Bastien Guerry

Computers and freedom

On using to-do lists efficiently

I believe happiness results from keeping a sane balance between achievements and what Jim Carrey calls "freedom of concern"1. I like to work and I love to daydream. As much as daydreaming is about wandering, work and personal achievements are about focusing, which in turn requires motivation, clarity of purpose and control, all of them sustained by some kind of discipline.

Your to-do list can become your enemy. Sometimes it gives you a false sense of control, it slowly erodes your goals' clarity, which then weakens your motivation. You end up being controlled by your list of things to do and remember instead of focusing on doing them. You end up hoping that your tool will help you achieve self-discipline instead of disciplining yourself to use it the right way.

So what is the right way?

Here are the principles I gathered from years of (mis/ab)using to-do lists2:

  1. Write Less tasks and more notes. Notes and "remember" lists are always good. But do not blur the line between what you want to remember and what you need to do3. Your to-do list should be a list of things to do, not things to remember. To-do lists should describe what you must do, not what you want to do, which belongs on the "remember" list until you really must do it.
  2. Write precise, concise, atomic tasks. Notes can be loosely written, but tasks need to be efficiently described. Make them short and self-sufficient. If you need contextual information, link to it, don't include it. Because context can change and tasks will move. If a task is too loosely described or contains too many details, it probably belongs on a "remember" list.
  3. Use scheduling and deadlines sparringly. Agendas are necessary, scheduled tasks and deadlines are useful. But do not schedule a task unless it really needs to be done on a specific date, refrain from using deadlines if nothing requires them. Over-scheduling is another way of mixing what you want to do and what you need to do. If your agenda is growing with many tasks, that's an sign that you should rethink if they really need to be scheduled or to have a deadline.

Don't overload your agenda with tasks, don't overload tasks with details, don't mix tasks and notes—that's basically it.

How do these principles help with using a to-do list efficiently?

Keeping a minimal agenda lets you in control, writing self-contained tasks reinforces your sense of clarity4, richer notes nurtures your motivation, while a minimal list of to-do items helps boosting your sense of achievement.

These principles should be applied before you add anything to your tasks, notes or agenda. They can also help when reviewing them: is this task self-contained? Does it really need to be scheduled? Is this note something I still want to remember? But regular clean-up does not replace upfront discipline, it should just complement it.

Now I suspect most of us are bad at using to-do lists. Why?

One of the reasons might be that we confuse the process of building and maintaining a to-do list and the virtue of the list itself. The process feels like we are taking back control, clarifying our goals, regenerating our motivation. But then, when using the result of this process, it too often feels like that our list has become a burden.

That's because we live under the fallacious assumption that the benefits of the process will find itself in its output. Otherwise, why would we care that much on building, finding or configuring our task management software? But the act of writing a to-do list can still feel good while your list itself sucks, unless you strictly stick to the principles above.

You can delegate part of your memory, but you cannot delegate discipline, and discipline is precisely what is required for your lists not to become a burden. Discipline about what? Following which principles? Unless we know what principles to stick to when building to-do lists, we will continue to try fixing our tools instead of fixing ourselves.

It took me quite long to come up with the three above, but they fit my expectations and I think they are consistent. So here are they again:

  1. Don't overload your agenda with tasks until needed.
  2. Write concise, precise, atomic tasks.
  3. Don't extract tasks from your notes until needed.

Be your own ideal manager, not your own diligent intern.

If you treat yourself as a very capable intern, you are at risk of exaggerating your own good will and available time. By putting yourself in the shoes of a good manager, you will soon enough find out that defining and setting tasks and deadlines requires a special attention, and is very different from storing notes.

Feel free to discuss this on Hacker News or on reddit.



15 years with GNU Emacs org-mode, my longest relationship.


Using mailboxes as to-do lists relies on a larger confusion: mailboxes tend to become "guilt boxes" on top of "remember" boxes.


Let me introduce "functional to-do lists", where atomic tasks contribute to self-sufficient projects that you can then compose and articulate together while keeping the clarity of your main goals.

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