Freeing yourself from the running list in your head


Do you ever feel like you’re constantly devoting brain power to maintaining a to do list in your head? Like you have a mental checklist that you’re responsible for, always adding new things and trying not to forget that one important thing?

I do.

A few years ago, I read a book called Getting Things Done. (Somewhat ironically, I did not finish the book, but that’s another story.) It had so many helpful ideas about organizing your to do list, but what resonated with me the most was his reasoning for why we should devote time to keeping a good to do list.

A good to do list allows us to free up that space in our brain for other things. If we write down all the things we have to do, and if we trust that we can find them again when we need them, then we can let go of that running list in our head. It’s such a freeing concept. Clearing our heads by storing the list elsewhere. Minimalism via organization.

… Which is why I’ve become a devoted lover of productivity tools, or to do apps in particular. They take some investment of time, especially initially, but once you’re in the swing of things, they pay off big time. They have reduced my stress load at work (and home) and sent the message to others that they can rely on me to get things done. Win win!

Everyone has their own preferences, but I wanted to share a bit about what I look for in a good to do app.

It’s free

There are plenty of great free apps out there, so many that I’m unwilling to pay for one.

It works on my computer and phone, seamlessly

I check and update my to do list on my computer during the day at work, so that is a must. But I also want to be able to add items to my list when I’m out and about, hence the phone. Without a phone app, I feel burdened. I either have to make mental note (defeating the purpose) or make a note elsewhere that will eventually have to be entered into the to do list on the computer (waste of time making the same note twice).

It lets me change priorities

I don’t know about you, but my priorities change all day long every day. I will go into work planning to work on one thing, only to find out that we have to put out a fire on something else. Or I’ll decide that the oil change can wait an extra week. I need to be able to easily change priorities and dates that tasks are due. (This, for me, is the biggest advantage over a handwritten to do list.)

It lets me group tasks into categories

Like many people, I’m a visual person. Being able to group my tasks into categories, such as projects at work, errands, or professional development activities, helps me paint a clear path forward in my head. When planning, I like to be able to sketch out next steps in a given project, before moving on to the next project.

It lets me see what is due in the near term

In addition to letting me group tasks by category, I also need to group tasks by due date, especially for those due in the next week or so. This way I can see everything that’s on my plate today, and shift things around as things evolve during the day.

It is simple and a pleasure to use

The whole point of using a to do list is to save time, free up brain power for other things, and not lose track of important deadlines or tasks. It is counterproductive to spend a ton of time managing the to do list. Some tools can be so complex that managing them becomes a task in and of itself. This is why I only use tools that are easy, intuitive, and a joy to use.

My current obsession: todoist

It meets all of the above criteria. It’s easy and elegant to use. I highly recommend it. It makes me very happy, and I can let go knowing that it will tell me when something needs to get done.

I’d love to hear what tools you use to free up space in your brain? What kinds of features are musts for you? I invite you to share in the comment section below.

(Photo credit: Dennis Jarvis, Flickr)


5 thoughts on “Freeing yourself from the running list in your head

  1. I feel like I’m so against my generation, all my to-do lists are on paper. I’m very much one to write things down with pen and paper, opposed to jot them down on word document. Even as I’m doing assignments for University, I’ll print drafts and scribble all over them! However, I might consider taking a look at the app. Now that I have come across minimalism, I hope to declutter the piles and piles of notes that are in no particular order. Thanks for sharing, Youthful Minimalist @

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s such a personal decision, but I personally have truly felt so much more organized and so much lighter since I started using this! For me, handwritten papers are hard to find again in the future, and just clog up my workspace (and stress me out!). But if you have something that works for you, then run with it!


  2. Oh my! Can we be besties?? lol Love me a good to-do list app! Checkvist and Toodledo have been two of my long time favs. For me, though, I find my love of the productivity apps to be more of a productivity drain than anything. Trying the latest, coolest app turned into a bit of an obsession for me a while back. It was a very, very sad day when I finally admitted this truth to myself! lol I am now a paper-only girl and infinitely more productive. Also less entertained… but c’est la vie! I’m all about listing in my Midori Traveler’s Notebook right now, which has been working well for quite some time now. I agree that it’s nice to keep those running list somewhere outside of your brain. Open loops suck far too much brain bandwidth! Incidentally I also read and failed to finish GTD. It’s still on my To Read list, mocking me and waiting to be finished so I can scratch it off.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jen, yes, let’s! Ha. I can totally relate to your experience of finding them to be a drain. That’s why I like ones that are super simple. Other people have shown me more complex ones where you can add all sorts of tags to each task and so on, but for me that would be a total rabbit hole. An even SIMPLER one that I used to love is It’s still great, but when I got a new job a couple of years ago, I found that todoist worked better for me. So I just stick with it, and I never try new ones 🙂 I do love the idea of having a handwritten notebook (and I use one for jotting little notes down during the day), but I personally HAVE to transfer important notes onto my computer/phone or else I’ll never see them again (I don’t know about you but I almost never look back at old pages in my notebook, and they aren’t organized except by date…). I love that you also failed to finish GTD! I felt like it could have been written in like 1 chapter. It became so repetitive!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Probably because it COULD have been written in a single chapter! Haha! Great book all the same. Many of the organizational habits I currently have (which keep my family running smoothly, even during times of chaos like this week!) stem from lessons or thought patterns picked up from reading that book. Good for you for sticking with the tool that works! With all of the productivity eye-candy out there I’m sure it’s hard to resist the draw!


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