Optimizing Your Daily To-Do List

by Matthew Kent

December 2016

Having a daily to-do list is one of the most powerful tricks to keeping yourself organized and effective. I think at some level we all know that. But they can also be a trap, letting us hide in a sea of unimportant tasks, all the while feeling like we are being productive because we are “checking things off our list.”

Here are my thoughts on how to develop a killer daily to-do list.

1) Have a clearly defined goal with a clearly defined deadline

I once heard Tim Ferriss (author of The Four Hour Workweek) say this about productivity-related apps and technology:

People are drowning in a glut of tools because they don’t have any precise, measurable goals.Tim Ferriss

 This is too true but can apply to our pen-and-paper systems as well. If you don’t know where you are going and what it takes to get there, you can be productive (getting a lot done in a given unit of time), but it is unlikely you will ever become effective (getting important things done consistently).

Ask yourself why you want to be productive, what you are working towards, and turn that into a goal.

This goal should be have a deadline and you should be able to measure success or failure. For instance, here would be some examples of good goals:

-I will start a side business that will be making $500/month by the end of July 2017

-I will lose 15 pounds by December 31st

-I will shave .2 seconds off my 40-yard dash by the first game of the football season

2) Keep a running larger to-do list from which you can select daily tasks

I use the bullet journal system so I have a monthly log where I have a running list of everything I want to accomplish this month. Each day, as I create my daily to-do list, I first check my monthly log to see what pressing tasks demand my attention.

At the end of each month anything that I haven’t finished either gets migrated to the next month or crossed off my to-do list altogether if I determine that it’s no longer worth my time.

3) Spend some time evaluating the most important thing to get done that day and do it, no matter how uncomfortable it is

One of the most common things that keeps something perpetually on our to-do list is fear. We are afraid that if we take a stab at it now, we won’t do the best job that we could do, or even worse, we might fail altogether.

The thought of postponing it just a little while longer until we have all our ducks in a row and inspiration strikes is so psychologically comforting.


This kind of procrastination is holding you back big time. Chances are, whatever you’re afraid of doing next is what needs to be done now. Put it on your to-do list for today and get it done.

Execution is the game.

4) Try not to include more than four items on your list each day

I don’t know about you, but I tend to overestimate what I can do in a day and underestimate what I can do over a  longer period of time if I am consistent.

If you have many small tasks that need to be accomplished you can have more than four in one day, but I strongly recommend setting a time limit for them. 15 minutes is good for small tasks, 25 if you really need it. Set a timer. Whatever you do, don’t let small tasks take all day.

You should have no more than two “mission critical” tasks in the same day. On days where you do have two ultra-important tasks, especially if one or both are going to need a lot of time to complete, you should strongly consider having only those tasks on your list for that day.

5) Write Out Your To-Do List the Night Before

One tool that has been incredibly powerful for me is pre-visualizing my next day before I go to sleep. Each night I set my to-do list for the next day, and then I imagine myself executing it. I imagine myself getting up as soon as my alarm rings, immediately starting my morning routine, and then diving into my first task.

You can, of course, add to your to-do list as needed as the day goes on, but, for me, the ideal is to wake up already knowing what my most important tasks are and when I plan on doing them.

Final Thoughts

When I think of the day-in, day-out practice of maintaining a daily to-do list, I often think of a baseball season. In baseball, the season is long and they play nearly every day. They play so often that no one goes undefeated. In the same way, you’re going to have “losses,” those days where you set out to accomplish certain things and they just don’t get accomplished.

I think it’s incredibly important to remember that those losses aren’t fatal, that tomorrow is a new opportunity, and that by consistently getting back on track and getting things done you can accomplish great things over larger periods of time. Every day, identify what you need to get done to win the day, and go rack up as many wins as you possibly can.

The reality is, if you have almost any organizational structure at all, you are far ahead of where most people are. If you optimize your effectiveness, you can become truly remarkable.

Matthew is a husband, father, and aspiring entrepreneur. You can find him on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


3 thoughts on “Optimizing Your Daily To-Do List

  • December 26, 2016 at 2:19 PM

    This article shined on my heart, the advice shed some hope on my routine.

  • January 4, 2017 at 9:17 PM

    Hi Matt,
    I really enjoyed your article….as I am always looking for ways to optimize my to do list especially at work. I know that I really should write or should I say re-write my to do list every afternoon before I leave. But, my hand is resistant to recopying and my brain refuses to reorganize all my notes. So, typically I re-write my lists when I have several sheets of paper and am driving myself nuts looking through crossed out sentences…so your final thoughts hit home. Thanks for the inspiration.

  • April 21, 2018 at 5:09 PM

    Excellent article!! Love the tips and simplicity of it. Now I just need to get busy!! Thanks


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