Create Your Daily "To-Do" List

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By Brian Tracy

Perhaps the most powerful time management tool is a daily list of activities that you create to serve as a blueprint for your day.

All successful time managers think on paper and work from a daily list of activities. Just as a pilot uses a checklist before every takeoff, effective executives take a few minutes to create a “to-do” list before they begin each day.

The best time to make a list is the night before, so your subconscious mind can work on your list while you sleep. When you wake up in the morning, you will often have ideas and insights to help you achieve some of the most important goals on your list.

At the end of each day, the last thing you do should be to plan out the next day. In a study of more than 50 highly-effective corporate executives, 49 of the 50 said that the best time management system they had ever found was a simple pad of paper on which they wrote down everything they had to do before they began.

Sleep Better
Many people toss and turn at night trying not to forget something they have to do the following day. If you create a list before you go to bed, writing down everything you have planned for the coming workday, you will sleep far better and awake more refreshed.

According to time management specialists, it takes about 12 minutes each day to write out a list of your tasks for the day. But this list will save you ten times that amount of time in improved productivity. Twelve minutes spent in preparing a daily list will give you a payback of 120 minutes, or two hours of increased productivity, when you actually begin work. That’s an incredible payoff for such a simple task.

The ABCDE Method
Once you have made up a list of everything that you plan to do the next day, organize your list by applying the ABCDE method to your activities.

The most important work in time management is consequences. A task is important depending on the potential consequences of doing it or not doing it. When you set priorities, you apply this principle to every task and you always begin with the task that has the greatest consequences. This is where the ABCDE method is especially helpful.

Begin by making a list of everything you have to do the following day. Then, write an A, B, C, D, or E next to each item on your list before you begin work.

An item that’s marked A is something you must do. It is something that is important and there are serious consequences for either doing it or not doing it. Put an A next to those tasks and activities that you must accomplish in the course of the day if you are to fulfill your responsibilities.

B items are those things you should do. There are mild consequences for doing (or not doing) B tasks, but they are not as important as A activities. The rule is that you never do a B activity when there is an A activity left undone.

C activities are nice to do, but they have no consequences, either positive or negative. Chatting with a co-worker, getting an extra cup of coffee, or checking your e-mail are things that are nice to do, and often fun and enjoyable, but whether or not you do them has no consequences at all in terms of your effectiveness at your job.

Time Wastage Sabotages Careers
Robert Half International estimates that as much as 50% of working time is spent on C activities, things that make no contribution at all to the business.

Each person is a creature of habit. Effective people establish good habits and make them their masters. Ineffective people accidentally establish bad habits, and then those bad habits govern their lives.

Many people get into the habit of coming in to work and immediately engaging in time-wasting, low-value, no-value activities. As soon as they arrive, they find someone to chat with, read the newspaper, check their e-mail, get a cup of coffee, and generally begin coasting easily through the day.

But whatever you do repeatedly soon becomes a habit. It is unfortunate that the great majority of people at work today have established the habit of wasting most of their time on activities that contribute nothing to their businesses or to their careers. Don’t let this happen to you.

Delegate Everything Possible
Getting back to the ABCDE method, a D activity is something that you can delegate to someone else. The rule is that you should delegate everything that you possibly can to other people to free up more time for you to engage in your A activities. Your A activities, and their successful completion, largely determine the entire course of your career.

An E activity is something that you should eliminate altogether. After all, you can only get your time under control if you stop doing things that are no longer necessary for you to do.

It is normal and natural for people to slip into a comfort zone in the course of their work and career. They become comfortable doing certain activities in a certain way. Even after they have been promoted to higher-level responsibilities, they continually slip back into doing things that are no longer really necessary, or that other people could do equally as well, or better.

Ask yourself, “What would happen if I did not engage in this activity at all?” If it would make little or no difference to your business or career, it is a prime candidate for elimination.

Plan Your Work and Work Your Plan
Never do anything that is not on your list. If a new task or project comes up, write it down on your list and set a priority for it before you start work on it. If you don’t write down new ideas and activities, and instead react and respond to the nonstop demands on your time, you will quickly lose control of your day and end up spending most of your time on activities of low or no value.

Any time management system is better than no time management system at all. There are many smartphone apps to help you manage your time. There are time management systems that you can install on your computer. You can use a written time management system that you carry with you and update regularly.

Just remember that in the world of work, the only thing you have to sell is your time. Be sure that you are focusing your time on the most valuable and important things that you can do to make the most important contribution to your business.

The Not-To-Do List
Just as you need a to-do list to guide you through a busy day, you need a not-to-do list to help keep you on track. These are things that you decide, in advance, that you are not going to do, no matter how tempting they may be when they come up.

As Nancy Reagan once said, “Just say no!” Just say no to any activity that does not represent the highest value of your time.

"No” is the greatest time-saving word in the world of time management. And once you start using this word, it gets easier and easier to say.

Remember, people are the greatest time wasters of all. When people ask you if you would do something or help them out in some way, ask yourself, “Would this be the most valuable use of my time, right now?”

If the answer is “no,” you can graciously reply, “Well, thank you for asking. Let me think about it and look at my schedule. I’ll get back to you and let you know whether or not I can help you out.”

You can wait 24 hours, then contact the person and say that, unfortunately, you are swamped with work and deadlines at this point, and you won’t be able to help out. Thank the person for asking for your assistance, and suggest that “maybe next time” you will have an opening on your calendar.

Remember, you can only get your time under control if you stop doing things of low value. As they say, your dance card is already full. You already have vastly more work than you can ever get done. You will never get caught up on your current tasks and responsibilities, let alone the additional tasks and responsibilities that flow to you every single day. Instead, just say no. Say it early and say it often. In no time at all, you will have your time completely under your own control.

Excerpted, by permission of the publisher, from Time Management by Brian Tracy. Copyright 2013, Brian Tracy. Published by AMACOM. For more information, visit

About the Author(s)

Brian Tracy is a professional speaker, trainer, seminar leader, and consultant, and chairman of Brian Tracy International, a training and consulting company based in Solana Beach, California.