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Are daily to-do lists and GTD compatible?

One idea that comes up regularly for GTD practitioners is the idea of keeping a "daily to-do list," i.e., a list of tasks (Next Actions in GTD-speak) that should be done that day. Keeping one of these is a traditional time management staple [1], and one that Allen turns on its head. The reasoning is:
  1. The pace of modern life changes so fast that such daily plans are often invalidated by the first unforeseen event (e.g., an email from a client at 8:15 AM that requires your immediate attention).
  2. Having tasks on the daily to-do list that don't absolutely have to be done that day numbs you to other items that really do have to get done, leading to things slipping through the cracks and decreased trust in your system.
In addition, the regular copying forward of un-done tasks every day is tedious, and also leads to numbing or dropping them altogether (which makes the list out-of-date).

Allen's somewhat radical approach of eliminating daily to-do lists is reflected in two aspects of GTD: The calendar (which contains items that can only be done on that day), and a list of Next Actions (a running list of items to be done as soon as possible). The way it works? During the day you first check the calendar, which determines the shape of your day, then check the Next Actions to see what to fit into the remaining time.

However, to help me focus I sometimes find it helpful to save the result of my daily review in a temporary plan. For example, today at work I was feeling a bit scattered, so it helped to write down my goals - read a paper, research an internal blog post, and check-in with my office-mate. None of these had to happen today (as opposed to my calendar's items for today, which I had to work around), and these tasks were all on my Next Actions list, but given my intuition, this was what I wanted to try to accomplish.

Crucially, at the end of the day, after checking off those I'd done from my Next Actions list, I tossed my temporary plan. No tears, and no long goodbyes. And if something came up that invalidated the plan? Great! I could recycle the plan at any second, knowing that everything was out of my head and in my system.

In sum, my recommendation is if it helps to write up a temporary daily plan/goal, fine. But make sure it doesn't morph into a traditional daily to-do list:
  • Create it based on your Next Actions list, i.e., as part of your daily review.
  • Make sure to update your Next Actions list each time you finish an item.
  • Avoid the siren song of keeping the list around longer than one day.
  • Keep the list small - you want it to be just things you'd like to do today. Remember, you'll be throwing it away, so don't invest any time in it.
  • Beware avoiding your system. As andersons puts it,
    If you don't like looking at your lists each day or don't like reviewing them even when you truly need to, then something is not working for you. You will have to figure out whether you need to change your system, your habits, or your motivation. Or maybe all three.


As usual, the davidco forums have tons of great advice. You may find the following threads helpful:

Reader Comments (24)

I've been doing this a fair bit on the weekend because it provides a nice agenda for when my wife asks me if there's anything I want to do that day. At work things are usually so rapidly changing that such a list would harm more than hurt on most days.

March 28, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterRusty Haskell

That's interesting, Rusty - You made me realize that weekends are like that for me too. Thanks for the comment.

March 28, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I follow GTD as well, but also use a daily to do list just like you do. I pick those things from my active list that I "must" accomplish. Having a structured roadmap helps me know where to start and builds my momentum. Then, like you, I toss it at the end of the day. Since I don't move anything off my Active list until it is done I don't "lose" anything and tasks stay out of my head.

March 28, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDiane Ensey

Thanks very much for sharing how you do it, Diane. You summarized the idea very nicely.

March 28, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I've also felt the need to keep some kind of daily tickler list or "things to do this week" without it morphing into a full-blown to do list or next actions list. I first experimented (based on something I read somewhere) with keeping an all-day appointment in Outlook that spanned the work week. In that appointment (which shows up at the top of my Outlook weekly view), I'd list all my key goals for the week.

That didn't work.

I then started keeping a MindMap (using Mind Manager) to do the same thing, and it's working like a charm. It's flexible, so I can easily move things around, and it doesn't "look" like a to-do list, so there's no brain confusion about what it is.

March 29, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

Thanks for the two suggestions, Michael. I like the mind map one. I would wonder if something "solid" like a saved map starts feeling like it's worth keeping...

March 29, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I, too, like the idea of having a subset of tasks that I really do want to get done today, but don't want to go to the trouble of creating separate lists, and then perhaps prioritising tasks there to form a sub-subset etc etc.

[ I write here about my set-up | http://www.flickr.com/photos/terry/100917705/ ]. In a nutshell, I write all my next actions as Outlook tasks, print the whole lot out each morning, sit down with a latte and a high-lighter pen, and mark up those I think I'll get through that day. Seems to work for me, at least.

March 29, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterTerry

Thanks very much for sharing your idea, and write-up, Terry. (BTW, my working theory is that GTD encourages more printing, thus killing the idea of the Paperless Office.)

