Your To-Do List as a Personal Command Center

My to-do list is at the center of my personal workflow. Like you, I am bombarded with scores—sometimes hundreds—of requests every day. They show up in my inbox, on the phone, and at my door. All of them want action now.

Screenshot of My Nozbe

That’s why years ago, I learned the importance of creating a daily to-do list. It might sound simple, but I don’t know of a more important productivity tool.

My personal method is informed by five sources:

Here’s how I make my to-do page my personal command center:

  1. Make sure your to-do list consists of “next actions.” This is the secret to getting things done and avoiding procrastination. You have to break a project down into discrete actions. For example, “Prepare Thomas Nelson Strategic Plan” is a project. “Write first draft of updated vision statement” is a discrete action within that project. I try to create a bite-sized action that I can complete in a less than a few hours. If it’s going to take more than that, I break the action down further.
  2. Prepare your to-do page the night before. I like to do this toward the very end of the day. This gives my subconscious a chance to work on the items overnight. I find that I am much more productive the next day if I do this. It also gives me a chance to hit the ground running, knowing exactly what needs to be accomplished.
  3. Review your to-do list first thing in the morning. Before I do anything else, I review my calendar and my to-do page. The calendar provides the “hard edges” of my non-discretionary time. These are the things I must do. My to-do list provides the discretionary items I will have to get done when I am not in a meeting or otherwise committed. Reviewing these items first, provides me with the opportunity to make last minute adjustments to my game plan. I also arrange these items in roughly the order I plan to do them.
  4. Stay focused on your to-do page throughout the day. I always have my to-do list in front of me. I use Nozbe, a software program for the Mac, so it is only a keystroke a way (⇧⌥⌘-T). But the tool is really unimportant. There are tons of great ones on the market, including Things (another favorite) or even a plain old Ecosystem Notebook. The main thing is to stay focused on one project at a time, check it off, and then go to the next one. When you’re to-do page is your command center, it keeps you from getting distracted by everything else pinging your brain.
  5. Add to your to-do list as items occur. You want to be able to get to-dos out of your head and into a reliable system for follow-up at the appropriate time. If they keep rattling around in your head they “consume psychic energy,” as David Allen puts it. Again, I try to keep this a two-keystrokes away. With Nozbe, I just press Ctrl-Alt-Command-T, and it opens a new to-do window. This is fast and effortless.
  6. Rinse and repeat. I rarely get everything on my daily to-do list done. Items that I don’t complete become candidates for tomorrow’s page. Sometimes, that makes them more important for tomorrow’s list or I realize that they items is no longer a priority and delete it altogether. Regardless, at the end of the day, I start the cycle over and prepare for tomorrow.
  7. If you don’t have a to-do list for yourself, you can bet others do. In my experience, the only way to stay focused on what is important, as distinct from what is merely urgent, is to have a to-do page in front of me and work systematically through it.

    Questions: What system do you use? How is it working for you? What do you wish it would do that it doesn’t?
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  • http://www.validleadership.com James Castellano

    I designed my own planning system for my daily rituals, such as affirmations and schedule. I also use a blackberry and outlook. I cannot get the blackberry software to run on my Mac. Once I figure this out, my system will be fine.

  • http://www.womenlivingwell-courtney.blogspot.com Women Living Well

    As a homeschooling blogging mommy, I have a schedule that keeps all of my priorities a priority. I rise at 5:30am to run, then have my quiet time, then post my blog post and do a little social media surfing – as I am right now :-) Then it's breakfast at 7:30, chores at 8am and off to homeschooling.

    Then I have a weekly cleaning schedule that's easy to follow: Monday – Menu and Market (grocery shopping) Tuesday – Toilets,Tubs,Towels; Wednesday – Wash (laundry) Thursday – dust; Friday-Floors.

    I have found that creating routines and a rhythm to my day keep me on task – then I squeeze appointments and surprises around our priorities. I like to keep a Bible verse at the top of my to do list to squeeze all the nourishment out of it that I can through out the day. These are a few things that work for me and that I encourage other homemakers to do!

