Three Things

I use what works.

I don’t view TODO lists or sticky notes as a crutch or a productivity killer, I view them as a way to quickly write down tasks, etc. so I don’t have to hold that info in my head all the time.

I always ask myself “What’s the most important thing to do right now?” - both in my day job and on our farm. There’s always a “most important” thing to do. Sometimes the “most important” thing is the lowest hanging fruit task, not the hardest to solve. It’ll depend.

The calendar is for “must do on/by this date” items.

Life’s busy - I’ve got 4 projects, a greenhouse and farm planting schedule to manage, myriad farm tasks, kids, a user group and did I mention kids? Having a list so things don’t fall through the cracks works.

Using what works is the key. Everything else is just some cock-and-bull “you should do it like me” story.

Just my opinion.

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tl;dr Don’t organise the things you have to do into a list. Just remember 3 things in your head instead…

Hmm… I’m not buying it. I have 4 things to do. Where did this 3 come from? Probably the same place that your Rule of 3 came from, you like that number. I love your writing but sometimes it can feel like an over-editorialised self help blog. Looking forward to more techy development content! :smiley:

Oh, didn’t hear about Trello before, thank you very much, will be great for my wife and I. Not so much to motivate myself to do stuff, more to actually remember what I’m supposed to do.

Yes, I know, not the point of the blog post, but still.

I remeber a discussion on the Stackoverflow podcast where someone advocated to make decisions based on experience instead of religion. You slapped him in the face by stating that we should all work with smart people which would bring us all to fairy land and live happily ever after. Which was totally religious of you. I personally have an experience working with someone much smarter than me, learning nothing because he solved all the hard problems without bothering to explain.

Now you are again proposing some sort of law that somehow applies to everyone in all of time. I find my todo lists very usefull, don’t use any special programs, just Notepad writing down a list.

  1. My list of stuff I want to do at some point ever. Notice the ‘want’. And I don’t even think about having 25 items on it.
  2. Items that must atleast be done to complete a user story.

Just because you think a todo list should be exaustive and as short as possible, does not mean we all make that mistake.

Please stop turning personal lessons learned into law for all to follow.

3 things is a great place to start. I find myself changing my organization skills just to mix it up and re-energize my wanting to follow it. But I need a list. Can not live without a list. The practice of keeping things from hitting your list is the best practice (doing it now), but in real life, there will always be …things. I like to group my list. daily, weekly, monthly. As I lose focus on my daily to-do’s, I just look at my list to find something that I can stay focused on, more fun, or has a chance to finish fast and get back to the grind. On my list I also have chores that need to be done around the house. Sometimes while working from home, I get stuck, and to get my focus back, I just find something else to do. I am a want-to-be programmer, and can not wait to create programs to hold my list. drop and drag features to help me prioritize list. Sure, I could buy the program, but this is on my bucket list, so might as do it myself. You know, just add it my huge list of things I want done.

I have about 25 items on my to-do list. All serious tasks, that need to be completed, for
customers/co-workers, over the next couple of weeks.

What on earth makes anyone think that I could just “Do one thing”? Unless that one thing is “Check my to-do list, and get the next item on it done.”

Seriously, are there people out there that don’t have a lot of items that need to be completed, in order to do their job?

I find that bigger my task list gets the more likely I am not going to complete it. If I was you with a huge list like that, I would just aim to get one thing done. Break that one thing into the tiniest managable step. As soon you do, you just start to get momentum. Look up Tiny Habits by Bj Fogg which is a clever psychological hack that I used to get more productive habits like running, flossing my teeth, calling my clients etc. . .

I do have a task list on my whiteboard which stares at me everyday until I complete a task. Every sunday, I wipe off what got done and than put another on.

Hope the Tiny Habits approach works for you.

I have to disagree. The problem is the application of such a broad generalization. My TODO list consists of bugs currently assigned to me in TFS, ordered by priority. Given this, this post seems to advocate not using deficit/bug tracking systems. After all, isn’t this what a bug tracking system is but a To-Do list? I know this seems absurd but isn’t that what is being said here?

I don’t have a problem getting my task list completed. I simply work through it in priority order, ticking things off as I get them done.

But I do have, as I say, 25 items that need to be done, or the right code isn’t being deployed to the right people at the right time, the right documentation isn’t being written, etc.

I mean, if you have 20 small bits of new functionality that are needed, each one of which is going to take three hours to write and test, then that’s less than two weeks work, and it’s a 20-item to-do list. I can’t not do some of them (customers have asked for them), and the prioritisation is set at the start of the two week iteration.

I don’t see a problem with any of this - what I see is a problem with saying “Don’t write any of these things down, just decide each morning what thing feels most important to you.” - because that way I’m going to forget at least five of those items.

Ya I agree. I have to write things down or else they will not get done. Everything I need to do is on a task list but I worry about losing them sometimes.

I dunno about this. I have the kind of brain (some would say ADHD…) where if someone tells me something, and I don’t write it down, it is quite often like they never told me in the first place.

So I need my “todo” lists so that I won’t forget about all the little things I need to get done until its too late. Paper (namely my DayTimer planner) is my long-term memory. What stays in my head is references (Hey, there was something else I had to do, wasn’t there? I wrote it down. Let’s follow the pointer…)

Jeff’s list for a typical day:
#1 - be provocative
#2 - do something
#3 - do something else

That is the secret of a successful blogger, after all.

