The Best Way To Accomplish Your Daily To-Do List: Don’t Have One

From Sven Fechner:

I go to my OmniFocus ‘Next Actions’ perspective and scan through the list, trying to pick actions that I feel are important and urgent and that would fit into the time available. Looking at actions being due (and often overdue) is the other check that is performed every morning.

Next time I look up is in the evening and I come to realize that I haven’t even done half of the actions I lined up for myself. This remains frustrating, yet happens in scaring, regular intervals. Sounds familiar? I bet it does.

Like Sven, I’ve often find myself in this same position. Lately I’ve been trying to combat it by avoiding creating a daily to-do list. Don’t get me wrong, I have my list of tasks, I just no longer bother to try and plan ahead as to which ones will happen on any given day. Instead, I’ve been using a mix of Start Dates, Due Dates, my calendar and a serving of care to help ensure that things get done. It’s led to less time kicking myself for falling short, less time planning the unplanable and more time spent on actual work. Let me lay out the tools and then bring the process together of for you:

Start Dates

By taking advantage of Start Dates in OmniFocus, I’m able to keep things off my plate and out of my head space until I am ready for them. There’s already a ton of things that need to happen in the span of a day, so seeing things that can’t even begin was always a stressful for me, especially when I used Things. Taking the time to enter a Start Date when possible and setting my default Perspectives to exclude these items has made it so I don’t even need to consider them until the time comes. It’s also a useful way to push something off if I know I’m not going to get to it for a few days, weeks, or months. It’s a useful way to keep things out of site and out of mind until they actually need to be in them.

Due Dates

When I was a Things user, I used Due Dates religiously. I planned my days ahead of time and would use Due Dates to remind me when I wanted to get things done. Now, I use them sparingly. They are only employed when something must be done. In fact, Due Dates in OmniFocus are the only red badge notifications I still allow on both my iPhone1 and my Macs. Do I fall short and have items that are “due” every now and again? Sure, but by using these with care, I’ve conditioned myself to get the majority of these types of tasks checked off the list.

Bringing It All Together

I start every day at work by reviewing the calendar, processing my email inbox and checking Due Dates. The first question I ask myself is if there is even enough time to get it all done. If not, I start the day by rescheduling some of the “Due” items and informing anyone involved about the delays when needed. If there’s time, I get started. When the schedule is tight, I try to knock the “Due” items off the list first. If there is time, I usually start with projects that are important to me. I review the projects in my “Work” Perspective and spend some time doing what I feel is important in order to meet my goals (obviously accommodating for any calendar appointments).

When possible, I try and give myself until after lunch to work on what matters vs. what’s due. Regardless of how few items I might have with Due Dates, I always check in after lunch and shift my focus aggressively towards getting these done. This way there’s still plenty of time in case a surprise comes my way. Once all the Due items are off the list (or on days where there are no Due items), I work on the items on my list that feel like obligations and try to knock off as many of these as possible before it’s time to head home.

Related side note:

Speaking of time, one of the key elements of success here is properly estimating the time needed to accomplish your tasks. Especially the ones with Due Dates. I’ve always struggled with this, but have found the Westheimer’s Rule that Sven shared to be helpful. The rule suggests that you, “Estimate the time you think it will take, multiply by 2, and add 3.” I’ve found it to be a frighteningly accurate and helpful way to determine what you can actually accomplish in a day.

While many will disagree, opting for creating a daily breakdown of their tasks, I found taking the time upfront to decide what I was going to do every day to be a waste. I’d either over-estimate what I could do or a wrecking ball would find my day, making all of my planning irrelevant. I still identify what needs to happen, but I’m finding it far more effective to pick from my task list in the free moments rather than planning them to death. Regardless of what you think of my approach, give Sven’s post a read. There is a ton of useful tips and tactics for making a daily to-do list work for you or for eliminating one altogether.

  1. Excluding Voicemail and Text Messages. []