How I Create Better To-Do Lists the Agile Way



“Remember the to-do list, but don’t forget the to-be list.” — Richard Branson

I like a fresh start each day, no matter how much baggage might want to hop on my back and weight me down.

I start with a clean sheet of paper (whether that’s a sticky note, a blank email or just any note will do.)

My goal with my To-Do list for the day, isn’t really to create a To-Do list.  It’s to sort and prioritize my day.  It’s to create clarity so that I know what’s worth fighting for.  It’s to free up my mind so that I can react less to urgent things, and respond more to better things.

The end in mind, is a simple list of priorities, events, reminders, ideas, and any notes, with 3 Wins at the top.

My 3 Wins for today help me see the forest for the trees.

I want the top of my list to always be a short-list of the 3 most important things to achieve.  My 3 most important results.  My 3 most important outcomes.  And, I want to see them at a glance.

How I Start My To-Do List

The first thing I do is prime my mind, by doing a quick gratitude check.  If that doesn’t work, I think of or play a favorite song.  The point is to get my mind in a good place.  I want to be able to think clearly without all of my priorities and demands and issues buzzing around in my head.

I remind myself that I am the designer of my day.  I will be controlling my attitude and my actions, and thoughts are actions, too.  And I find these reminders, empowering.

I scan my calendar to, not my email, and note any appointements I have.  I just jut down quick notes, like this:
9 – 9:30 – Ann at builing G
10 – 11:30 – Bill at building Z
11:30 – 12:30 – lunch w/Zen
2-3 – Richard (future of travel) – Zoom

People often ask me why do I write down events from my calendar?  I say it helps me to internalize and picture my day.  It avoids surprises.

Otherwise, I might just start reacting to my day and doing whatever my calendar pops and reminds me at the last minute to do.  Instead, I want to get a good picture of the day.

I briefly picture a scene of each event, and imagine how it might go, or if there’s something I need to change, or how I might need to get myself prepared.

I find this is probably the biggest difference between responding to my day, or reacting to my day.  If I have all the little movies in my mind, or the little scenes of success, even if there will be challenges to face, I am far better prepared.

That said, when I show up, I show up in each case, open to create and shape the experience, lean new things, learn new information, and adapt.  But having some quick scenario planning and imagining how things might go, it’s easier to respond on the fly and be more dynamic.

The secret of great comedians is all their prep and practice before the show.

Next I Get the Lay of the Land

Next, I jot down the ideas, tasks, reminders in my head below my events.  I don’t kid myself and pretend that I have everything already sorted nicely or neatly.  Instead, I just dump what’s bouncing around in there, top of mind, so that I can evaluate it better on paper with a mind that’s free and clear.

I think do a quick check against any To-Dos or lists or reminders I have of things I want to accomplish today.  And I write those down.

I write down my priorities for today.  I want to really get clear on what my most important priorities are, so I know what my most important tasks might be, and so I can shape what my most important outcomes will be for my day.

It’s a Tiny Habit way to make today my masterpiece, even if I’m just playing with some plaster of Paris, or fingerpaint.  I don’t have high quality clay to work with everyday, so some days it’s just about making the most of what I’ve got.

This little idea helps me hit my high notes more often, which I find is really a game of stepping up to the plate more often.  I focus on slowing down to speed up, on mastery vs. performance, and really practicing a growth mindset.

You also might say I focus on what I control, while letting the rest go, and expanding my sphere of influence.

But most of I all, I really work at giving my best, where I have my best to give, in the service of others.

In general, I put higher priority stuff higher on my list, and I shove down lower priority stuff.  I don’t over think it or over analyze it.  All I’m trying to do is get a good perspective on what’s begging for attention.

I find thinking on paper is more objective.  I get to look at each thing, relative to the bigger picture.  It helps me keep perspective, by taking a balcony view.

And that’s what I do next.

Then I Take a Look from the Balcony View

I step back. Now that I have everything that matters for today, at a glance, I take a look from the balcony.

To recap, here is everything that I have at my fingertips now:

  1. Calendar appointments
  2. Priorities (sorted with higher pri at the top, less pri at the bottom)
  3. Reminders
  4. Tasks
  5. Notes

Now, I have great input, which means I can focus on better output.

But I don’t just want any output, or results.  I want better results.  I want to create better experience.  I want to practice using my skills, talents, and style anywhere, or anyhow, I can.

Lastly, I Cap My List with 3 Wins at the Top

So I synthesize all of my day into a simple set of 3 Wins for my day.

I ask myself, or “challenge” myself, “What are 3 Wins that I want to achieve today?”  I don’t always say wins.  Sometimes I just say, “What are 3 outcomes that I want for today?”, or “What are 3 results I want to achieve today?”

A lot of times, those wins are small.  But guess what?  They compound over time.  So I remind myself to focus on progress over perfection, and I focus on enjoying the journey vs. just eyeing the scoreboard.  I focus on the power to create and shape my future with eyes forward.

And when things are really bad, and nothing really feels like it can be a win, then I focus on what’s the best I can do, or the best way I can respond, in this particular situation.