    Courtney

    • Michael Hyatt

      I think having a daily “theme” is a great idea. I have this on my “ideal week” calendar template. Thanks.

  • http://www.mypurplebutterfly.nt PurpleB

    I love this however i still use paper to make my to do list…so what program do you use…thanks for sharing.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Nothing wrong with paper. Use whatever works As I stated in the post, I used “Things,” which is a Mac program.

  • http://sunshines-view.blogspot.com/ Tiffany

    Thank you for the idea of writing the to-do list the night before. Often I awake and start the day running, never pausing to order my day. I don't want to sit and take the time. By doing it the night before, when my running juices are gone but my thinking ones are still there, I suspect that I may hit the next day in a more intentional, goal-aligned way. Thank you for that simple yet revolutionary idea! I don't know why I didn't think of that?!?!

    • Michael Hyatt

      Ah, usually the best ideas are simple. ;-) I am not sure where I got the idea, but it certainly wasn’t original with me. Thanks.

  • http://www.lutherangrilledcheese.net Joe McGarry

    I use ReQall. I really like the voice integration with my iPhone. However I don't have a systematized way to use it and I think that has been a huge disadvantage for me. I like your idea of going over everything for the next day at the end of the work day. I too am one to want to let things roll around in my head overnight. Thanks for the suggestions!

  • kathy

    I love Outlook! I used it when I was working and have used nothing for the past two years, other than just a small paper calendar. I recently started school and NEED to be organized so I put Outlook on my laptop. I feel so much more organized and productive, doing exactly what you described. It works!

    • Michael Hyatt

      That's one program I miss on the Mac. I don’t know why Microsoft hasn’t more effort in creating a true Mac version. (Entourage is a fat, slow behemoth compared to Outlook.)

      • http://www.mattedmundson.com Matt Edmundson

        That's soooo true! Wish we had Outlook for the MAC, it would make life much better.

  • http://twitter.com/barrykahan @barrykahan

    One tip I found invaluable was from a book by Larry Winget. He explains one needs a list that is "Things I must get done" as opposed to just a "To Do"list. You touched briefly on this. We all have a long to do list, but to really be effective we must focus on the things that absolutley need to get done before all others. We can get sidetracked on the simple and easy ( and maybe more fun) to be able to place a check mark, but getting the most important done will give the most stress relief.____Thanks for you list of books. Some I have not read and will be looking into them.

  • http://robinmarnold.blogspot.com Robin Arnold

    I use Outlook but sync with a Google calendar. You can drag and drop email messages into notes, tasks, or the calendar which opens a new window to add the details. I also always use naming conventions for the Subject lines so I can sort/view efficiently. This helps email too since you can rename the subject line in recieved messages which I do before closing if I'm coming back to a message. Starting with a number (01) can help prioritize a series of tasks, folders, messages. I use tadalist.com to build lists to share. Simple and all skill levels and computer types can access.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Great tips. Thanks.

  • Lori Johnson

    I just started using GQueues. It synchs well with my Google calendar which synchs with my Palm. So far, it does everything I need…subtasks, so that I can break my projects down into steps, keyboard commands and a great mobile app.

    • Clare

      Thanks – trying this – looks great!

  • Mark

    I use the Window's based program, Nirvana. The interface looks just like Things.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Actually, it looks like it is Web-based, so Mac users can use it, too. It looks very impressive and, as you point out, similar to Things. Here is the link in case you can't find it. I had trouble finding it with Google.

      • D. Shick

        You have made my day!! A friend showed me "Things" some time ago and being a PC based guy I was jealous. I just signed up for "Nirvana." Thanks much. Love the topic, Michael.

  • http://twitter.com/alisahope @alisahope

    I totally agree, especially with number 5. My mind constantly refers to the things I need to get done during the day, and that seems steal the enjoyment I'm trying to find in my current situation (e.g. playing with kids, writing, cooking dinner, etc.) If I were to make a continual list, my brain would be able to let go of the list and rely on habit of making one. I will check out the books and programs you listed!

