Personal Development

How To Be More Productive With Two Simple Lists

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There are certain things you can always count on: the sun will rise every day on the east, warm cookies can fix almost anything, and that you will often find me curled on the couch reading a book on self-improvement. Who does not want to be more productive, manage their time better, live in the present, and be happier? After a number of years, I confess that they start to get repetitive, but I keep reading them hoping for that one trick I have not tried or for that life-revealing quote that will suddenly make every question I have about life suddenly fall into place.

I recently attended a Toastmasters conference where one of the educationals was led by Thomas Dowd on the topic of resilience. I truly enjoyed his session and after seeing that he had a book on time management I could not help but buy it. I am a stay at home mom with entrepreneur aspirations, so I often find myself trying to juggle many hats while keeping my sanity. “Time management advice sound really good right about now”, I thought.

This book is organized into very short chapters, and you can easily devour the whole book in a day or two. I confess I was a little disappointed when I realized the book is written for people with “real” jobs (instead of the one I currently have, where a 3-year-old thinks she is the boss of me). But found many of his points to be applicable to my life as well.

There was one concept however that changed how accomplished I felt at the end of the day almost immediately. I bet I am not alone in creating super long to do lists every day, only to find myself frustrated with everything I was not able to accomplish at the end of the day. The worst part is having to move the tasks on my list to the next day. And sometimes to the next day and the next day.

Enter the short and long lists!

The short and the long lists.

In the chapter entitled “Doing the Least Amount of Work In a Day” (I confess that the title alone got me very excited!), Thomas Down introduces the idea of developing a short and a long list for your job.

It is a lot like a normal list of tasks, but in the short list, you write only those tasks that MUST be fulfilled for your day to be considered successful. Not what you wish you could get done if all the stars and planets aligned. This is the bare minimum, the tasks that need to get accomplished each day so your work (or life) does not fall to pieces. Think of this short list as your “must-do list”.

The long list, on the other hand, is where you dump everything that you need to do whether it must get done today or next year. You can think of the long list as you “master list”.

Developing your short list

How do you know what tasks should be on your short list? This takes a little trial and error, and at first you will probably find yourself adjusting this list until you can develop one that will fit your needs. That is completely okay! We are so used to thinking that “everything” is important and “everything” needs to get done TODAY that it may take some time until you get a grasp on what is truly important and what can wait. This alone turns out to be an important exercise as you start realizing that some tasks may not be as important as you thought, or that perhaps someone else could (or should!) be doing them.

I started my short list on paper, but I did not like having to rewrite everything for the next day, so now I use the app “To do list”, by Splend Apps (free!), and now I can just uncheck my items at the end of the day and my list is ready again. Another option would be a whiteboard that you keep at home or at work and can reuse every day. I am not very creative, but you can definitely go crazy here and make something that is appealing to you.

How can you use the short and long lists in order to be more productive.

How you decide which tasks on your to-do list you should tackle first is a subject that has been talked (and written) about numerous times. Some people will argue that you should always start your day by tackling your most difficult job first. Others swear by accomplishing a number of small tasks (in order to build momentum and confidence) before going for something more challenging. While both methods have valid arguments, they do not account for small tasks that may not be particularly urgent, but when not done for days add a lot of mental stress in your life. So while you may be able to cross a lot of items (or one very important item) from your list, you may still find yourself stressed out at the end of the day by everything that really needed to get done and is now piling up in front of you.

For stay at home parents, it could be as simple as running a load of laundry every day, instead of spending a whole Saturday trying to catch up under piles of clothes. For a working professional it could be catching up with at least one employee (or a supervisor) around lunch, instead of being surprised by problems or requests 10 mins before the end of your day (I also believe catching up on emails around lunch time instead of first thing in the morning on right before leaving work is the way to go, but that is a whole other story!).

The short list is your daily guide. This is the bare minimum that needs to get done so that you can feel in control of your life. Because you decided that these are the tasks that absolutely need to get done for you to have a successful day the order does not matter. Just do what you need to do to get them crossed out and out of the way!

