Systems & Tips

The Hidden Power of One Big Honkin’ To-Do List

My wife was up to her eyeballs in things to do. We were moving, she had two boys to take care of, she had a house to run – I could seriously write the rest of this post just listing all she had on her plate.

But in the middle of this, the biggest frustration for her wasn’t her long to-do list – it was the uncertainty of what she should be doing at any particular moment. It was the nagging feeling that she was forgetting something or neglecting an important responsibility. It wasn’t the amount of balls she had to juggle – it was the fact that she felt like she was juggling in the dark.

I know the feeling. I hate those “I totally forgot to do that!” moments. There was a time not too long ago when I actually woke up in a sweat in the middle of the night, remembering some long-forgotten tasks that I needed to take care of.

My to-do lists weren’t cutting it for me. Yeah, I was getting most of the major stuff done. And I was good at keeping my nose to the grindstone and working. But a lot was slipping between the cracks.

Flipping Through GTD

I was browsing in a bookstore and sat down to read the first little bit of Getting Things Done by David Allen. It was like he had pinpointed my frustration: All the to-do lists, all the forgetting, all the nervous juggling.

I was so ready to scrap my to-do lists for a better approach. So I was stunned when Allen offered his solution: one really, really big to-do list.

… Seriously? The solution to my problems with to-do lists is to just have a bigger to-do list?

I was less than enthused. I wanted a system that would be easier – certainly not one that was this uptight and regimented. I put GTD right back on the shelf and didn’t pick it up again for a few years.

It’s a Good Idea After All

But I broke down and decided to give it another chance one day – and you know what? David Allen was right.

There’s a lot about GTD that’s over the top, and there’s a lot in it that I’ve changed and modified for my own personal approach (which I’ll talk about in the future). But the idea of having a comprehensive inventory of all of your obligations is a solid one.

One of the first steps for beginning a time management system is to sit down and list all of things you need to do, would like to do, or aim to do. This isn’t just a list of the few pressing things that you want to deal with in the near future. That doesn’t work – I tried that for years. I tried having a brief list with my memory serving as a support. Let’s just say my memory rarely kept up its end of the bargain.

I took the time to establish a full and complete list of all of my to-do’s (including my would-like-to-do’s), and I take the time to maintain that list. It’s the single best thing in my mind about the GTD system.

Foundational Benefits

A comprehensive inventory is truly foundational to a productivity system. It is the starting place for everything else.

    How can you know what action is best to take at this moment if you don’t know what choices you have?

    How can you be intentional about choosing the important over the non-important if you don’t even know what’s on your list of things to do?

    How can you make sure that you’re working on the tasks that will advance your goals if you don’t know what those tasks are?

    How can you make sure that while you’re working on your goals you aren’t forgetting some other urgent task?

    How can you make sure non-emergency tasks aren’t neglected to the point where they become emergencies?

    How can you focus fully on the task at hand if you’re distracted by thoughts of tasks you could possibly be forgetting?

    How do you know that you haven’t committed to 36 hours of work in a 24-hour day?

    If (or rather, when) a kink gets thrown into your day, how do you know how to respond?

    If a meeting gets cancelled and you find yourself with an extra hour available for the day, how do you know how best to use it?


I’ll be the first to say that one, big, honkin’ to-do list seems pretty uptight. It’s really not my style, to be sure. I resisted it for a long time because I thought it would just be too much of a hassle.

But I was wrong.  It’s one of the needed ingredients for me to make a good decision about how to spend my time. I thought it would suffocate me, and it has ended up freeing me.

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