  • http://successbeginstoday.org/wordpress John Richardson

    The mighty to-do list is still one of the best things anyone can do to tame the information overload monster that faces us each day. For myself, I still use a paper based planning sheet in conjunction with Outlook. The sheet I use has six boxes at the top for my daily must do items and the right sidebar has four individual boxes to track phone calls, e-mail, work orders, and meetings. The main body is a big to-do list for planning next actions.

    As much as I like technology based solutions, I still come back to paper for my planner, since it is quick, always in front of me, and can be three hole punched and stored in a notebook for later reference. I offer a free download of this planner on my blog at http://bit.ly/30XhDk for any of your readers that want to give it a try.

    • Michael Hyatt

      The other great thing about a paper-based planner is the battery life. ;-)

  • http://www.bigb94.webs.com Brandon

    Although I don't have a hundred things to do throughout the day, I use a planner notebook. Especially during the crazy school year! This method helps me stay organized and on top of things.

  • mvivas

    Good Post. Just a few weeks ago, I moved from Things to OmniFocus for the sole reason of having subtasks to get things done. But to your point, the tool is not as important as actually having a system in place. I consider the "brain dump" the most important step in the process (outside of actually getting the task done of course). I schedule some time in the late evening or early morning and just dump everything that is in my head and into my OmniFocus inbox. Then I go through my inbox and those items that demand attention (such as pay bill reminders, etc..) get added in as well. Then I just organize into due dates, projects, context, etc.

    There is nothing more satisfying than getting that check-mark on a task or project. Great feeling.

  • http://striveformaturity.com David Knapp

    I use a free weekly planner that I found online. What do I wish it would do? Make me more focused.

    It does help to get my thoughts out on paper but at the end of the day it is still up to me to do the to do list.

    Thanks for the resourceful post.

  • PaulSteinbrueck

    Hey Mike, I think to-do lists can be helpful, but they fall short in a number of ways. So I wrote:

    4 Reasons to Dump Your To-Do List & Replace It with Something Better http://www.liveintentionally.org/2010/08/16/4-rea

    I'm guessing your time management goes beyond just a to-do list as mentioned in this post and includes some prioritization and scheduling, right?

    • Michael Hyatt

      I used to use an elaborate system of prioritizing, based on the FranklinCovey model. However, for years now I have used the GTD method advocated by David Allen. I have found the flexibility of that system to fit my workflow better.

  • http://www.mattedmundson.com Matt Edmundson

    I have recently been on a hunt for the best To-Do-Software for a MAC. I am used to Outlook – which is fantastic – but am becoming a fan of separating it out from my email as per the "Making Things Happen" book. I tried there action method system. It was OK – but not great, to cumbersome for me, too many clicks. Things is beautiful but it won't sync with other computers that well unless you are on the wireless network (no good if you have a computer at home and work). So I am now on to OmniFocus. It is not as pretty as Things but looks a lot better than Action Method. It also syncs well with The Cloud (MobileMe), so I love the fact I have it on my iPhone and iPad too, as well as my laptop. Only problem – doesn't work with a PC and doesn't enable you to delegate things too well. But I love it! Not as good as Outlook in features, but I prefer having my to-do-list outside of the PC!

    The new iPad version of OmniFocus is something else! Amazing. Love the review feature.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I used to use OmniFocus and found it more complicated than I needed. I like the simple elegance of Things. However, the lack of cloud syncing is a major disadvantage.

      • http://www.mattedmundson.com Matt Edmundson

        I think if Things had have been able to sync – I wouldn't have gone searching for OmniFocus. Maybe one day they will sort that issue out!

        • Joel

          I have been waiting for almost a year for Things to come out with cloud sync. Went with Omnifocus and have loved having MobileMe sync. Should be able to enter something while I'm out and about have it sync. Haven't a clue what is taking them so long. They are losing customers I think.

