The Secret Of A Slim To Do List: Remove Habits

One of the things that caught my attention when I first read Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management (aff) was that Mark Forster recommended keeping a time journal for a day so you would know what a day’s work looked like. The time journal involved writing everything you did down on a piece of paper. My first thought was that the list would become overwhelmingly long. I do many things every day that do not get written on my to do list, and most of these items are ones that I do on a daily or weekly basis.

David Allen, in Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (aff) calls these checklists. Checklists are things that you need to repeat on a periodic basis — daily, weekly, monthly, etc.

I like the idea of checklists, because I already have many of them set up from my Flylady system.

Some people keep their checklists in another area of their to do list (like Mark Shead over at Productivity 501, as explained in “Two Task Lists”

Definition of a Habit

Webster’s defines habit as “a: a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance b: an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary”.

So things that you do from day to day qualify. Something that you need to do on a periodic basis would also be a good candidate for a habit.

The other things to note about habits is that the world will not come to an end of you miss doing it at a certain date and/or time. Brushing your teeth, while regrettable if missed, is not in the same bracket as getting your driver’s license renewed.

What Are Checklists?

Checklists are simply lists of habits; they serve the purpose of triggering your memory to make sure you take care of periodic tasks.

I have a checklist for when I get up in the morning. It may seem like overkill, but in times of great stress when a family member has been in the hospital, those checklists made sure I got everything done that needed to be done.

I also have checklists for my child. This makes turning care over to someone else easy. I just have to point to the list and say, “that’s what needs to be done before bed.”

Are There Habits on Your To Do List?

When you look at your to do list, do you see things that would be better served on a habit list or a checklist? Examine things you find popping up regularly and see if you can put them on a checklist.

Using A Checklist

Using a checklist is easy. Remembering to use it not so much. Using your checklist has to become a habit. And as pointed out over at Zen Habits in an excellent article “6 Rules for Dealing with Habits Vs. Tasks, you have to have some sort of trigger in order to form a habit. I tie checking my list in the morning with loading my PDA into my briefcase. It is triggered by the sight of my briefcase sitting next to the door. At that point I glance over the checklist to make sure I am ready to go.

Using a To Do To Establish A Habit

I sometimes find it easier to work on establishing a habit using the to do list. For me, it takes about 30 days to get something ingrained, and having it on the to do list gives me a prompt to make sure I have done it. I only work on one habit at a time, and I first see if it will fit into one of my existing checklists.

For example, I have decided I will walk 15 minutes a day. It could go on a number of checklists that are tied to times in my day, but my schedule varies so much that I don’t want to do that. So I set up ReDo on my PDA to put Exercise into my To Do list every day for a month. It is a good reminder to make time to do something I want to do. At the end of the month, I will figure out what a good trigger is for the habit and work it in.


Once I removed my habits from my task lists, I began to see what I needed to focus on. The bigger tasks had been getting lost withing all the minutiae of daily life, and I was so overwhelmed with the little tasks that clearing them out really helped. It was like I couldn’t see the forest until I cleared the underbrush away…then I could see the trees.