todolistFrom time to time I get “helpful suggestions” on how to create a daily “To Do” list.

But after careful review in which I sometimes borrow and adapt ideas for my own purposes, I’ve never found any overall process or organization better than this.

It works for me.

Five Categories

First, things fall into several categories:

  1. Putting the list together for the new day,
  2. Things that must get done today,
  3. Things that should get done,
  4. Optional things that would be nice if they were accomplished today, and
  5. Other stuff to get to eventually or when I need a serious break from prioritized thinking.

I make no distinction between personal and work. I’ve learned that this list has to be about me and my values. When it comes to the hours in the day, it has to be about my priorities, both work and personal.

There’s just one me, so there’s just one list.


In the beginning, there’s a cup of coffee in my hand and I’m wearing bathrobe and slippers. Windows is booting up but it’s not ready for me yet.

I then need two reminders: what is my purpose, and what is my biggest problem.

I take a quiet moment to remind myself that I’m part of a larger whole, that my actions can make a difference, and that (I believe) a higher power takes an interest in what we do here. This takes the form of a prayer. It’s very personal, very intimate and helps get my head in the right place for everything that follows.

Second, I acknowledge my biggest shortcoming by making positive statements to the desired outcome. Numbers 2 and 3 are where I visualize myself being patient — today — with others, and by taking care of my person so I can do this work.

Time to boot up.

When it’s ready, I resurrect the on-line copy of yesterday’s list and start converting it into today’s.

First, all the “done” items are removed.

Next, I look at my work and personal calendars to see what needs to get done today and where I might need to put a note on the coffee can for something early the next day.

Coffee note: Early MD appt at 8:00AM

From the calendars, items are added to the Must, Should, Could and, occasionally, into the Other categories.

Nothing is in any order yet. It’s just jumbles of things in categories so far.

I then check work and personal voice mail and email, take a look (at the mess) around the office to see if there’s anything there for today.

Then, starting with the Must jumble, I put things in priority order with a major concession that occurs for two reasons: Appointments are always listed first within the Must category because 1) I made a commitment, implied or actual, and 2) if I put them farther down in the list, I may not see them in time.

Once the Must category is in priority order, I’ll do the same with the Should category.

The Could and Other categories stay jumbled. I get to them so rarely that their priorities may shift many times before I actually start one. When I have time for those categories, then I look at the entire Could list or the entire Other list and pick something important and do it.

The To Do list is ready for today.

I print a hard-copy from which I will work the rest of the day.

In summary, I do the first three Prepare steps by memory, then I create the list for today by looking at and doing the rest of the Prepare steps in the on-line copy, and finally then I run a hard-copy and “do” the rest of the day from that.

Getting Things Done

With the hard-copy “To Do” list and a pen to check things off, I begin the work of the day.

Most of the Preparation list immediately gets a check mark.

I then move to the Must list because, as you can see, the final two Prepare items — taking pills — aren’t going to be accomplished until later in the day. They are preparation steps insofar as they keep me going and doing; they just don’t happen at the same time as the other Preparation steps.

The first Must item, Record what “idid” throughout the day, happens several times during the day. Every time I finish something I put a note I will look at on Friday to write my status report. That item then gets checked off the To Do list. It’s done — noted both by check mark and a note for Friday’s Status Report.

I try to do these tasks in the order shown. The numbers are their priority and if something is more important than something else, then I do the more important thing first.

That’s an important rule.

Do things according to priority — your priority.

If your priorities don’t jive with those of your boss, something is going to have to change. I’ve found I need to answer to myself first and last. It is, after all, my life and my responsibility. If the boss doesn’t agree, then I need to work to change that — one way or another.

But I have to be true to myself first, last and always.

So I do tasks in priority order.

Well, I try to.

But real life has interruptions, problems and diversions. I deal with them as they happen and, when I can, get back to the list.

Sometimes I’ll find I can’t really do much about the highest priority item and so I move on to the next. And sometimes, I may have to get all the way down into the Should list before I can find something I can do right now.

So be it.

But when I’m done with that, I check it off, go back to the top of the list and ask, “Can I do this now?”

Always look at things according to the priorities.

I made that list and chose those priorities. They’re not those of my boss or wife or what someone else has said. They’re my priorities.

My priorities.

And my responsibilities.

And to be completely honest, there are days when I don’t even have a chance to create the “To Do” list much less work on things in priority order. It happens. Sometimes those are vacation days, planned or “Oh hell, I need a break.” Or maybe a pipe breaks and there’s water (or worse) spewing out — lemme tell ya, there are priorities and then there are PRIORITIES!

So I do life according to the priorities of the moment.

And getting back to the “To Do” list is one of them.

In practice, things in the Must list are usually completed within one or a small number of days. More than that and it’s either not getting done at all  and needs to be moved to the Other list, or it’s really big and needs to be broken down into a series of smaller Must, Should and Could items.

Over time I’ve learned that Must items that aren’t getting done signal that a change is needed. A different priority, a different category, restated, renegotiated, … something has to change.

So I change it.

Whatever it takes.

Things in the Should list are often there for several days. Sometimes that’s because they need a single block of time larger than what might be available on some given day. Other times, things stay in the list because I, … well …, sometimes because I just don’t want to do them. For whatever reason, there’s something distasteful or annoying and I just don’t want to do it.

But I leave the nagging reminder in the list because I know I will eventually have to do something about it. Maybe I’ll delete it. Maybe I’ll do it. Maybe I’ll shove it down into Other-land. But regardless, I’m then do-ing something about it and that’s the whole idea.

Get it done, one way or another.

Doing nothing is a choice I can make — but making that choice is a form of doing. I just want to be sure I am consciously making a choice.

I may choose to not do something and, therefore, I will delete it from my list but I want to be sure I’ve had a chance to think about it before saying, “Ok, I’m going to let that slide. Whatever consequences come of my inaction, I acknowledge that it was my own not doing that item that has caused them. I will accept the consequences of my inaction.”

Does It Work?

For the most part, yes.

But I’ll say that making and following your own “To Do” list won’t by itself make you rich or famous or the savior of humanity.

It’s what you do that matters, not that you are doing something.

This is not busy work. The goal is not to be occupied all day.

This is a focused, carefully considered “make a difference today” list.

That’s why I start with what you see as #1 in the Prepare list. I start there every day because to make a meaningful difference, you have to start with your purpose.

I can do things. I can change the world around me. I can apply myself and make a difference and in a direction I choose.

This is what I’ve done for several decades and, most days, I get some things done that are moving things, usually tiny little things in the scale of the whole world, in the direction I want.

But things do change, and the world does move, and I’m doing it.

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