Much Ado About To-Do Lists

check list I keep a to-do list, and have for many years. But lately, my list has become a bit overwhelming. I’m looking for ways to improve both my list and my methodology of getting things done.

Over the years I’ve used many different methods to track my to-dos. I’ve used a small notebook, sticky notes, a plain sheet of paper that I crumble up and throw away at the end of the day, a minimalist to-do app, a more complex to-do app, and most recently: a Trello Board. Each of these have been great in their own way.

But as my list becomes overwhelming from time-to-time, I begin to wonder about my methodology. Not my tools, my methodology.

Should I be writing everything down? Am I trying to do too much?

David Hansson and Jason Fried, the CTO and CEO of Basecamp, recently shared some thoughts in two “This is How I Work” articles. They were asked related, but different questions:

How do you keep track of what you have to do?


“I don’t, really. I try not to have a backlog. I’m sorta obsessionally clearing out my inbox. Most emails can be answered as soon as they arrive if you just make a decision and write back briefly. Most people’s inbox are overflowing because they waver, so they defer, which just makes the anxiety ever greater. Just make the call, which in my case is mostly “no,” then move on.

The only tracking I generally do is of things that are outside of my control. Like, we just finished building a house. I had to have a system for keeping track of all the vendors, punch lists, and such. Basecamp fit perfectly for that, thankfully!”

What’s your favorite to-do list manager?


“I don’t track to-dos. I have a small handful of things I know I need to do every day. If I can’t keep them in my head, I have too many things to do. Every day is a blank slate for what I need to do. If something I was supposed to get done yesterday didn’t get done yesterday, it’s not automatically on my mind for today. Today’s mind is a clear mind, not yesterday’s remnants.”

In the “This Is How I Work” series, there are many different opinions of and methods of managing to-dos from “I’m a pen and paper kind of guy! If I write something down I won’t forget it.” to “I think to-do lists are evil.

For me a to-do list is helpful, but it’s important that my list is manageable. Yesterday, I removed 20+ items from my list. These were items that had either already been done, didn’t need to be done anymore, or were tracked elsewhere (like an un-archived email in my inbox, or a paper on my desk).

I’m going to try and commit myself to less stuff. To focus more. To say “no” whenever I can.

There is also a mindset I’d like to work towards. Its:

Get things done as they come up. If they aren’t important, let them fall away. If they are, they’ll come up again or you’ll remember them.

instead of:

Write everything down that you need to do, spend time prioritizing, add more things as you go, work on the list from top to bottom.

The first is more immediate. More doing and less planning.

The purpose of a to-do list is to get things done and to stay organized. But when your list makes you feel overwhelmed and disorganized, like mine has for me lately, it’s time to reevaluate and improve (or remove) your system.

Join the Conversation


  1. I have been through this too. I’ve found a system that seems to work for me. I have a stack of sticky notes at work and when I have too many projects going on at one time then in the morning I write a list of what needs to be done. I then go and finish the easiest things first. Whatever is still on my sticky at the end of the day I leave and look at the next day and decide if I need to add it to the new days sticky. It has seemed to work great for me the last 4 years. I also don’t answer emails right away because that was wasting my time when I got a lot. I check them like 3 times a day and respond to the ones that matter, which is like 2.

    I also use a reminders app for things around the house that I want to do and set reminders the night before if I want to accomplish that task the next day!

    Liked your article!

    1. Thanks! I like that you review each morning and choose things that should be added new sticky rather than just use the old sticky + a new one. Helps to eliminate things that don’t need to be done. And I don’t know about you, but I enjoy the feeling of crumbling up and throwing away a completed/retired list!

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