Who Uses To-Do Lists?


To-do lists don't work, aren't the answer, aren't used by millionaires, aren't used by the successful, ... oh, and don't forget they're killing you.

Yikes! So who does use them?

Leonardo da Vinci:

Da Vinci would carry around a notebook, where he would write and draw anything that moved him. “It is useful,” Leonardo once wrote, to “constantly observe, note, and consider.” Buried in one of these books, dating back to around the 1490s, is a to-do list. And what a to-do list.


Later to-do lists, dating around 1510, seemed to focus on Da Vinci’s growing fascination with anatomy. In a notebook filled with beautifully rendered drawings of bones and viscera, he rattles off more tasks that need to get done. Things like get a skull, describe the jaw of a crocodile and tongue of a woodpecker, assess a corpse using his finger as a unit of measurement. (source)

Thomas Edison:

“Throughout his life, Thomas Edison kept ‘idea books’ filled with to-do lists, sketches and other notes on current and future projects,” says the site of PBS’ American Experience. Just over a month after opening his new lab in West Orange, New Jersey, “Edison created a five-page list of ‘Things doing and to be done.’ (source)

Paul Graham:

So I inverted the 5 regrets, yielding a list of 5 commands ... which I then put at the top of the file I use as a todo list. (source)

[B]uild the todo-list app that email is currently being misused to simulate. Eventually some startup will do this. (source)

Sam Altman:

I highly recommend using lists. I make lists of what I want to accomplish each year, each month, and each day. Lists are very focusing, and they help me with multitasking because I don’t have to keep as much in my head. If I’m not in the mood for some particular task, I can always find something else I’m excited to do. (source)

Donald Knuth:

... my scheduling principle is to do the thing I hate most on my to-do list. By week’s end, I’m very happy. (source)

Matt Might:

For task management, I use OmniFocus on my MacBook Air, my iPhone and my iPad. (source)

Jeff Huang:

I gave up and started just tracking in a single text file and have been using it as my main productivity system for 12 years now. It is so essential to my work now, and has surprisingly scaled with a growing set of responsibilities, that I wanted to share this system. It's been my secret weapon. (source)

Email as a to-do list

If you treat email as a to-do list, we can add Bill Gates:

As Microsoft’s chairman, Gates used his email, desktop folders and an online calendar to prioritize tasks. “When I walk to my desk, I can focus on the emails I’ve flagged and check the folders that are monitoring particular projects,” he wrote. (source)

Jeff Dean:

For handling email, I use GMail with lots of filters to automatically file and label message (I get about 1400 email messages per day, so I have to be quite efficient to deal with it all in a reasonable amount of time). (source)

and Elon Musk:

Musk is evidently proud of his “mad” email skills. He couldn’t exactly offer us productivity tips, but did say "I do love email. Wherever possible I try to communicate asynchronously. I'm really good at email." (source)

The boring, timeless takeaway

Our time is precious, so we should use that time in the ways that are important to us. At its root, this means deciding what we're going to do and when we're going to do it.

People are different enough that there is no universal system. Successful and productive people from all walks of life seem to use some mix of lists, schedules, and notifications. (I use Jeff Huang's system, which I mentioned above.)

But the fundamentals seem simple and universal:

  1. Find a time-tested system that you can make into a habit.
  2. If it becomes a poor fit for your situation, change it.