How about all the tasks on my long list? When do I work on those?

Good question!

I use an app on my phone (called “Ike”, from Pocket Universe. Also free!) to organize my long list. There I sort my items by how important or urgent they are. Every night I look at those items and see if there is anything that became so urgent that needs to be moved to my short list for the next day, but I rarely need to do that since after you get your short list done you can now devote the rest of your time to working on items on your long list. The beauty is that after your short list is done you will feel that anything on your long list gets you ahead of the game, AND you are not sacrificing anything important. Pretty nice huh?

Another approach (which I use) to make sure that I am actually moving ahead instead of just doing routine work is that one of the items on my short list is “30 minutes working on goals”. The amount of time is up to you, the point is that every day I devote some time to working on things that matter to me. It is a MUST do item on my short list that helps to accomplish goals on my long list.


And there you have it! Two list that organizes your life and makes sure you can stay in control.


Your turn!

What would be on your short list? Please share in the comments!

I would also love to hear how you organize all your tasks and goals! What do you find effective?

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10 thoughts on “How To Be More Productive With Two Simple Lists

    1. Hi Paige,
      I consider myself a pen and paper person but have been trying on and off to switch to digital. This is the first time it stuck for more than a month. I always have my phone with me but not always my planner, so using the apps has been helpful. The trick is finding one (or in my case two) that you will stick with.

  1. I love the ideas. I think I kinda do that but I have so many shortlists for the different roles I play such as mother, blogger, church jobs, writer etc. I need to figure out how to manage my short lists and long lists into one short list and one long list or something.

    1. Hi Karie,
      You can definitely have different short lists for the different roles you play. That would make a lot of sense. The trick is finding out what is the minimum you need to do for each of these roles that will still move you forward. Of course, it is easier said than done since you have a limited time in each of these roles, but I assure you that once you can narrow those lists down you will feel so much more in control. Good luck!

  2. I’m pretty set on my paper lists BUT I’m loving the idea of a short and long list! I tend to get overwhelmed with my giant to-do list every day and this is such a simple solution. Thanks for sharing. What’s on my short list for tomorrow? Unload the dishwasher, clean bathroom and make my grocery lists!

    1. Hi Carrie,
      I am happy you found it helpful! Pen and paper work just fine! I just recently switched to digital, but still love a list on paper 🙂 This idea of having a short and long list and focusing on my short list really change how I approach my day. I wake up knowing that I can accomplish all my tasks and then challenge myself to have enough time to work “ahead” on my long list. Life happens though and there are days when even my short list goes out the window, but overall it really helped me feel in control of my life.

      (Unload the dishwasher, run a load of laundry and clean the entryway are some of the items on my short list:) )

  3. A very helpful tip for me as a SAHM and starting my business. As much as I want to do the app, I am still a paper and pencil person where I can see things visually. I’m thinking of getting a planner. As much as I am on my cell phone I have to watch my boys under the ages of 2. haha. So I cannot be distracted much. Short list? everyday laundry and activities for these 2 boys to get them tired and sleep early.

    As the boys get older, I might use the apps. I will definitely look into it.

    1. Hi Renzi,
      I’m with you! My time is definitely divided between my daughter and starting a business. Pen and paper work just fine. I have used a planner for years and loved it. How you keep your lists is not that important, but HAVING those lists will really change how you approach your day. As a fellow SAHM, I know that one of the greatest challenges is that a lot of the day is unscheduled and unpredictable. Knowing what tasks you need to focus on in order to keep your sanity (the short list) will really make a difference. Let me know how it goes!

  4. This is great! Thank you for the app ideas. Love the concept of short and long lists and I think it will actually help with keeping my blog organized. I always have ideas pop in but I just can’t decide what has to be done first. Also, I appreciate the App tips. Def going to check those out!

    1. Hi Ashley,
      It surprised me how much these two lists changed how I approach my day and how accomplished I feel at the end of the day. I hope it works for you too! Let me know!

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