March 29, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Thanks for this great post Matthew. The idea of the traditional daily list has always intrigued me, since I instinctively used them before I discovered GTD. I've also noticed a lot of people resort to daily lists when they feel stressed- our well practiced habits kick in in challenging situations. I've found ditching the daily-lists extremely helpful for me, especially because daily lists tend to be overly ambitious (or at least mine are). I like hearing that these lists are working for some folks, and I love hearing that you're really throwing them away at the end of the day!

March 30, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterlisa peake

Thanks for the great comment, Lisa. Much appreciated.

March 30, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell


Thanks for reinforcing something I've been doing that's been working for me. I keep a Mead notebook - the kind you can't rip the pages out of - and write down a daily checklist every morning of the things on my action lists I'd like to get done that day. I check them off as I do them and if I don't I just repeat the same process the next day. I like the idea of keeping a notebook on my desk so I can take notes when I'm on the phone or use it to figure out pricing or what not. I date the pages at the top so if I need to go back a month I can find the info I scratched out but forgot to enter into my palm. It's an invaluable part of my GTD.

Another thing I'll do at night is move the actions I think I can accomplish the next day to the top of the list (I keep all my action lists in my palm memo pad so it's easy to cut and past), this way, when I'm in my car I don't have to go scrolling down the list for the important call I need to make that morning.

Your blog is great, keep it up. I've got a good idea for a post - "how to attack those perennial actions that stay at the bottom of your list but never get done". I've got a couple that can't really be moved to someday/maybe but also are never urgent enough to put at the top of the list. What do you do with those?

Joe Banks.

April 1, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Thanks very much for your comments, Joe, and your suggestions. Question: Do you find the regular copying a pain? Also, does keeping the list take you away from your "official" next actions?

Finally, I think question about dealing with "perennial actions" is great - good topic! Here's a davidco forum on the thread, in the meantime: [ Stale NAs or Cleaning out the Proverbial Fridge | http://davidco.com/forum/showthread.php?t=3015 ].

April 1, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Thanks for the link. I don't have a problem with the copying because the lists that I make are pretty much things I HAVE to get done that day, everything else stays in my Palm. When they are done - or an attempt is made on them, I place the next action in my palm. For instance, if I made a call and left a message it gets placed on my waiting list. The written list is meant to be a visual reminder so no matter what I get caught up in it's still in front of my face because we all know how getting busy can mean not checking any list for hours. All of my lists get updated at night then are transferred into an excel spreadsheet - a habit I picked up a week into GTD when I went to sync my palm pilot and lost all of my lists - palm and desktop! So now every night I highlight all the lists, right-click and send them to a Word doc that gets cut and pasted into an excel file. I started doing this just as a backup but I'm finding that it can be used to analyse which actions are spending days/weeks on my lists and then maybe I can find a pattern beside the obvious - I'm a salesman and cold calls tend to spend the most time on my @calls list - go figure. Maybe the reason is because they are still too cold to call. I've begun the process of transferring those calls to my @research list so I can learn a little more about the company to find a match between my product and their needs.

The one passage of GTD that really spoke to me was the "cleaning the garage" story. How someone can put off cleaning the garage because they first have to call a friend to see if they want to take that old refrigerator. Maybe if an action is spending too much time on the list it's because there are some extra steps that need to be taken first.

April 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Banks

Thanks very much for the detailed thinking, Joe!

April 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Look a daily to do list is just a skeleton... I think it should be understood that, yes, as you said, there will be surprise events every now and then which you can't plan for. A To Do list, especially a Daily To Do, is extremely helpful I still think in keeping track of things you need to get done. It's a minimum, and I would leave some time for things that just come up. Let me give my personal recommendation, just because I've found a lot of terrible Daily To Do sites that are just too complicated....you can really use what u want as long as it's simple, but I personally prefer [ this one for daily to do | http://www.zotodo.com ] .

March 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterVenkat

Venkat - I completely agree re: the value of the daily todo for planning. I continue to experience how useful this is. Thanks for the comment, and the pointer to the tool.

March 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

jp in maryland: this is a very interesting thread. at the outset I will say this: I never understood why GTD is so focused on Next Actions, which means to me, things that can be done in one step and 2) I've not seen a really good summary of what GTD is, I know Matt tried to simplify it but still Im lost....

ANyhow. Some random thoughts: Lisa Peake said: "Daily to do lists tend to be overly ambitious." Yes, right, exactly. WHy is that?

A: Because to do lists are usually done in a relaxed, creative atmospher like lounging in bed or sitting in front of the fire. They usually involve creative thinking, pie in the sky stuff. Long range stuff, etc. Call it beta thinking.

THere is another type of list, already alluded to in the thread; a list of things I "must accomplish" see Diane's post. These are made in the heat of battle, I call it: "The operational plan" It means it is a plan that can change at a moment's notice and it is not done in calm reflected atmosphere. It is made under pressure, with certain musts. It's main difference is it can change in a moment/everything on the list needs to be hit, at least at the moment it's made.

