot complete, such as things we don’t know how to do, lack the funding to do, or cannot do until some else makes the first move.

  • Downside -> We feel powerless or incompetent.

6. The items on the lists are not assigned to any specific time or date. We fail to schedule when we will work on any given task.

  • Downside -> We repeatedly procrastinate.

In addition to these commonly voiced weaknesses, I brought up the fact that many people sabotage their own lists by having one particularly un-productive item on their to-do list. Do you have a guess what this could be?

It is, “What I feel like doing.”

Of course, no one actually writes this down on a list, but the choices we make and the way we spend our time reveals that we often allow our feelings to dictate our behavior. We may have a series of tasks to perform, but instead of getting busy, we rationalize avoiding them by telling ourselves…

  • I’m tired
  • I didn’t sleep well
  • I don’t have the energy to do this
  • I don’t feel like going out today
  • I’m too distracted to focus on this
  • The idea of doing this makes me nervous
  • I just don’t feel like doing x, y, or z today

Now that we’ve talked about what doesn’t work, let’s turn to what a good to-do list looks like, and more specifically what a minimalist’s to-do list looks like.

Let’s begin by recalling what minimalism is about. To quote Joshua Becker, founder of Becoming Minimalist,

“At its core, minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of everything that distracts us from it.

Joshua Becker

Therefore, a minimalist’s to-do list facilitates accomplishing what is most important, while avoiding being distracted by anything else. A minimalist’s to-do list is structured in such a manner as to avoid common pitfalls. It is simple and compelling.

1. Maintain your list in one location.

This can be on physical paper (e.g. a notebook), in an app (e.g. To-doist), or via a digital organizing tool (e.g. Outlook). The secret is to capture everything you need to do in this one location. If you get an email reminding you to do something, add that item to your list. If you have a piece of paper you need to follow up on, add that task to your list. One location, one place, easy to find, easy to follow.

2.  Be honest about what you can accomplish in any given day.

We may have a copious list of things we need or want to get done, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. Keep your list short enough that you have a realistic chance of checking off the boxes. Admittedly, you won’t shoot 100% every day, but you should be able to get there at least some of the time.

If you want, find a “back of the book” or a new list where you can keep track of all the projects you want to remember, but don’t keep them on your list for “today.” A long list of things you didn’t get done can be discouraging and steals your joy from what you have accomplished.

3. Break down projects into specific tasks.

When the task feels too big, we are likely to avoid it. Instead, consider what “next step” you can take to get the ball rolling on the larger project. For instance, decide to “clear out the countertop utensil jar” rather than “organize the kitchen.” Or, “create a folder where I can put paperwork I need to file,” instead of “organize the paperwork in my office.” After you check off one task, you can add an incremental, bite-sized step to another day.

4. Prioritize your tasks.

This can be as easy as putting a “*” or the numbers “1,2,3” next to the most important tasks on your list for the day. Remember, minimalism is about identifying and focusing on what matters most. All tasks may be necessary, but we need to work on those that are most important. This could include tasks that have an impending deadline, or simply those that you feel would bring the greatest satisfaction to complete.

5. Be realistic.

All of us have limits, and our lists should not require us to perform tasks that are beyond our capability. For instance, I may want to get rid of an old mattress in the attic, but the task “take mattress to the dump” is not something I can do. A better task would be “call a junk hauler to discuss mattress removal.” Or, if I’m considering getting back into the workforce, instead of “get a job,” it would be better to begin with, “Draft a resume.”

Similarly, let go of tasks that are not within your purview. You may wish your husband would clear out his stash of old Harvard Business Reviews, but this isn’t your task to complete. Instead, focus on tasks for which you can, and should, be responsible.

6. Schedule your tasks.

Accountability is a powerful motivator, and many people need a deadline to get them moving. Tasks which have no apparent time stamp are easy to avoid. Instead, take a look at your list and put them into your calendar as if they were appointments. For instance, you might say “Make calls between 1 and 2pm,” and then have a list of all the calls you will make during that window. Another example might “go to the DMV and renew license” on Thursday at 4pm, when you’ve heard the lines are shorter (or when you’ve been able to make an appointment). You have a greater chance of doing things that show up on your calendar than those that float untethered on a list.

As for that issue of “feelings”, bear this thought mind: minimalism is about the intentional promotion of what matters most – what matters most TO YOU!

The list is not an albatross that you carry around to make yourself miserable. Instead, a to-do list is a tool you can use to help you move toward your goals. When you find yourself overwhelmed by an emotion that threatens to undermine your productivity, stop and acknowledge it, and carry on.

*     * * * *

How would you describe your to do list?

30 thoughts on “A Minimalist’s To-Do List”

    1. I love checking items off my list, so actually writing tasks down is surprisingly motivating for me. Every little bit helps!! Have a happy week, Janine:)

  1. I knew I would love this post before I even clicked on it. The words “minimalist” and “to do list” in the title and the notebook, smartphone and shades of blue in the picture, are all things I like!

    The only thing on your list that I don’t do is schedule my tasks for specific times – though I do assign them to specific days. I tend to have daily and weekly flows which ensure that things get done when they need to get done, except when something unexpected arises. I read many years ago that we should keep a percentage of our time unscheduled to allow for that but I don’t always do that.

    My biggest downfall is doing things that aren’t actually on my list – whether it’s to order a gift for my grandson or start a major project. I guess I have become list-dependent.

    1. I think scheduling for a day is terrific! Some people like having “zones” of time in their day for certain types of tasks (e.g. calls, errands, paperwork, etc.) The key is to try and have a daily list, right? Not one that runs on forever with no accountability. I love all those things at the beginning too, Janet. Great minds!!

