How to Create and Stick to a Good To-Do List

Adam Bertram
5 min readJul 1, 2019

I’d like to continue with our productivity series by talking about to-do lists. There is a lot of ways to create a to-do list. Everyone has their different ways, some people write things down in a notebook, some people use an app, some people use Google Tasks, some people use their calendar as their to-do list, some people use their email inboxes as their to-do list.

A to-do list is just generally any kind of place where you catch reminders of what you need to do. But, there are good ways and there are bad ways to do to-do lists. For example, I’ll start out with a bad way. Your email inbox. A lot of people I know keep thousands, hundreds of thousands of emails in their inbox and they manage to create to-do lists by maybe flagging on or starring some emails or as soon as they read it marking it as read.

Just flagging it somehow to make it different than all of the other crap that’s in their inbox. This is a terrible, terrible, terrible way to manage your to-do’s. Why? Because every time you have to do something, you need to go in and look at all that crap you have in here. You know your mind, it would be okay if your brain would go immediately to the stuff you have flagged.

But, people when they get in their inbox, even if they have a label set up or a filter and they put these things in a different folder where they don’t physically see them, the mental shift of going to your email you’re going to get distracted. You’re going to look at your to-do’s, “Okay, I have to do this. I have to do that.” And then you see the little Pavlov’s dog thing, the little ‘ding”, and that is when the email notification pops up and you check your email, your inbox, “Oh, I got an email,” and the cycle continues and continues.

Email is a terrible, terrible place because it is such an ADHD paradise. You never get anything done in an email because you’re constantly looking at emails, revealing the old emails. It is just essentially 21 st-century paper shuffling, that’s all email is. So, you have to get all that stuff out of email. That is a bad example.

Another bad example would be keeping things in multiple systems. Maybe you have a nice notebook or three notebooks, you keep things in your email, you keep things in some app, everything is all spread out. That is another terrible system. A good system is taking explicit purpose in how you manage your personal tasks and your personal projects, and not just on a whim.

You actually need to put some thought into it, stop for a minute. Stop what you are doing and put some thought into what you have to do and bring it into another tasks system. Let me give you an example of what I tend to do. I have all these inputs coming in from everywhere, just like everybody does, and let’s say I get an email. I read the email and I have to do something that is going to take a while. I don’t have time to do it right now but I need to do something about it.

I don’t do this religiously, but what I try to do is forward that email to an inbox. I use OmniFocus for my task management system, but you can forward it off to anywhere that then creates a task from that email. Then, I just remove that from my email completely, it’s gone. I archive it, but it is completely gone. I don’t ever look at it again.

I keep doing this for all the emails and at this point, I go back and review and say, “look at all these emails. Since these are in the task inbox I have I have to actually take some time to do these.” Then when I do have the time to actually get them done, then I can go ahead and address these with some purpose instead of just randomly ADHD craziness. “Yeah, yeah you know a quick sentence.” I put some thought behind some of the things that need some thought put behind.

So, that’s one example of that. It’s just grabbing input from all these different places and putting it into one system. Maybe you have your office drive-by. I say, “Hey, Joe could you do this thing for me?” Joe says yes but he can’t do it right now. So, I say, “okay, but can you get it done tomorrow?” Joes says, sure.

That sort of thing is not digital but you have a notebook by your desk, make a quick note what you’re going to do and put it into some kind of box or tray or something on your desk. Then, whenever you’re reviewing all of your different spots, maybe your OmniFocus app or another app, or in your physical inbox, you grab all these things together and process them all.

You organize them all, you put some thought behind them. You assign dues dates, you assign priorities, you assign them projects that are related to different things. That allows you to be more specific about your time. Productivity is about being specific, putting thought behind this instead of just being a slave to the grind and the day to day things.

A to-do list can be created a lot of different ways. In future talks, I’m going to go more into detail, maybe about some more specific things. Good examples of the to-do list, gathering up all this stuff from all these different inputs, putting it into one single list and organizing them. Bad to-do lists include email, open Chrome tabs, or browser tabs, open notepad window, whatever business app window, and Word document window.

You’ve got to remove all the day-to-day craziness and bring all that stuff into a separate system.

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Adam Bertram

A 20-year veteran of IT, crypto geek, content creator, consultant and overall problem solver.