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Forget Productivity Apps: All You Need is a To-Do List

Why a to-do list is all you need to stay on top of your tasks and get things done.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Search “productivity app” on the App Store and you’ll get hundreds of results: from planners to habit trackers, to powerful organization tools.

If you’re any sort of a productivity geek like me, you’ve probably already downloaded many of these hoping to find the one app that magically helps you get your life together.

Truth is, whether or not these productivity apps “work” really depends on you. If you’re not super organized or disciplined, chances are, you’ll probably end up deleting the app after a week or two.

After moving to a more digital life, I’ve longed to be someone who could utilize these wonderful apps hoping that it would boost my productivity. But after trying countless “smart” to-do list apps, habit trackers, calendars, and complex organizers like Notion, nothing seems to beat the good old paper planner where you simply jot down a list of all you need to do every day.

Many of these apps had a lot of features to help organize your tasks and keep track of the things you were getting done, which for me, was completely unnecessary and discouraged me from continuing to use the app simply because I couldn’t keep up with the complexities of logging and organizing all my tasks per request by many of these powerful tools.

Trust me, I wish I could — but unfortunately, I don’t function that way and the same goes for many people.

So why does a to-do list work?

It turns out that there are really only two things we need to get work done:

  1. Awareness of the things that need to get done
  2. Motivation

The latter, again, really depends on you. Figure out what gets you motivated or when you get motivated.

I find that my motivation varies from day to day and from time to time. On some days, I can sit and work for hours at a time. Other days, I feel like doing nothing.

I can't force myself to efficiently do work if I’m not in the mood to do work — just like how I can’t force myself to use these productivity apps if I don’t already have the motivation and discipline to be productive.

When you’re in a productive mindset, it’s very easy to get things done. And when that happens, all you really need to know is what you need to work on at the moment and do it.

After that?

The next thing to get done.

Easy right?

That’s the beauty of to-do lists. You just go one by one from top to bottom until your list is (satisfyingly) complete.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash


Humans like simple and easy things, which is why to-do lists are a great method for people to keep track of the things they need to get done.

When it comes down to it, to-do lists are the barebones of all productivity apps. They just keep track of our tasks in different (and often complex) ways that make us feel more organized due to their complexities, which, unfortunately, is unsustainable for many people like me.

I find fancy productivity apps to be overwhelming with all their features and customizations where in reality I just need a place to put all my tasks.

When you think of something you need to do, put it on your to-do list.

When you’re done, check it off.

It takes a couple of seconds at max each time, which makes it really easy to build into a habit.

Instant gratification

Checking off an item from your to-do list is extremely satisfying. You feel accomplished and productive — proud that you finished something.

That instant gratification of completing an item from your to-do list is also very motivating.

In a way, this is simple classical conditioning. You’re essentially teaching your brain to like getting things done because every time you do, you get the satisfaction reward of checking off a list item.

When you’re making your to-do list, write everything down — even the smallest thing like working out, doing the laundry, or sending an email. The more things you check off, the more productive you’ll feel. Plus it’s a good way to ensure you won’t forget even the smallest tasks.

Photo by Andreas Klassen on Unsplash


I strongly believe that the most efficient way to do work is to what you want to do. Don’t force yourself to work on one assignment if you’re having a lot of trouble focusing on it. Instead, find something else on your to-do list that needs to get done and come back to this one later.

This way, you’re still getting things done in the time that you would’ve wasted being unfocused and unable to make good progress on that assignment.

Of course, this depends on the situation and you may need to prioritize certain tasks over others especially with deadlines.

Also, depending on you, you can organize your to-do lists by categories or by priority. I personally prefer having one giant to-do list where I can pick and choose which tasks I want to take on next throughout the day, but if you’re someone who prefers a more organized list, you can do that too.

You could also have one to-do list with everything on it, and a separate to-do list for the tasks you want to get done that day. This is a great way to prioritize and motivate you to complete your goals as seeing a completed list at the end of the day is very gratifying.

How you use and structure your to-do list is up to you — there are many different possibilities and I suggest you trying multiple ways to figure out the best one for you.


Do I need to say more?

Everyone works differently and requires different strategies for being productive and staying on task. But the one thing everyone needs to stay on task is…well, their tasks.

Essentially, everyone needs a to-do list. Whether or not that’s the only thing depends on what you need. Perhaps you need more functionality and organization that a basic to-do list offers, which, in that case, more powerful productivity applications like Todoist, Things 3, and Notion might be better for you.

For me, all I need is one simple to-do list.

If you’re struggling to manage your tasks or get things done and other productivity apps haven’t helped, definitely give the to-do list a try.

Maybe that’s all you need too.



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