          • http://www.mattedmundson.com Matt Edmundson

            I couldn't agree more!

  • http://www.patalexander.com PatAlexander

    Mike, I love it when you share software ideas and uses with us. I have been floundering around for a few months trying several solutions for my to do list and project management. Most were more complicated than I wanted. I am now trying out Things. I am excited about it. Somehow, in corporate life I was much more organized than I am on my own. But I am determined to get back on track. Thanks for sharing.

  • Kelly

    Whether it's journaling, starting a new chapter in a book, drawing scrap art for figures in the books, or my to-do lists, I always write things out by hand on a yellow legal pad (I have found that for me, writing by hand seems to enhance memory retention and helps with creativity/ new ideas). I can't describe it, but being able to flip through a legal pad of accomplished ideas or scratched out to-do items provides tremendous intrinsic satisfaction!

    My daily and weekly to-do lists are divided into two sections: functional and nurturing. Functional to-do items include work-related (at the university and writing) and household tasks (authors have to dust and vacuum, too! LOL), whereas nurturing to-do items include such things as prayer and Bible study time, going to the gym, meeting a student for a cup of coffee, volunteering at the shelter, etc. (nurturing includes taking care of myself and my family, as well as nurturing and serving others).

    When I schedule a week, to the best of my ability I make sure that the functional and the nurturing components are balanced–this helps me to say "no," and helps me avoid burn-out. Of course, there are weeks when the functional tasks will require much more time than the nurturing (such as when a book is going to press or when a new semester starts), or when the nurturing totally erases the functional (such as when I provided hospice care for my daddy). Overall, this system works well, and it helps me keep the "big picture" in mind and to avoid over-scheduling my life.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Excellent. I don't really care what the system is, as long as it delivers the outcome you want. Paper-based systems work great for many people.

  • http://www.dailyreflectionsforsingleparents.blogspot.com/ Scoti Domeij

    I write out my list of to-do's for various areas of my life, then add the steps to Entourage. To get things done that I don't really want to do, I invite guests for dinner. I find that the deadline and adrenalin rush pushes me to finish those projects, like finishing a remodeling project, sewing new curtains, grouting the tile I laid, or more decluttering.

  • skeggsjp

    Two things that can't be found in any To-Do or Task Management software or method are the personal discipline to actually "work" them and the consequences for not doing so. In light of that, associating consequences, either positive or negative, with task list completion should in my opinion help develop the discipline necessary for success. Now, if I can just figure out how to link the shock therapy machine with my iCal…

  • http://www.williswired.com/ Randy

    Thanks for the post.

    I've been developing my system since I was in college, 20 years ago. I've written about my journey on my blog, http://www.williswired.com/2008/10/23/task-manage….

    While I use Google Calendar for me (my wife uses it, too, and we also use it for family stuff), I keep coming back to a paper system (like having it in front of me); I tried a PDA a decade ago, and Remember the Milk more recently, but ultimately I keep coming back to paper. I may take a look at Nirvana, though (and possibly even Things).

    Always looking for a better way! :-)

  • richardmpotter

    I started with the DayTimer in 1984, graduated to Franklin Planner (then FranklinCovey) in 1996, and shifted to Outlook/Palm in 2005. That quit working for me about 18 months ago and I've been struggling to get by with Google Apps since then. I've read Getting Things Done (and listed to the audiobook) and will devote 2-3 days to sorting through my junk August 23-25. I'm curious: you mention the daily review, but do you also follow the weekly review as recommended in GTD?

  • http://www.yourbookpublishingcoach.com Diane Eble

    I use a program I love that will allow you to use your system really well (www.authortimetips.com). I love everything about this program. Easy to use, even fun–keeps me on track AND helps me not schedule too much–one of my weaknesses.

    Terrific suggestions–I read it right before I realized I had to get back on track. Thanks!

