The Might-Do List

I gave up on to-do lists; here’s the super simple way I plan my days

by John Zeratsky

Last year, I shared my One Big Thing philosophy. The idea is simple: Focusing on one big thing each day is more productive and more satisfying than checking off as many tasks as possible.

It’s also a daily practice. As I wrote: “Every morning I’d review my inbox, project trackers, and calendar, then write down my big things for the day.” Two and a half years from my original One Big Thing tweet, I’m still using this technique to plan my days.

But my post was also a bit of an anti-to-do-list rant. Indeed, after years of intense fascination with finding the best kind of task-management system, I gave up.

Today, I don’t use a to-do list. Instead, I use a “might-do” list.

The Might-Do List is a bit like the Someday/Maybe List from Getting Things Done or the product backlog from agile engineering. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a list of things I might do someday. Tasks sit on my Might-Do List until I decide to prioritize them by making time on my calendar.

In fact, I use multiple lists for keeping track of stuff. In addition to my general Might-Do List, I have a list of ideas for articles to write, ideas for sailing stories, and a spreadsheet with all of my boat projects.

But I don’t recommend using a list as the plan for your day. There’s another great tool for that: the calendar. Most of us already use a calendar to keep track of meetings and appointments, so it’s the perfect place to schedule in time to work on things from our Might-Do List.

Where does One Big Thing fit in? It’s a planning tool that sits between the Might-Do List and the calendar. It helps you narrow a near-infinite set of possibilities down to a very finite reality. The One Big Thing constraint forces you to think carefully about how you want to spend your limited time each day.

The process of stepping from Might-Do List to One Big Thing to calendar works because it separates the decision of what to do from the act of doing it.

We’re all susceptible to choosing the path of least resistance — especially when we’re tired, stressed, overwhelmed, or just plain busy. It manifests as procrastination, or clear-the-decks busy work, or what Jake calls “email churn.”

I suffer from path-of-least-resistance thinking when I don’t plan. But when I use my Might-Do List and One Big Thing to put important projects on the calendar, I can trust myself. I know I made a thoughtful decision about how to spend my time, and I can pour my energy into the task at hand.