Credit: Randy Reddig

This Alternative Todo List Will Help You Complete 100 Tasks Every Day

This system trades guilt for real productivity.

Lawyers bill their clients in 6-minute increments. To do that, they need to track what they were doing for each of those six minutes.

That fine-grained approach to task tracking has incredible productivity benefits that we all can adopt.

The problem with most to-do lists is that they encourage you to collect unfinished to-dos. It’s right in the name: TO DO.

That standard system focuses on guilt and creates procrastination.

Below is an alternative system that focuses on pride, flow states, and modern brain science.

In this alternative system, you put your focus on tracking what you’re doing right now and what you’ve just done.

You rarely pay attention to what you have to do beyond your next action. It’s rare to have more than 2 or 3 unchecked items.

At the end of the day, you should end up with somewhere between 40 and 120 completed tasks.

Just to be super clear, the type of tasks you write on your list change.

Normally, you’d write what GTD calls a project, like “Send proposal.”

But when you switch to task tracking you write tasks in what GTD calls an action, “Open proposal template.”

And because you’re always writing last action, current action or next action, you end up with a list of very small tasks:

* open proposal template
* add project details to proposal
* write first draft proposal text
* revise proposal text
* add in proposal price

The psychology and brain science of this approach falls into:

  • Reduces procrastination by making the next action clear.
  • Reduces the impact of interruptions by documenting the current context of what you were working on.
  • Changes your mindset — it’s hard not to think of yourself as productive when you see 100 completed tasks.
  • Encourages flow state through sustained focus.
  • Induces competitiveness by scoring how many tasks you completed in an hour.

This system works best with a text file, Remember The Milk, OmniFocus, Wunderlist or Evernote. It doesn’t work as well with Trello, Todoist, Things or most other to-do lists.

#1. In the Cloud

Using a to-do list is a habit. That means you always need access to it. That means you need to put it in the cloud.

All the to-do apps I’m recommending do this automatically

However, if you keep your to-do list in a text file you can still effectively put that text file in the cloud by storing it in Dropbox.

I’m a text file fan and I keep a todo.txt file in my root Dropbox directory so that I always have access to it.

Every day I just add a new list above the old one. My todo.txt has years of completed tasks. This works because organizing sub-lists and tracking undone items has no place in this system.

#2. Learn Keyboard Shortcuts

All programmers know that they are more productive if they never have to take their hands off of their keyboards.

Reaching for the mouse breaks you out of your flow.

This is true for everyone, but programmers are particularly militant about it.

To be constantly tracking tasks you need to make the tracking habit almost instantaneous.

Your most common tracking process is going to be to Alt+TAB to your list, check off the task you just completed, type in one or two new tasks, and Alt+TAB back to your work.

That process has to feel automatic. So you need to learn keyboard shortcuts.

Here are the core keyboard shortcuts for the apps I’m recommending.

  • Remember The Milk: i selects and c completes a task.
  • OmniFocus: ⌘N creates a new task and SPACE completes it.
  • Evernote: ⌘+SHIFT+T creates a new task. There is no short cut for completing.
  • Wunderlist: tab + arrows selects a task, ⌘D completes a task.

Text files are a little trickier. I use _ to mark uncompleted and x to mark completed. So my to-do list might look like:

x / _ text file

Text files are often the best approach for power users who feel comfortable using macros. Many editors like Sublime have macros that let you program keyboard shortcuts.

I also know that I’m in the extreme minority of text editor zealots who still prefers a shell-based text editor called Vim.

If, by chance, you also use Vim, here are the two simple macros I use. Put these in your. .vimrc.

#3. Track all tasks no matter how small

The core of this system is to approach tasks as very small, easily completed items.

This is very much related to the Getting Things Done concept of Next Action.

An item like “Write blog post” is way too big to contemplate doing all at once. Writing a blog post might take you an hour or more.

Instead, start with “Open blog editor.”

That’s it, just open the editor. That’s the level of task you should put in.

For example, my task list at the point that I was writing this section of this post looked like this:

There were already 15 completed tasks. I got interrupted, so two of the tasks are about opening the post up in an editor.

The volume of tasks is a point of pride. And they always keep my focus on taking small steps.

The small steps help me avoid procrastination — I always know what I should do next and I’m never afraid that it’s going to be hard.

#4. Add tasks as you go

The standard way to use a to-do list is to add lots and lots items that you’re intending to do later in the day.

And then you look at that list and think, “Shit. How am I ever going to complete all this work?”

And then you start goofing off. You have too many choices and too much anxiety. That’s bad for productivity.

In this system, you just add one or two tasks at a time at about the point that you’re actually going to do them.

In my example above, I only have one task undone. That’s normal.

#5. Mark completed at

If possible, mark when you completed each item.

Remember The Milk and Wunderlist do this for you automatically.

For OmniFocus, you have to go into the settings:

View > Show View Options > Custom Columns > Completion Date

Text files are tricker (and Evernote basically works like a text file with checkboxes).

If you understand macros, you can program a timestamp into your check-off macro. That’s why I still use Vim — my macro leaves a timestamp at the end of every line.

The other way to get this done in a text file is to manually insert timestamps. You don’t have to do this for every task — once per hour is plenty.

The point of having timestamps is to see how focused you’ve been over the course of the last hour.

If you are really jamming, you should get ten items done each hour. Occasionally I get twenty.

At the end of the day you can look back and eyeball your level of focus. In a good day, you’ll complete 80 tasks. A great day is 120. My most inspired day was 250.

Tip: Cheat!

This system includes a virtuous cheating cycle. You’re going to be tempted to make your tasks really small so that can claim more completed tasks.

Do it!

Small tasks are easier to do. Easier tasks get done. Done tasks create momentum.

Tip: Go with the flow

Sometimes you’ll get a bunch of tasks done without flipping back to your to-do list. That’s fine. Just add those next time you tab to your list.

A long list generates pride. So, I’m constantly adding tasks after the fact. My first task on my list today was “take dog to dog park.”

That happened an hour before I turned on my computer — but I still wanted credit.

On the flip side, every time you get stuck, flip back to your list and make sure you have a tiny next action.

This system is all about generating a flow state where you are constantly getting tasks done.