(scroll to the bottom for a link to a free downloadable PDF of the TODAY list)
This sheet of paper was SO simple to create, yet it has impacted my work and life tremendously. Over the years, I have noticed that I always have a better day when I know what I am supposed to accomplish. As a creative director, my attention is often pulled in many directions daily and, although I love keeping my free time unscripted, having a “map” for the work days gives me a sense of sharpened focus.
Creatives of all kinds, and all of us, can sometimes get lost in the urgency of each task, and lose track of what is overall important to get done. Hence many of us turning to the “To-Do List” to keep organized, and lay out the tasks ahead. Crossing out items off said list is utterly satisfying, and provides a great sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.
I used a simple “checkmark”-style list for many years, jotting down priorities and must-dos day after day, until I realized that I was less and less fulfilled by the practice. Instead, I often ended the day feeling like I had failed at “getting it all done”, and that tomorrow would be spent catching up on what I had missed today. Worse sometimes, even when all my deliverables were crossed off, I did not feel like I had gotten anything meaningful done.
I spent some time thinking about what was wrong with what I was doing, and how I could fix it. Below is a compilation of my thoughts on the matter, and the solution I ultimately came up with, my “TODAY” list, which I share with you at the end of this article.
THE PROBLEM WITH TO-DO LISTS
I still make many bullet point lists on the fly on specific topics (e.g. movies to watch, places to go camping, etc.), but find the to-do list format inefficient, or at the very least inadequate, when it comes to daily accomplishments. Here’s why:
They are an inaccurate representation of your day
When you look at your list at the end of the day, you will see (hopefully) a bunch of ticked off items that you had planned on getting done and managed to tackle. It’s a great feeling, right? But what about all the things you did that weren’t planned? What about all the emails you replied to, that required you to pull away from other tasks? What about the three loads of laundry you managed to finally take care of? They most likely freed another part of your week, that you will dedicate to productive work. Because they are created before your day happens, regular to-do lists offer a necessarily narrow view of what you accomplish daily.
They are discouraging
As a result, traditional to-do lists can be discouraging. Even if you don’t let the few items still on there “get you down” at the end of the day, seeing them day after day as you keep pushing them down the line will end up having a negative effect on your sense of accomplishment, and leave you feeling like you’ll never get it done. Similarly, you can start a day with a heart full of motivation and a focused head, only to be faced with an impromptu “life event” that will take you away from all your carefully laid out tasks. Is it a day wasted? Or did whatever happen allow you to learn something new, which should by no means be considered a waste of your time?
They emphasize big tasks
Not all items on your to-do list are equally important. Yet, they need to be on there, or you might forget to get them done! To avoid the discouragement factor mentioned above, many to-do list templates prioritize tasks based on importance (i.e. number them in order of priority). I find this to not be satisfactory, as it can equally give you a false sense of non-accomplishment when, in fact, you got a lot of seemingly unimportant things done. You may not have finished the presentation you wanted to get done, but you might have tackled the dozen pesky emails we mentioned earlier, and freed your morning tomorrow to get it done! Prioritizing tasks is likely to result in marking the biggest tasks as most important, and never feeling like you got it done.
They mix everything up
So, write it all down and just go down the list? If you’re anything like I used to be, you’ll end up with everything on there, from calling some random person back (finally!) to crafting a 20-page creative proposal, to getting groceries and going for a run. And if, like mine, your day is limited to 24 hours, good luck with that. The issue with regular to-do lists is that they do not allow for dichotomizing tasks, making it hard to keep a clear head. Instead, we should be able to truly separate the various areas of our lives, so none of them fall behind: client work, life, personal and professional growth, special projects are all important, and should all be included… without the mess.
MY SOLUTION: THE “TODAY” LIST
Staying organized daily remains a very laudable objective, and there is nothing wrong with listing things to get them done. It’s just not enough to do so in a linear way. Incorporating all facets or your life into your daily activity, acknowledging the importance of life tasks throughout your day, and leaving room for creativity, growth and special accomplishments is of utmost importance.
The TODAY list incorporates those ideas, and is an easy-to-use daily tool meant to remind you of the importance of balance in everyday life, so you can feel accomplished and fulfilled at the end of every day. You can certainly apply the pieces of advice below without it, but printing a fresh TODAY list every morning will help you stay focused on what truly matters throughout the day.
Separate work and life
There is a life outside of work! This is true for those among us who work a 9 to 5 in an office, as well as for the freelance creative making their own schedule everyday. I’ll go further: your LIVE life is at the very least as important as your WORK life. So treat it accordingly, and include your everyday life to-dos to your list. They are as important an accomplishment at the end of the day, and seeing them separately on the TODAY list will help you set your priorities and outline your daily schedule. Some days may end up heavy in “life events”, and that’s ok: they’re tasks too, and they need to get done!
Keep it realistic
I limited the “Work to do” and the “Life to live” lists to 10 items each on purpose. 10 items is a lot to achieve in one day, if you only write down the things you actually intend on accomplishing. Do not overwhelm yourself, and focus on what you truly want to get done by the end of today. Feel free to keep a running list of longer-term goals or things to think about elsewhere: this is your TODAY list. Its focus is its strength.
Foster growth and your future
Speaking of longer-term goals, I strongly believe each day should include an element of growth. Whether your desire is to get better at something, grow your network in your area of expertise, take actions that will make your business run better, there is always something to get done. Growth objectives can be overwhelming when looked at as a whole, yet you will find incredibly fulfilling to break them up into smaller daily achievements, that get you closer to your goal at the end of everyday.
Make progress on that special project
There are also those “special” things we want to focus on. They can be in the personal realm, or work-related. Whether it is planning your wedding or developing a new app, this “special project” should be represented on your daily to-do list. Name the project, and identify one related thing you want to get done today. Keep it bite-size, achievable, but get it done. In no time, you will find yourself making real progress instead of looking at a potentially life-changing endeavor like a pie in the sky.
Leave room for the unexpected
We all know that, more often than not, our days don’t go exactly as expected. And you end up spending a lot of time on something that was not on your list. This is why I included a “Today, I also accomplished…” section, where you can, in a paragraph or a few bullet points, list what you got done that was not “part of the plan”. Those tasks, whether related to work or life, matter sometime the most in your day, and should be taken into account when you look at your daily accomplishments.
Emphasize everyday learning
I live by one rule: There is something to learn in every single day. It will sometimes come from something you read. It will sometimes come from a very unpleasant experience or interaction you had with someone. But it’s there. It is not quantifiable, it is not a “deliverable”, yet it may well be the most important thing the day brought you. Reflect on what you learned each day in the “Today, I learned…” section. If you keep your TODAY lists for future reference, this area will help them double into a collection of everyday discoveries.
CLICK HERE to download a free version of the TODAY list, and never hesitate to reach out with feedback and questions! I hope you enjoy using the TODAY list, and applying a few of my personal notes on how to stay organized and focused to your own daily life.