  2. Thank you for sharing this minimalist guide to simplifying lists. I see that people often get bogged down on having a large list and executing a large list. It’s best to prioritize each week and know that if you accomplish 3 priorities, you are successful. We are often overly optimistic about our time.

    1. That is so true, Ellen. We are overly optimistic about our time, and then when we don’t achieve what was honestly an unrealistic list, we feel shame and disappointment. Better to set yourself up for success, and that starts with being honest about what can achieved!

  3. Great tips, Seana!

    The more detailed to-dos I have, the more specific my list becomes. I add all the tasks, even the smallest tasks, to this detailed list. It allows me to manage my time better. I may be able to do a small task in between two other tasks. I try to make the task list in sequential order; if not, I number them after the list was created.
    Sabrina Quairoli recently posted…Party Planning Tips During COVIDMy Profile

    1. I love to hear all the ways we customize our lists. I tend to put a category tag next to my task, such as “C=Calls” and “E=Errands.” This way, when I pick up the phone or hop in the car, I can see at a glance all I want to accomplish while in this frame of mind. I am with yo on the tiny details on the list. I do that too:)

  4. Seana you are preaching to the choir! I am a regular list maker. I have my list for each day which includes daily household chores, work responsibilities and any other things that can be slotted in to my available time. I also keep a list of things I want to do this week. These sometimes include steps in a project or errands to run that don’t have a time stamp associated with them. Learning how to craft a to-do list that is reasonable is a skill. Thank you for putting this together. I will share it widely.

    1. Thanks for sharing it, Diane. I love your lists, and the idea that some have time stamps, and others done. I completely agree that it is a skill, and one that is well worth cultivating. Lists help us offload items from our brains so we don’t feel the pressure of having to remember everything (which few people can do anyway!).

  5. Oh, the to-do list! I’m fascinated by how many ways and strategies there are for keeping, organizing, and using lists. And as we know, there is no one way. Personally, I use a combination of electronic and handwritten lists. It turns out my daughters do too. I didn’t teach them that, but over time, it’s how their lists evolved.

    While there isn’t one way to manage lists, the one overarching thing that I feel is essential no matter what type of list you use is having CONFIDENCE in your list. By that, I mean that it’s key that you are consistent in where you capture your tasks or to dos. As long as you have one place that you know you can return to repeatedly to record, retrieve, and prioritize your information, that better chance of success you’ll have in accomplishing what you need and want to.

    I have one location (the 2Do app) that all tasks go. I can prioritize them to show up on a particular day. However, as we know, projects require multiple steps. Instead of including all the steps on the daily list, I might have a cue on the list to work on the project and then look at my detailed list (kept separately) to know what to focus on next. I get this might not work for everyone, but it works for me.

    1. I also love hearing about how everyone manages the idea of the list. Neat that your girls have, on their own, adopted a system similar to yours! I completely agree that you need one central location for capturing all your tasks. There are some great apps on the market, with neat features like being able to prioritize them or have them show up when you want them to. Thanks for sharing your wisdom on this, Linda!

  6. Oh my goodness – love that. I used to do my work primarily at my desktop computer in my office. I’d make an actionable, specific list every morning, and check it off by nighttime – or I’d at least move items to the next day if need be. Since the pandemic and the kids home, I work at my laptop in the kitchen and that is one thing I’m missing. PRODUCTIVE to do lists. I really need to start again. And we got some awesome whiteboards..

  7. Having a realistic, actionable list is so important. I started using a vision board some years ago to help me make some sense of bucket list goals and create actionable steps to achieve those far off dreams.

    Great tips here! I like the Seana Method 😉

  8. I’m always working on ways to better my to-do list. Right now I am using my task list in my CRM. It’s not working great because as you said, items are not prioritized and sometimes vague. I have been doing one thing that is working great. I changed my morning schedule to focus on myself. I spend time in the morning drinking coffee, meditating and taking a walk before I get dressed. I sit down at my computer around 8 am and focus on one project for one hour. It really moves that project forward. After that I start in on my email.

  9. To do lists can either help us get things done or take us hostage. It’s true that sometimes we have just too many of them. It reminds me of a client who would have lists of his list of his list. I used to find them in his coat pockets after they came back from the cleaners.
    I like what you said about breaking a big project down. That’s list making at its best. I use my digital notes for list making. Also, I like to think it through on paper. It’s a system works best for me.
    Great post!
    Ronni Eisenberg recently posted…The Powerful Ways Our Pets Help Us to be Better PeopleMy Profile

    1. I love that everyone is sharing what their own lists look like. I think we should all find the exact formula that works for us. I am a paper girl for my to-do list, but I have other lists on my phone, including my holiday giving list in an app!

  10. This is the PERFECT list of dos and don’ts for a to-do list! I appreciate your thoroughness in diving into this topic. We all need to be reminded of letting go of things that don’t serve us but take up space in our heads and on our lists.

    1. Absolutely, clear out your head! The more we try to hold in our minds, the worse a job we do! Find a tool that works for you, then use it and rely on it!

  11. I have very short lists now. I have more time to do things, so I pick one or two things outside the normal everyday things
    and make that a priority. That said, I still sometimes put too many things on the list and it is discouraging. I like all your suggestions and I am guilty of many of the failures you mentioned. I’m working on it.

    1. I think one or two things is the perfect number to add to a daily routine. Few enough items to make real progress, without feeling overwhelmed. Great idea!

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