Productivity in a personal to-do list

For over a year now, I’ve used one single online to-do list to manage my work life. I rely on it more than project timelines, Gantt charts, or email threads. It’s my most important only self-management tool.
At first glance, the personal to-do list seems like just another thing to manage. All the items in it likely originated from some other document anyways. From a programmer’s mindset, it violates the “don’t repeat yourself” mantra. But, a personal to-do list is a rare occasion where duplication is helpful. That’s because it doesn’t serve the same purpose as other, more rigid, documents.
A personal to-do list is made for constant daily adjustment. It doesn’t care about the past – it’s starting point is always today. It also doesn’t project anything. Instead, it’s chock full of organized, small tasks that have to get finished in the very near term. A personal to-do list is about everyday productivity and nothing more.
How I make my personal to-do list

  • It is one, and only one, list.
  • It has four divider headers: Today, Tomorrow, Two days from now, and The Future.
  • It is one-level deep, not a multi-level tree. This makes it easy to scan.
  • It’s easily modifiable. You can move items up and down the list easily.
  • Each to-do takes an hour or less (that’s the hope).
  • It’s online. You have access to it wherever you’re working.
I use Tadalist because it’s free, and a to-do list shouldn’t be robust software. Tadalist lets you do only a few things: Create lists, add items, edit items, delete items, and re-order items. Here’s how you can set up your own personal to-do list using Tadalist:
  • Step 1: Create a list called “Personal To-do List”
  • Step 2: Add the four divider headers (In Tadalist, they’re just four to-do items that you’ll never actually check off).

Here’s what an empty to-do list looks like:

As you start adding to-dos, put them under their appropriate divider. If it’s something you need to do today, drag it under Today. If it’s something that needs to be done tomorrow, drag it under Tomorrow. If it’s just beyond that, put it under Two Days from Now. If you’re not sure when but need to keep it in mind, drag it under The Future.
Remember, nothing about a to-do list is final. It gets readjusted several times during the day. If you’re not sure whether to put something under Tomorrow or Two Days from Now, err towards sooner. You can always push it back to later. It’s your to-do list. There’s no guilt involved.
Breaking down features into to-dos
While it’s OK to have more broad to-dos in The Future, any to-dos you bring under Today, Tomorrow, or Two Days from Now should be small one-hour-or-less tasks. For instance, “Build registration component” is a bad to-do. Too much time goes by before you’re able to see progress on your to-do list. Instead, “Build registration component” might be added as a series of small hour-long tasks:

Here we’ve broken down building a registration component into a 8 to-dos over two days. Each to-do is a small chunk of work. Once you finish one, you can check it off. It gives you instant gratification each time you finish something. Instead of waiting until you complete an entire component, you see progress frequently as you go.
Tomorrow becomes today
When you wake up tomorrow, it takes just a few seconds to get your to-do list updated again. You just need to drag the Tomorrow and Two Days From Now dividers down below the tasks from yesterday. Here’s how the list from yesterday becomes the list for today. In this example, I got through 3 out of my 4 tasks, so the one lone task still stays in my Today bucket.

The list, as it stood at the end of the day, yesterday.

The same list, poised for today.

Back to the Future
Each day, glance at your growing list of Future items. If you’ll need to finish them in the next 2 days, move them appropriately and break them down into small tasks. In a few seconds, you have a quick gauge of what your workload looks like.
Re-evaluating what matters each day
Personal to-do lists are perfectly made for adjustments to priority. Throughout the day, you can decide something isn’t that important. To-dos can get moved to tomorrow or further down the priority chain. Sometimes, you’ll find extra time and you can even knock out things set for tomorrow or further down the road.
You’ll often find an item stuck on Today for day’s on-end because other priorities got in the way. After awhile, you’ll realize those lingerers just weren’t that important after all. Get rid of to-dos that grow stale on your list. Avoiding unimportant work is just as productive as completing important work.
A personal to-do list is not black magic. It will not do your work for you. But, it helps you organize. A to-do list empowers you to produce.