Three Things

I've expressed my disillusionment with to-do lists before.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

What prompted this blog post?

(by the way, i totally agree with you. although sometimes it’s good to write down your plan)

I whole-heartedly agree!

While I do keep a long-term list of deadlines on my personal trello board, my day-to-day activities are governed by a similar rule. Every morning I ask myself “what do I need to do today?” Usually this ends up being 2-4 things. Any more than that and I will get overwhelmed, so if the list is longer I pick the top few most important and do those. This method has served me well for years and I doubt it’ll change anytime soon.

My trello board serves one purpose only: to make sure that I don’t miss the deadline for assignments that aren’t due immediately (still a student; I had two this semester that were assigned in January and due in April).

I really believe this can’t be generalized. Personality plays an important role here. For a someone like me, no matter how much I train, I easily lose track of things. I am also super forgetful about what I achieved over a course of say, a week. Something super simple (trello FTW) really brought order to my chaotic life.

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This will never work for someone who is over heavy mental stress.

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I easily know off the top of my head what 3 things I need to do today.

However, aside from those 3, I also have 5 other things to do today, and 349 things in general I would like to do before I’m done doing things altogether. I want to do these things out of a belief that they will improve my life.

I also have several things that I need to do repeatedly at certain days or times, and sometimes it’s not entirely obvious just from looking around me whether I’ve done them or not. Unfortunately, forgetting them does not stop them from needing to be done. This is called responsibility.

I’d rather not have to remember all of those things in my head, as I like to keep that free for more important things, like enjoying life. Ever since I got an organized todo list, my stress levels have dramatically dropped, because I stopped worrying over whether I’m forgetting something important. And I actually started to get things done, because I actually knew what I was supposed to do at all times.

Your advice is like saying, don’t bother using RAM, it’s a crutch, you should be able to do everything you need with just the 4 generic registers.


I’m a big follower of GTD (sometimes referred to as ‘The Secret Weapon’), but I take a heavy dose of “Zen To Done”, primarily where it comes to the ‘doing’ aspect. The primary difference is that instead of trying to work tasks into the context I am in, I try to work my contexts to let me focus on my 3 M.ost I.mportant T.asks or “Big Rocks”.

When I find myself in a position where my focuses are being pulled more than three ways, I tend to call upon methods from Time Management for System Administrators (checkout the amazing YouTube series the author has put together!). The method was put together Its by someone who works on Stack Exchange, and a former Google sysadmin. I can’t recommend it enough.

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At the moment, I have 7 concurrent projects. Today I have 2 appointments (via Google Hangout), 4 follow-up emails, and 4 must-complete tasks. Without GTD and a calendar, something would fall through the cracks.

“top three things today” only works if everything else can slide.

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I think there are two classes of important things. Life Affirming and The Rest. It’s important to check the oil level on the car, but my soul isn’t enriched by this task. Forgetting it has consequences, and between home and work there are many dozens of tasks - important but not life affirming - which I should try to accomplish. Step 1: Don’t forget!

I suspect that it’s the Life Affirming ‘task’ that you have on your brain’s Three Things list, and it is these things you advocate not relegating to a mechanical TODO list. As a happy user of a Kanban board for the other sort of tasks, I fully agree with this.

I do not use to-do lists at all, if it is not important enough to do right now it might as well go into the back of my mind until it becomes important enough for it to come back to the front. Honestly keeping a list of only things to do today is already far too bothersome and prone to cause anxiety.

What I do use is email for things that I can’t do right now, like things that need someone that will only be available tomorrow and such. I just mark the relevant email as unread and then I will read it tomorrow, if there is no relevant email I just email myself to read it in the morning.

This works just fine for me, although occasionally someone will have to ask things twice from me.