  • http://www.theklarichter.com Thekla Richter

    Great points all! For me, another crucial aspect of to-do lists is having a master list distinct from a daily list. Most of us have more than one days' worth of to-do's to track. When I make a daily list, I cross off items from the master list and do an overview of my projects– then create a short focused to-do list for the next day. This system helps me stay very focused each day and keeps me from getting overwhelmed or unfocused.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I do this, too. Things is perfect for this. I can have a master task list, tagged a number of different ways. I can move any task to my Today list to accomplish today.

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  • http://sarahgail.net Sarah

    Can someone recommend a program that can be used on a Mac, a PC and an iPhone? I have a mac personal computer, an iphone but a PC in the office. Help? Can Things be synced on your iphone?

    • Michael Hyatt

      Check out Nozbe or Nirvanna. Yes, Things can by synced to the iPhone. However, it does this via your wireless connection rather than the cloud.

  • Akila

    Just the help I needed. I make my lists everyday but then my inbox has new ventures that suddenly need priority! Then it becomes a cat-mouse game that I have to catch up on weekends. Perhaps planning earlier more and working out later is the key.

    Thanks Micheal.

    Akila

  • http://www.becomingmrsdial.com Becoming Mrs. Dial

    I really needed to read this today! Time to go purchase "Rework" and "Getting Things Done"…Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.aspires2b.wordpress.com cindi

    I follow the "7 in 7 weeks" model that I adapted from a Bill Hybels talk. I identify seven high-level goals or projects that I can accomplish in seven weeks. Then I break each one down into specific actions that I need to do to accomplish the goals. And I use paper to track my actions and progress. I love the sound of a pen scratching on a simple, crisp, white sheet of paper.

  • http://www.jonhaarstad.com Jon Haarstad

    I share your passion for GTD and have become a bit of a task-manager software geek. I've tried them all and ended up settling on OmniFocus that synchs up with all my devices (and I have a few). I liked the look of Things but because it doesn't offer wireless synching, that was one huge strike against it and a big "pro" for OmniFocus.

    My daily list has become a bit of a hybrid where I use a simple journal software as a morning "review" with some short notes that allows me to (1) review the previous day, (2) write out my "morning mood" and (3) write in a few words my overall goal for the day. Then I write out my top-five which is often a copy and paste from the previous day.

    I use OmniFocus (and Basecamp for work) to manage the large listings of tasks but I've found the value of a daily, first-thing review to get my mind focus on the important tasks of the day.

  • http://christianmommywriter.com Tonya

    This is a timely post. I'm constantly on the search for a program that will help me be more organized. I was using Entourage and that wasn't working out too well. I started using Awesome Note (an app for the iPhone), but I'm finding some things about it that i don't like, such as the ability to add more than one alarm for a reminder of a task. Things might be worth looking into more in depth…thanks for sharing!

  • Jack Fiscus

    Michael,

    Do you use Things for Ipad? How did you create the people section and the bar above large window? Can these be added to iPad version?

  • http://www.providencecoaching.com Leanne

    As a creative person, I've been using the Hipster PDA (http://www.diyplanner.com/templates/official/hpda/) for years, in combination with iCal.

  • Sebastian

    Hi Michael,

    What do you like better…. Omnifocus for Mac and iPad or things? My other problem is that even though I have an iPad and a Mac for personal use, I use PC for work and I could benefit greatly if I could sync with all of my devices.

    I just started reading about GTD and would like to start with a system. I could definitely be more productive if I become more organized and with a trusted system. Thanks a lot for guiding me with your blog!

    Gracias!

    Sebastian.

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  • http://earngivesave.com Andrew

    I've used the free trial of Things, and I'm a huge fan, it's just that $50 seems like a lot to shell out for software. Another commenter mentioned Nirvana, but it's invite-only at this time.

    I currently use Remember the Milk, but it doesn't have nested tasks, which is one feature I'd really like to have. I also know others that swear by Google Tasks integrated into Gmail.

    Thanks for the post!

  • Ron Lane

    Michael, do you find Things easier to use with your iPad versus your iPhone. I would be interested to know what apps you find most helpful and productive for the iPad. (yes, I just got one and am testing some for myself).