THe beta thinking, creative to do list, is not all mandatory; and it usually carries over. It does not change in a moments notice.

Further to that. Matt said at the beginning that a daily to do list has stuff that tends to fall through the cracks. Yes and no. It seems to me, that I can let things fall through on my beta list but they will remain in my head. I still want to take that vacation in Aruba, I wont forget about it even if I dont get to it on my list. You have to remember that our brains still store a lot of information and it is unlikely that a really important goal, like a goal for the month, e.g. pay the mortage, is going to be forgotten about overnight. You will remember it before the month is over.

But the "operating plan" has stuff on it htat might be forgotten. That is why stuff on it has to get done.

Final thoughts: How many random thoughts or ideas can anyone can carry in their head at one time? I think I can carry about 3 quite well. But if I have to carry 4 or more, then I tend to mess up.

I think about clearing the dinner table. I can stack a couple of plates, hold the silverware in another hand and maybe pick up a pice of chicken off the floor. Hit the garbage, the sink and the fridge and I'm doing OK.

but if I have to grab one more thing, e.g. the salt shaker then I tend to mess it up.

What do you think?

March 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Hi jp - whew!

I've not seen a really good summary of what GTD is, I know Matt tried to simplify it but still Im lost.... Check out what I've written below. Not sure it'll help, but it *is* a short summary ;-)

Beta/creative plan vs. operational plan I'd differentiate between what you describe - I call it project planning - and creating a temporary daily plan from your actions list. They are quite different, I agree.

I can let things fall through on my beta list but they will remain in my head. This is exactly what the Someday/Maybe list (AKA Geams and Glimmers) is for. Get it out of your head, but preserve possibly valuable thinking for the future. Not actionable at this time, though you may activate it later - say the vacation.

For things like the mortage, put them in the tickler, or use the "Calendar + Holding file" method. Again, the point is to offload it from your brain so that space is opened up fro the creative work.

How many random thoughts or ideas can anyone can carry in their head at one time? A good question, but one that a good self-management system makes irrelevant ;-) You should capture all of them (you'd better have a tool that's always with you, and very quick to use), but you should work on only one at a time.

I think about clearing the dinner table. Oh! You're talking about short term memory capacity, I think. Check out [ The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two | http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Magical_Number_Seven,_Plus_or_Minus_Two ]...

A work-around is to use mneumonics or mind tricks (i.e., external queues and artifacts) to offload the burden. There are many, many out there. For example, only grab items that are going to the same shelf.

Hope that helps. Great comment! Thanks for reading.


Here's the world's simplest description of how the system works:

o Capture all incoming items into a small number of collecting points - inboxes for email, paper, and voice.
o Empty those every day or two.
o To empty an inbox, apply the 5Ds to each item, one by one: DELETE, DEPOSIT (file), DELEGATE, DO, and DEFER.

The last three Ds take action, and need tracking in a system:

o DELEGATE: Hand off to someone else, and track in the Waiting For list.
o DO: If the action can be done in a couple of minutes, do it right then.
o Otherwise, DEFER doing it for later, and track in either the Calendar or the Actions list.
o If the action is date-related, put it on the Calendar.
o Track all other actions on the Actions list.

Additional concepts:

o Use 'chunking' to break larger tasks into small, doable actions.
o Call the large tasks "projects," and list them all on the master Projects list.
o Every project must have at least one "active" action on the Actions list.

You can see there are four actionable categories in this approach: A Calendar and three lists (Projects, Actions, and Waiting For). (There are non-actionable categories as well, including filing and the tickler you mention.)


March 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

jp again: Yes, now THAT is a nice summary of GTD. That I can understand. Thank you.

I think it's good to summarize these concepts as simple as possible. For one thing, newcomers to your site will find it either incredibly nice or incredibly uncomprehensible if they arrive here looking for a topic. I myself found this site while looking for stuff on Eat the Frog. Obviously I liked what I saw, so I kept coming back.

But that GTD stuff was mind numbing (not that last entry). You should take that last summary and then maybe elaborate on one or two ideas. E.g. the action list, etc.

YOu said, in regard to holding thoughts in your head: "A good question, but one that a good self-management system makes irrelevant"

No, I think it is important to illustrate the different approach I am taking. The GTD system seems at its heart one based on Projects. The length of a project dictates where it fits in the system, e.g. if you can do something right now, or if it has multi steps then one step goes in the action folder..

What I am suggesting, I guess (now that I think more about it) is a CRISIS based system.

My to do list is, created in a relaxed atmosphere. WHen I am under no pressure I can hold 3 or 4thoughts in my head at one time. Therefore: there is no reason for my to do list to be less than 3 items, because I would not forget 2 items..