And that helps me bridge the gap between the “state of the art” and the “state of the practice.”  Practice doesn’t really lead to perfection.  But I don’t seek perfection.  I seek improvement.  I focus on mastery.  I focus on learning.  I focus on deep learning.

In this way, feedback becomes my friend.  With a Fixed mindset, if I thought I couldn’t improve, well, then feedback is really more like just a judgment.  Judgment is neat, but not usually very effective, and it doesn’t move the ball forward.

Instead, I use adopt a Growth mindset, where I embrace the idea that I can get better at anything with practice.  So then I use feedback as a tool for learning and growth.  Long ago, a great mentor said feedback is a gift and you can use it in three ways:  1) ignore it, 2) take it all on, full force, no filter, or 3) use what’s useful.

I like to use feedback in a way that’s useful.  (BTW — an expert insider tip here is that the key to really using feedback is to identify the specific behavior change.  And thoughts are behaviors, too.  When you can get really specific about the behavior change, that’s the stuff behind what makes Deliberate Practice actually work.

Why Do I Create 3 Wins at the Top of My To-Do List?

Back to creating my 3 Wins for Today.  So when I create my 3 Wins for Today, I’m really just trying to accomplish 3 things through this daily habit:

  1. Simplify and synthesize my day into a clear story and simple vision
  2. Focus on value-driven results while spending more time in my strengths, and less time in my weaknesses
  3. Create a simple North Star for my day, guided by meaningful results worth creating

I find the real beauty in this approach is that if I have my 3 Wins for Today, those basically serve as my “tests for success.”  It’s a very simple way, where at the end of the day, I have a way to gauge how I did.

Therein lies a lot of truths and insights, and the more I look, the more I see.  It’s an ongoing process of self-discovery.  Whether I achieve my 3 Wins for Today, I learn more about my values, I learn about my strategies, I learn about my strengths, I learn about my weaknesses, I learn about the stuff that makes growing better possible by building a deeper platform of self-awareness.

I Imagine 3 Victory Scenes for Today

The fastest way I can create my 3 Wins for Today is to picture 3 victory scenes for my day.  Victory doesn’t mean that I “won” in any sort of achievement or external success way.  But it could.  And if it does, that’s really just a by product.

Instead, this is really about personal victories.  This is where I did what I said I would do, or showed up in a great way, or responded effectively to the challenge before me.

And, it’s about creating value.  Value is in the eye of the beholder (or stakeholder).  So rather than just get a job done, or just do a task, it’s about creating a great experience, and a great result, or a great outcome.

The whole point here it to work backwards from the end-in-mind to create and shape a better day, based on what I control, and respond better to things that I don’t.

And the big guiding idea supporting all of this, is to keep learning and adapting… the Agile Way.

What’s the Minimum I Do?

I do the whole process in usually about 3 minutes or less, but sometimes, I have a lot of sorting and thinking to do, so it might take me as much as 10 minutes, but that’s rare.

I find that by managing my days better, not only do the weeks get better, but additional days get better, too.  To say it another way, the better I handled yesterday, the better my today is.

If I’m under the gun, lazy, or being frightfully fast, the minimum I will do is write 3 things down that I want to accomplish today.

And I can do that in about 10 seconds or less.

I can adjust everything around that, but if I’m really just doing the bare bones, I will write 3 things down and call it good.  Even if I throw that paper away, or email or whatever I happen to use, the act of me getting intention for a few micro-moments, sets me up for macro-moments of success.

All day long long, my mind will flash back to that quick scene of me writing my 3 Wins for Today down on paper (or typing in a mail, or a note).

On Sticky Notes, or Email, or Notes?

I know I am more effective when I write 3 Wins for Today on sticky notes.  I can carry the pad with me, and it’s outside of any device or system, so it’s rides above the chaos.

I can carry the Sticky pad around in my pocket.  I can create Sticky notes very fast for ideas, etc.

And being able to quickly just glance at the pad, and see my 3 Wins for Today looking back at me creates incredible clarity and confidence, and cuts through any fog.

Beyond sticky notes, I will also say that notes work very well, too.  I’ve used OneNote, Evernote, Notes, and even just test files in a folder with Notepad.

But, I like using email.

Picture this.  I pull up an empty email.  For the subject line, I name it Today.  Then, in the body, I type my one-liner notes of my calendar appointments.  Then I type my priorities, reminders, ideas, and tasks.

And then…

I create whitespace at the top.  I hit Return multiple times to create a fresh, clean, whitespace at the top, and then I type my 3 Wins for Today.

Sometimes, I do the reverse, if I already have my 3 Wins for Today in mind.  I type my 3 Wins, then I list my ideas, priorities, notes, reminders, and appointments.

But I always make that whitespace between my 3 Wins for Today at the top, and then everything else.

Iterate More, Plan Less, Live More, Learn More…

And it’s really an iterative process.  I might start out thinking my 3 Wins for Today will be one thing, but then after sorting my calendar and priorities, I might find I need to reimagine what my 3 Wins for Today should be.

But that’s life.

It’s not about making it pretty.

It’s about rolling up my sleeves and diving into the work, embracing the challenges before me, and rising to the opportunities I create ahead of me, and hacking a better me, along the way.

Living, learning, and leading… the Agile Way.

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