This may work for certain privileged people in certain cases. For the rest of us it’s bullshit. ToDo lists are great and indispensable tools for a large group of people. Issue trackers are ToDo lists, Trello cards are ToDos (can be). E-Mails are ToDos. Open tabs in your browser are sometimes ToDos. We’re surrounded by ToDos and a normal complex day of say an entrepreneur consists of a hundred little things that need to be done. It’s superbly arrogant to postulate the 3-task-paradigm as a panacea. Like every tool it works for some and doesn’t work for others.


We’re surrounded by ToDos and a normal complex day of say an entrepreneur consists of a hundred little things that need to be done.

Bingo. For me, the biggest challenge is getting an end-to-end view from which to pick what to do now. I don’t even need 3 things, I just need 1.

I wrote more here, and to steal from it:

When multiple tasks, projects, and issue trackers compete for your attention, it’s easy to spend time switching between hot issues or doing work that, while approachable, isn’t the most important thing you could be doing.

Ended up trying to solve it with Taco, which might be useful to others in the same position. It brings starred Gmail emails, GitHub Issues, Trello cards, and ~40 other forms of tasks on to one screen, then gently encourages me to choose what to work on now. In a roundabout way, it turns @m_hausammann’s and my situation into @codinghorror’s.

I feel like this article can be reduced to the following :

“I discovered that something is easy for me, therefore it must be easy for everyone! Why are you all acting like it’s difficult?!?”

Why do some people use calculators? Just do arithmetic in your head. Man, you’re only making things more complicated for yourself by introducing all that gadgetry!

Why do people use shopping carts? As a single guy I’ve noticed that I can easily carry a week’s supply of food without using a cart. It’s inefficient to stockpile more than a week’s worth of food, therefore everyone who uses a shopping cart is Doing It Wrong.


My wife and I use a task “dumping ground” of a sorts with trello and use it to communicate fine details of the task. This has helped us in moving into our new house which had many sub tasks and fine grained detail to recall later. Otherwise we go off of memory and usually accomplish 3 things in a day on average.
However, we don’t arrange it of what we are going get done for the day, we just talk in the morning what would need to get done and jot the notes done in the application for later reference.

Currently, Google Keep

Wow, I guess we don’t use TODOs list for the same things at all.

My TODOs list is a bunch of checkbox written hastily in OneNote. The tops levels items are a reflection of my assigned tasks on our Kanban board. The lower levels are the sub-tasks I need to do to complete that task. Now, that list get populated slowly as I code, as I find area that need work but I don’t want to do right now. This is pressure relieve : by putting on the TODOs list, I can think “oh I’ll do it later” instead of wanting to do it now. Else I’ll go crazy with the refactoring and forget the thing that is most pressing (ie, fixing that bug, or completing the story). And more often that not, I simply delete half of them because the code changed so much that its no longer an issue. Also, some of them get promoted to bugs/engineering task on the Kanban Board.

But then again, this is reversing the concept of TODOs list. I use them to not do something immediately. Those items can stay 1 week on my TODOs list and I don’t care. Heck, I am happy when I can delete them without having done them!

TODOs list should be used to prioritize work,. You write all you need/want to do, sort them by importance, and focus on the more important items, knowing well that you won’t do the less important one. Kind of like Scrum backlog, really.

Nothing has freed my mind up more than having a place to dump stuff I need to remember. It gives me a tremendous feeling of peace, that I know that list (which is a trello-board btw) is a safe place to put things, so I can stop worrying about whether I will remember them or not - I don’t have to!

The ability to prioritize tasks is very different to that of remembering stuff. Don’t confuse them. :slight_smile:

I agree with earlier posts that distinguish a memory cache from a list of important thingsI have a lihit labs memopad from What happens if you’ve completed or can’t move the three things? I just look and see what I can accomplish. It also has the hall dozen non urgent things I need to eventually, things I need to do on certain dates, and info to do them.

Maybe you are mr eidetic memory with internal multiple alarm clock.

But people who have broken legs may find crutches useful.

I think that to-do lists work very well if someone else is adding tasks for you, i.e. something like Jira used to cooperate with PMs.

I’m adding this to my to-do list.