My “New” To-Do List

My “New” To-Do List
Photo by Andrew Neel / Unsplash

Simple, helpful, and dangerous. Why, after 10 years of daily use, I had to establish some ground rules on how to use my favourite app.

The first app in the top-left corner of my home screen is Things 3, the to-do list of my choice. Since Apple introduced Reminders in iOS 5 I was sold on the idea of ditching all my Post-it notes and, for the first time, fully embrace a digital tool. It was this possibility that made me so excited when my mom handed me down her old iPhone 3 because I felt like James Bond, having a supercomputer in my pocket, ready to achieve great things.

What followed were years of me abusing this technology. While being careful at first, only putting down 1-2 things a day, it didn’t take long until I wrote down everything I could think of. Reminders, ideas, thoughts, stuff I liked, and motivational quotes … you name it and it was probably on my to-do list. I remember a point in college at which I simply accepted the fact that I would always have a giant list with over 100 items on it. I couldn’t reduce the number of items because there were too many great ideas and future projects on it, which would take a lot of time to finish but which I also didn’t want to forget about. So, my to-dos for the day were at the top and thoughts eventually made their way down to the bottom of the list, a place I rarely ever looked at. I even went back to writing down my daily tasks on a piece of paper because I knew that there was a high chance that they wouldn’t get done if they were on my list.

Since I introduced it into my life, the digital to-do list has made me less efficient because I spend more time creating and organising it than actually working on my tasks.

Now, after 10 years of use, I finally decided to establish some rules on how to use this tool. There are undeniable advantages I don’t want to miss out on - I just have to find a way to use them without the negative side effects. It is the same problem that I spotted in many different areas of my digital setup; when implementing a new, potentially amazing tool, I do so without any plan (mindless adoption). This, over time, leads to a chaotic setup that negates all the positive potential and even makes me less productive.

My rules

Surprisingly, it only took 10 minutes to come up with my rules. So here they are:

  1. An empty list at the end of a day
    Before going to bed, my list should be empty. If I didn’t manage to finish everything, I either have to delete it or move it to the next day.
  2. A to-do list is for to-dos only
    There are no notes, ideas, or quotes allowed on this list. It is only for things I have to do.
    (But where do I put all my stuff then?)
    That is an article coming soon. 🐫
  3. Actionable and doable tasks
    Every entry should be formulated in a way that makes it easy to execute including a noun and a verb (call dentist to schedule appointment vs. Dentist). Also, I have to break up huge tasks into doable sub-tasks (lookup up how to write a business plan vs. find a startup).
  4. Keep it simple
    Often underrated, yet one of the most important rules for nearly everything: complicated does not mean better - keeping it simple is often (if not always) the better choice. And this is what I want to keep in mind for my to-do list as well. It is meant for actionable to-dos and should be empty at the end of the day … nothing else.

Establishing these rules meant to do the impossible: cleaning out the giant monster of a to-do list I have created over the last 10 years. It wasn’t fun. I realised that this list is only one piece of a whole digital setup - and when other pieces, like a good structure for notes and projects, are not working properly it is very hard to make the to-do list work. The Digital Oase is ultimately about building a perfect digital setup - and the to-do list is one (for me crucial) part of it.

I never knew there was a big star when the list is empty.

Using the advantages

After talking about all the bad stuff to avoid, I also want to focus at least a little bit on the positive aspects. There are things I grew to love over time and I never want to miss them again:

  • Schedule to-dos for the future (or when arriving at a specific location)
  • Synchronising and sharing to-dos
  • Enhancing single to-dos with additional information and sub-to-dos.
  • And my absolute favourite: repeating to-dos

I have an espresso maker that requires me to clean it in a very specific way every 3 months. So I created a reminder in Things 3 that includes every necessary step including some additional explanation. This reminder shows up every 3 months and I know exactly what to do. Another example would be watering my plants. I set a to-do that repeats itself after a specific time whenever I check it off my list. It is a very simple implementation, yet it has helped me to not forget about a plant and keep everything alive (something I wasn’t so good at before). It is this strategic use of technology that I love; it is simple, yet tremendously helpful.


It only took a few minutes to come up with some simple rules that improved the relationship with this digital tool, yet for 10 years I didn’t think about it … and it took a long time to clean up the mess I created. To-dos are the most basic and logical adoption of a digital tool over its physical counterpart, but even this simple process includes a lot of dangers. If I would have sat down and thought about how to implement this new tool before using it, I would have instantly improved my productivity. But I choose to mindlessly adopt the new technology into my life. By applying new rules, I started to love my to-do list again because now it really makes me more productive.

Next up

I haven’t been writing by hand in a long time, but parts of this article were written on paper and then transferred and edited on my PC. Why I did this and whether I will do it again in the future will be the topic of the next article🐫.