I agree that you should start with a short list of things to do for the day, but for me, it’s usually a selection from the longer list of things that I want or need to get done. I know I won’t do them all on any given day, so trying to address more than a few is a formula for stress. The challenge is picking the right 2 or 3 (or 4 or 5) for your day.

Those are some prettty prettty prettyyyyy pretty good sentiments there

I think that’s the worst possible scenario. It’s bad enough when you’re stressing yourself out with endless lists tick-tocking the seconds away until you’re dead. A to-do list that you don’t control, that other people can add to at will? That’s a vision of hell.

Meaningless. Also true of peanut butter sandwiches. The point of forcing yourself to focus on three things is to actually narrow down to what matters each day. Scarcity forces that. If you have an infinitely growing list of things to do in a given day, you never have scarcity.

That should be a calendar, not a to-do list. If it actually needs to be done – schedule it! That gives it a time and date and realistically fits it into your available time before you’re dead forever like the rest of us.

I strongly object to systems that don’t allow people to assign themselves work. There can be negotiations about general priority and what’s on the overall menu, sure, but anyone who works for me decides what they get to work on, and in what order.

And if you forget to do something and nothing happens… what does that mean? Some of the best decisions we made at Stack Overflow were us postponing work that “had” to be done, until the point at which the nature of the work changed or was made irrelevant. Last responsible moment, man.

My actual list for the day in question:

And just to clarify, I completely support a research notebook (stuff that you may or may not get to, or even need to do at all) and a calendar (stuff that is scheduled in your available time). But these are very different from to-do lists.


A calendar wouldn’t work, because (a) when something urgent comes up everything else needs to be shuffled down by a few hours, (b)it’s overkill for a job that largely consists of (1)take work off of board (2) do work (3) get next work item off board. (The fun bit is doing those work items, of course.)

As for “What would happen if some of them didn’t happen” - security scans wouldn’t be completed, so we wouldn’t be allowed to implement, features wouldn’t be added, so customers would be unhappy, documentation wouldn’t be written, so things would be done wrong. I don’t do any of these things for no good reason - they’re all carefully thought about, estimated, and planned in to each two-week iteration, and if something isn’t worth doing, we don’t plan it in in the first place!

(Obviously sometimes the facts change, and so we need to change priorities, dump things from the iteration, etc. But that doesn’t stop us from having the plan in the first place.)

EDIT: As I can’t add further replies to this topic, I’m editing this comment instead:

It’s not death.  But it’s important for my job and for the service we provide to our customers.

Customers have functionality they want.  We have a queue of work items that they have asked for,specced out.  This is my to-do list.

You seem to be saying that I shouldn’t keep track of those work items, the order they want them in, etc. but should instead come in in the morning and make a vague stab at what they might like yet.  This seems bafflingly odd to me.  I can’t help but feel that I am badly misunderstanding something, because I cannot understand why keeping track of the list of things that customers have asked for, and the numerous tasks necessary to move that code into production, is a worse approach than just doing whatever seems important off the top of my head each morning.

Well, if you are working in a hospital, where people die when stuff doesn’t get done, or in security, where people may die or be physically harmed if stuff doesn’t get done – the rules may indeed be different.

I generally assume most people reading this are working in general IT roles, where death and danger are not close at hand.

That said, I am a fan of the “big public pool of work that everyone chooses their own next things from” approach.

There is an old chinese proverb: The faintest ink is better than the best memory. Because of this, people invented todo lists…

I am using a Personal Kanban for years now, and it had a tremendous and positive impact on my organization and my life in general.
Some weeks ago, I blogged about it.

Via the built-in limit for work-in-progress tasks, a Personal Kanban constantly forces you to think about what really matters. It helps me find out what are the important things. And it helps me concentrate on these things

You still really haven’t convinced me on the topic of this blog post, I’m afraid.

However, this bit here is God’s own truth. Have you ever done one on this topic?

I strongly object to systems that don’t allow people to assign themselves
work. There can be negotiations about general priority and what’s on
the overall menu, sure, but anyone who works for me decides what they
get to work on, and in what order.

I’ve had a couple of heart-to-hearts on this exact topic with my current supervisor. He tends to agree in principle, then goes right back to insisting on total control over task assignments. He once even started to freak out on me because I finished a task while he was on vacation and went on to another task on my assigned task list without consulting anyone. (Once I calmed him down enough to explain that I had in fact consulted with a senior staff engineer before picking that task, he let me go with just a stern lecture).

There’s an hour+ long meeting with all the senior staff engineers weekly to decide how to dole out all the work. These are our best, most in-demand (and most expensive) engineers, lavishing a good portion of their week doing something that it seems like could be “crowdsourced” to the whole team, with the right setup. Really, all we need is something like a prioritized job jar.


Well, it works for us :slight_smile: If I’m going to work for a living, I really like having a list of things to do to choose from. My problem with todo lists is that I forget to update them, and having other people do it for me fixes that.

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I’ve already done this, just because I can’t be bothered to keep track of any PDA or planner. I only break out a whiteboard with a todo list when I have too many things for me to keep track of at a time, it helps keep my calm.