    So far, I am questioning the need to carry a laptop as much.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I am still not a huge iPad fan. I use mine for taking notes in meetings (via Evernote) but that’s about it. I think the iPad is probably a great solution for someone who primarily consumes content rather than creates it. Because I do so much writing, I have to have my laptop.

      • Ron Lane

        I can see your point about the laptop, it is easier than typing on the screen on the iPad. I did my blog post this morning from my iPad today. It was good but I have to learn to type a different way in order to speed up.

        So far I am loving what I can do with it and have gotten keynote and pages and a journal app for it.

  • http://twitter.com/AndreaAresca @AndreaAresca

    Thanks for this post!
    1. Do you bring your to-do list with you when you are not at PC?
    2. Do you use the daily to-do list also for recurrent tasks?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Yes, I use Things for iPhone, so it is always with me. I use Things recurring feature to keep those items. Thanks.

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  • Pablo

    Hi, I'm in the process of moving from Windows to my first Mac, what would you recommend as a substitute for Outlook in Mac? Things looks great but what do you use for email and calendar??? Do you use different applications? How do you take sync them???

    • http://www.appliedhappiness.org Blake Alexander Hammerton

      You will LOVE Thunderbird. I mean, Mac will come with iCal and MacMail – they’ll both sync if you want them to. If you want a one-stop shop for free, get Thunderbird. Then download the Lightning plugin (allows for meeting invitations between TB and Outlook), and you can sync it to Google calendars, iPads, Androids etc.

      I still use a Covey style daily task list, and a main goal sheet to keep the tasks moving toward something bigger, but I like the online options. I’m still undecided.

  • http://www.dotstalentsolutions.com Brian Clark

    I have both a Mac Book Pro and a PC. On the Mac the Omni Focus is an incredible task and project management tool that synchronises with my iPhone. On the PC I use Microsoft Outlook 2007 with Clear Context. The Outlook/Clear Context solution is seamless and super powerful for providing a fast, efficient way to manage email, link them to projects and have a dashboard view of your work flow. I really love my Mac but to be honest when there is work to be done and productivity is key, the Microsoft Outlook software wins for me.

  • David Mount

    I use Outlook with a sort of Franklin Planner approach. I modify the calendar arrangement to view my calendar beside my tasks. This allows me to view where I need to be next to what I need to do. I'm also a Blackberry user, a very handy device. My systems works great I love sharing it and teach it to others. I have fine tuned my productivity process over the years to incorporate goal management. I want to challenge your readers to incorporate a master task list into the process to get the really big things onto a weekly, then daily task list. Thanks for the post I really enjoyed it.

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  • http://www.vincenzovecchio.it Vincenzo Vecchio

    I probably already do everything you say in your posts.
    But I love the way you summarise and make clear the important activities. It always helps.
    Thanks!

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  • http://www.embracepositivepassion.com Georgiana

    Everyday I write my day’s tasks on my “To-Do” list so I have a set plan on what I hope to accomplish. As each item is completed, I cross it off the list and this act alone feels very productive and rewarding. By doing this, I keep on track and have a sense of accomplishment once my list is completely checked off. :-)

  • Hans

    Just ran across this yesterday and am going to start implementing. Silly question: how did your tags get in different colors?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I am actually using Nozbe now instead of Things. But, to answer your question, projects are in one color, contexts are another.

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  • Nanzucar_641

    I wanted to say…I really like your post. I am unemployed and reading your post gives me tools I can use when I am employed!

  • http://www.forward-living.com W. Mark Thompson

    Interesting tool. Never heard of Nozbe till recently. Checking it out. So many tools for productivity. How is it I am not THE most productive person in the world? :) 

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  • Melisa

    I’m curious if you’re still using this program or if you’ve found something different?  

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Yes, this is what I am still using. Thanks.

  • http://www.replicon.com/time-clock Employee Time Clock

    Looks like an excellent task management software, as of now, we had just tried Google docs and Asana for task management.