How I Redesigned My To-Do List to Become More Productive: The 1–2–3 List

Everybody loves lists. I’m obsessed with them. There was a lengthy period in my life when I felt like the longer my to-do list was, the more I got validated as a Multitasking, Stress-Loving, Badass Go-Getter. (I loved tweeting about how much of a busy workaholic I was. “So much work to do! #blessed)

But as I kept that up, my to-do lists started to look more like WISH LISTS.

No matter what I did, my lists just kept getting longer and longer, and more and more, tasks were getting carried over to the next day.

And so, after weeks and weeks of feeling all over the place, I decided to rethink my to-do list and making them more doable — by making them SHORTER.

Now, it may seem counterintuitive — how can you get more done, if your to-do list is shorter?

My redesigned method is not so much about the length, as that’s a productivity technique that’s been harped on time and again, but the biggest change I implemented was making sure I started my day with two core principles: Focus and Intention.

With those, I came out with: 1 Major Mission a day.

The 1–2–3 List

Over the years, I’ve tried several techniques, took insights from each, then came up with my own method for designing my to-do list: The 1–2–3 Method.

1 Major Mission

First, I come up with 1 Major Mission for the day. This is not necessarily a task: this is the #1 result I want to get from the limited # of hours I have in that day.

For those of you who do yoga: it’s very similar to setting an intention for your practice, before you begin.

Example of my 1 Major Mission for a day:

Now, with that 1 Major Mission, that clear, singular desired result in mind: I then come up with 2 Big Tasks, and 3 Small Tasks.

2 Big Tasks + 3 Small Tasks

Big Tasks take 2–3 hours to complete.
Small Tasks take no more than 30 minutes to complete.

At least 1 of the 2 Big Tasks should be the most important thing I need to do to achieve my Major Mission. But most of the time, if your Major Mission is a big enough goal, both Big Tasks in a day are related to achieving it.

So for my Major Mission above, some examples for my Big Tasks for the day can include:

  • Write and send out a new newsletter e-mail, inviting people to join (can take 1–1.5 hours); or
  • Create and post 3 new graphics for the blog/Instagram/Facebook, inviting people to join (can take 1.5–2 hours);

The 3 Small Tasks can be other minor things I need to do (can be related to the Major Mission or not). Examples of this can be:

  • Send out a message to a couple of people I know who can help me spread the word about the free e-course
  • Send personal advice/notes to subscribers who replied to my previous newsletter; offer them a discount code
  • Create first draft/outline of contract for new consulting client (branding for small business)

Or it can even be totally unrelated small tasks like:

  • Go to bank and fix credit card issues (takes about 30 minutes)
  • Review & edit travel itinerary and send to our group (20 minutes)
  • Call 5 different paper suppliers to canvas prices for new business cards
  • Update my expenses software so I can better keep track of my available budget for the month

Three things I like most about the 1–2–3 List method

1. It forces me to truly evaluate what my most important goal is for the day.

Especially for creative entrepreneurs with a long-term business goal, we push as hard and as fiercely as we can to get there. This means it’s so easy for us to get caught up in everything and anything you want to get done in every little aspect of your business.

But getting precise and intentional about your daily results is more beneficial in the long run, not just for your business, but your sanity as well.

By only having 5 tasks in a day*, I come to evaluate each and every thing that I do in a day — what’s important? And what’s just fluff work? The difference: Important tasks bring me closer to my goal, to my desired result. Those get to have a place on my list.

By only having 5 scarce slots for tasks everyday, it’s as if each task has to earn its place, which makes me so much more mindful, intentional, and smarter about the way I work.

*A little caveat: Of course, there are busier days (for example, when I’m launching a new project, or prototyping a product on beta testers) when the day truly calls for me to put in more work hours. In these cases, I still follow my 1+2+3 method, but I take regular breaks, and then allot 2–4 more hours for 1–2 major tasks, but only after 1 hour of exercise and dinner.

2. It makes my schedule more doable, given the limited number of hours a day.

Here’s a time breakdown for you:

  • 2 big tasks, 2 hours each = 4 hours
  • 3 small tasks, 30 minutes each = 1.5 hours
  • Total Working Hours = 5.5 hours

On a regular day, I do intense, focused work for about an hour, then I take a 15 minute break.

I’d like to emphasize that these breaks are spent not on BuzzFeed, or Instagram — but AWAY from my computer. Because just in case you didn’t know, there are many wonderful things to be done outside of your laptop or phone screen, and it’s called “the Real World”: sometimes I take a walk, wash the dishes, make myself a smoothie, read a book, call a friend, or listen to a podcast.

And so if I take 15 minute breaks after each 1-hour work sprint:

  • 15-minute breaks every hour (5 hours) = 1.25 hours (roughly)
  • Total = 5.5 working hours + 1.25 break hours = 6 hours and 45 minutes

So given an 8-hour workday, this then gives me the remaining 75 minutes for: replying to administrative e-mails (I allot a maximum of 45 minutes for this, usually after lunch, when my creative and mental energy is lowest), and some extra time just in case other urgent AND important tasks come up during the day.

Remember: Only add to your current day’s to-do list when a task is BOTH urgent and important. Otherwise, schedule it for tomorrow or another day.

Here’s a nifty visual for classifying what’s urgent and important, from James Clear’s blog post ‘The Eisenhower Box’:

3. It keeps me from getting burned out.

It’s always so tempting to add item after item to your to-do list, because you think in terms of hours in a day (oh, I have one more hour, I can squeeze that in), and not really what your brain and body’s actual capacity is.

The human body is not meant to sit for 8+ hours a day.

The brain is not wired to be focused for 8 whole hours—in fact, it can only handle 3–4 hours of truly productive, A+ work in a day!

So at the end of the day, it all comes down to this: Limiting your to-do list helps you become more mindful and respectful of both your time AND your body.
Let’s face it: It’s impossible to do great work without both.

I’d love to know:

How do you manage your daily to-do list? What industry do you work in, and what daily struggles do you have in keeping a to-do list that doesn’t obliterate your sanity?

Let me know in the comments below, or tweet me @arrianeserafico.

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This article is an expanded excerpt from my free, 9-day productivity e-mail course. You may sign up for the course here.