But my "operating plan" is created in response to pressure, usually a deadline. Under deadline, I am liable to forget anything. When my brain is in alpha mode, I am doing repetitious activity, e.g. typing that paper. Thus stuff will fall through the cracks. Hence the operating plan may have 3 or less items on it, and these are imperatives that have to be done, at least so they seem at the time the plan is drawn.

SO that is the difference. That is why the topic "daily lists and GTD are they compatible" is thoght provoking. To me the idea of the "action file" is sort of anathema; I dont base my structure on projects that require one step, or organize my stuff by projects that need one step.

I seem to get by by reacting to crises and then drafting a plan in accordance.

That is why this topic is so interesting, how others structure their lives...

bye for now.

March 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

jp. Thanks for the extended thinking. You're a great example of why I love my readers.

now THAT is a nice summary of GTD Good good.

CRISIS based system

Keeping your *daily* todo list small: Great idea. Not having a master one: Bad idea. ;-) Keeping things other than one project in our minds is untenable these days, IMHO.

Crisis mode: We all know this is bad, and prevention should be #1. Being agile is crucial of course. But it's giving my clients a principled method to make mature decisions that I think is key.

Re: "It's all about projects," I need to think about that. While they play a crucial role, I think the perspective change in how work moves though our lives is extremely important - a big, important shift in framing our lives.

That is why this topic is so interesting, how others structure their lives... Absolutely. I've found my field is a gold mine for personal development, and helping people live the lives they want.

Thanks again for your comment.

March 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

NO! I have a master list, it's called the things to do list. It's made in leisure time.

that guy up thread who has 175 things to on his list...? That's a master list. Like mine, same thing. Ive got all my pie in the sky stuff on it as well as like stuff to do this week.

Stuff gets crossed off, stuff stays on and carries over to the next list. it's no big deal, it's cool....It's just stuff that comes into my head.

Nothing really absolutely MUST DO, is it? Right? I mean other than food shelter clothing, what is really MUST DO?

A: Nothing. So reality is: your to do list really is pie in the sky, rainy day, dreaming stuff. Right?

But the "marching order" now that really is Imperative. At least it seems that way to me, at the moment I create it. Again, nothing really is imperative but you want to win the case, you want to get an A in history, you want to make the Board meeting, etc. So it seems imperative.

So instead of calling it Crises based mode let's just say it's based on wahtever mode our brain is in.

Like that thing you wrote about transitions. Same thing.

Sometimes we are in creative mode, we are brainstorming, we are dreaming.

Other times we are in panic mode, we are in alpha mode, the brain waves are going so fast we are liable to forget. So I write down the most mundane steps in the Imperative plan.

Something like that. I'm out..

March 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Hey Anonymous - great comment. Thanks for the clarification. Final comments:

Making your master todo list during leisure time is a neat idea. Deserves more thought. Concerns:

o Don't mix in "not doing" with doing - adds to overload, dilutes "real" todos.
o If you're only adding during leisure, you'll have to batch new ones during the rush of the day. That's more work.
o If you're carrying over each day, that's focusing on *not* doing, which is discouraging. But maybe you mean extending the list when it grows beyond one page. That's fine, in my opinion; I do the same.

Nothing really absolutely MUST DO, is it? Right? I mean other than food shelter clothing, what is really MUST DO? Gosh, not even the latter are must do, say if you're prepared to die. But I do like distinguishing between "committed to doing" and not. And the range of those is very different for each person.

...Imperative I *love* the word! Perfect.

Thanks again for the thread. Very

March 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

okay JP in MD, that was me in the last post.

I am not sure what you mean by "not do" list. Can you elaborate?

When I say leisure time, I am simply referring to a mind set. My entire concept has to do with understanding what mode of thinking your brain is in at any given moment. There are really only two or three states during consciousness; beta; alpha and I dunno maybe when your running or something.

So I dont get the concern on your part. When I make a to do list during beta time (creative time) it might include starting a buiness vacation in Aruba, etc.

what's wrong with that? It seems that GTD seems to focus on getting these things into action folders and off the to do list. And then converting the action folders into Next actions suitable for a to do list.

maybe that works. okay but I have my master list and then I have my imperative list done in the heat of battle.

okay? Anyhow this has been a fun thread because the title so thought provoking. this is good.

March 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Hey JP.

> "not do" list. Can you elaborate?

It's a different twist on Allen's Someday/Maybe list. Makes the non-commitment clearer, I think.

Re: Mixing not doing and doing, I think there's the overwhelm factor (more items = more overloaded = non-leisure paralysis), plus the 'glazed eye' mode (must do and won't do start merging).

Thanks again for the great conversation. Good ideas there.

March 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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