The one-way to-do list

This is the method that I use when I’m in a dark time of my life. When there is burnout. When the mood is simply not there. When a regular to-do list doesn’t work me.

This tool is great for when you don’t have any motivation. You’re so tired even to be thinking about complicated productivity systems, journals, to-do lists, to-do apps, calendars. You need something easy, something helpful. Small baby steps.

This to-do list method is something that you can start doing today without buying a new notebook, downloading another productivity app, or watching Ted talks on YouTube. None of that. It’s very simple.

The One-Way To-Do List

You come up with your to-dos for the next day. No more than three to five. Five is the absolute maximum. Three is the best. I know you have more than 3 to-dos for the day.

  • What are the most essential tasks?
  • What will make a difference in your life one year from now?
  • What will move me closer to X (insert your big dream or vision in here)?

And then you write them down in order of priority on a separate piece of paper.

The next day you start from the very top.

You wake up, you do your morning routine, have breakfast, etc. You sit down at your desk and your meeting is not till 11:00 AM. You don’t jump into your inbox. You check #1 item on your to-do list and do that. Even if it’s just 30 minutes. What can you do to move closer to the completion of the very first item on your to-do list? You start there.

Any difficult task that you put on your list has a natural stopping point. You might need to request something from someone. You might need to go get some supplies but the store is closed. Once you reached a natural stopping point, only then you are allowed to move to the next item on the to-do list.

Example of One-Way To-Do List

To-Do List:

  1. Finish work report and send it to my manager
  2. Send feedback to Rachel about her proposal
  3. Follow up on my outreach emails from last week

You start by doing everything you can to finish the work report. Eventually, you come to the natural stopping point. You need some data to complete this report. You have to request it from a data analyst. You send an email requesting this data. You can’t proceed with the report till you hear back from her. Your first to-do item is on pause till then. Only now you can move on to the next to-do item. You work on the second item till you hit and natural stopping point or it’s time to go to another meeting.

Then it’s lunchtime. Then it’s 1:00 PM. When you’re back at your desk, you don’t go to #3 on your list. You always go to #1. After each meeting, each break, when you sit down at your desk and you look at your to-do list, you always start with the #1 item on the list. Even it’s on pause. That’s why I call it the “one-way to-do list” – you always start from the very top.

In this example, you are waiting to hear back from your coworker to finish that report. You go to your inbox and check if you’ve heard that. If you’ve heard back, then you start working on that report (#1 task). If you haven’t heard back, then you move to the next item on the list.

If there is nothing you can do about #1 yet, only then do you have permission to move down the list. Think of yourself as a very stubborn how doesn’t care what else is on the list as long as #1 is not crossed out.

You always start from the top of the list. You do this after every meeting, after lunch, after a break. You come back to your desk and address #1 task. You do as many times as needed throughout the day. By doing that, the most important thing gets done much faster.

Sometimes #1 task will migrate to the next day. And that’s fine. In this example, you don’t hear back from your co-worker. You don’t get your data back. Then this task migrates to the next day. And tomorrow you ask yourself, is there anything I can do about this report? You might choose to follow up. You might choose to ask for this data from someone else. Or you can just submit the report and say that this data is missing for now and you will update once the data becomes available.

Check with your reality

Before writing down your to-dos for tomorrow, you need to evaluate where you’ve been in the past week or two. If you haven’t done the dishes for the past two weeks or haven’t gotten out of bed for the past two weeks, then applying for jobs, finishing work reports, or writing school essays are not your most important tasks for the day. That’s too much. You need to start with something small. Maybe making your bed and doing the dishes will be the items that you will put on your to-do list.

Be realistic here.

Start using this technique with something basic – home-related, wellbeing-related tasks. Maybe cooking yourself at breakfast. Making a bed. Taking a shower.

This method will help you to get better after a week or two of using it on very basic items of your daily life. Then you’ll gain some confidence. And then you can increase the intensity and the difficulty of these tasks. But start small.

Wall Calendar or Sticky Notes

I use a wall calendar to write my top 3 tasks for the day. The boxes for each day are not endless. They are small. There is only so much you can write in them. And this is beautiful. This limit of physical space allows me to limit myself to just the 3 most important tasks for the day. (I also track 1-2 habits I am working on during the sprint on that calendar.)

The beauty of a wall calendar is that it’s in my office. It’s staring at me all day long. I can’t ignore it. It’s not lost among numerous pieces of paper on my desk. It’s not on some random page in my notebook. It’s there. It’s big. It can’t be ignored.

You can also use a sticky note and put it on your monitor. The goal here is to have this list separate from all the other papers on your desk. These tasks are way more important than whatever else you have going on.

The goal here is not to get everything done. The goal is to stick with this practice of starting from the top of the list every time you sit down at your desk. 

If you want to try the Monthly Method for goal setting, start with this free PDF guide.

Read next:
    1. On Motivation
    2. How I used Scrum to lose first 10 pounds
    3. How I used Scrum to change my career and find a new job

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