How to Practice the 2-Item To-Do List

Are there any other type-A personalities out there who read with disdain blog posts about eliminating the to-do list? Do you roll your eyes like I do when you read things like, “do less and you’ll get more done.” Or, “just choose the one most important thing to focus on for the day and don’t do anything else.”

The little voice inside my head always screams,

“Yeah, right! I don’t know what planet you’re living on, but my planet sure doesn’t function that way.”

But then again, my to-do list is an ever-growing monster. It seems like every time I cross one thing off, two new things get added. Now if that isn’t the epitome of counter-productive, I don’t know what is.

The to-do list is one of the most overwhelming, self-imposed guilt trips there is. So why do we do it to ourselves? Because, of course, we are a bunch of overachievers who live in a culture that tells us that the more we do, the more valued and successful we will be.

Lately I’ve been attempting to embrace a new mantra: Reject the status quo.

When the status quo tells me to book up my calendar, add things to my to-do list, and run around like a mad woman, I stop and give my head a shake. It boils down to just being tired of feeling like I’m not accomplishing enough with my time. Yes, the “status quo thing” does have something to do with it, but self-flagellation really isn’t sustainable.

I also realized that if I really stop and think about it, most of the things I put on my to-do list aren’t the most important things I should be focusing on. Instead, they distract me from those important things. It’s like a false feeling of importance; staying busy makes us feel important, even if we aren’t doing anything that truly matters.

So last week, I decided to try an experiment — just for one week, to see how I would do with a 2-item daily quota. Here’s a rough outline of my process:

First, I took stock of the things I needed to accomplish for the week:

  • Project A, with client phone call on Tuesday
  • Project B, due Monday
  • Project C, due Friday
  • Project D, weekly on Wednesday
  • Plus one morning of helping a friend pack for a move

Then, I evaluated each item and pre-determined deadlines and allocated 2 items per each day of the week:


  1. Project A
  2. Project B


  1. Help friend pack
  2. Project A client phone call


  1. Project D
  2. Continue work on Project A (new deadline for Monday)


  1. Project C
  2. Project A


  1. Finish and deliver Project C
  2. Project A

By the end of the day Monday, I felt incredibly accomplished. I had to wait for some information from my client before I could begin work on Project A, so I was at my computer and writing by 9 am, worked on Project B and didn’t check my email until after lunch. When I checked my email, I had the information I needed for Project A, which I worked on and finished before 3 pm.  When all was said and done, I had accomplished my 2-item quota, plus some.

Now, being a pragmatist, I wouldn’t be doing you much service if I told you that every day went just like Monday. The rest of the week got off course right around Thursday (as a result of Wednesday night’s insomnia), but the beauty of this system is that I bumped the Thursday items to Friday, delivered Project C on Saturday, and still met Project A deadline the following Monday.

So while I haven’t exactly done away with my to-do list entirely, I’m at least sticking with the pared-down system for week 2. It looks like this system is going to be the way to go for me in terms of taming that monster list of things that I need to get done.

Janna Marlies Santoro writes, edits, teaches and explores other creative outlets from her perch at ThinkHouse Collective, a big yellow Craftsman house-turned-collaborative workspace that she co-created in Downtown Sacramento, California.


  1. Dan on the 29th September

    Loved this piece!

    You really struck a cord with me about to-do list guilt and over achievement!!!

    I’ve tried so many different to-do list systems and software that I needed some other system to manage the systems….!

    I like your 2 items a day solution, but can well imagine that some days it would fall over

    At the moment I’ve ditched all my other to-do lists and just use Simplenote (iphone app and website, and Resophnotes on windows to sync my notes)

    Although this is a bit like a list, it doesn’t feel like one, which makes me feel better and so I can work better!!!

  2. Luis Lopez on the 29th September

    I haven’t noticed that, but int he company I worked we are planing to do 2 things every day or 2 projects maybe. Because sometimes, by project we make a lot little things, but at the end is true that you feel you can do it every day.

  3. B on the 29th September

    I really like your post about this. Lately, I’ve been trying to incorporate the “little things” into my to-do list for the week, and it just makes me feel like I’m tasking my entire life…it’s kinda awful.
    This whole 2-tasks a day strategy really make you only ‘worry’ about the big projects you have to do and not the little things.

  4. Joshua Riddle on the 29th September

    While I agree that there should be no guilt attributed to your to-do list, I have found that the list itself is not the problem. Task lists are suppose to be tools of productivity. Lots of times we put Items on our lists that cannot even be accomplished without completing other tasks first. Also, failing to schedule tasks keeps you in the dark in regards to how much time you actually have to do anything. You will end up agreeing to do more than it is possible for you to do. Remember, only so much can be done in a single day. So, try to schedule what your gonna do today, then do those items when you agreed with yourself to get them done. And finally, It is o.k. to say no to others when they try to pile another task onto your list. It is your list. Others shouldn’t manage it.

  5. Steve Holland on the 29th September

    I loved this piece. Almost as much as I love my to-do lists!

    I can’t tell you how well I can relate to your feelings of guilt when you look at your list and the never-ending urge to constantly add more in order to keep accomplishing and continue being successful!

    I guess, in all honesty, it’s just a matter of saying ‘no’ and prioritising correctly. So instead of doing everything you possibly can, get the right things done at the right time; and your pairing system seems to do that naturally.

  6. Tony on the 30th September

    Thank you for bringing attention to this topic! I’m a big Tim Ferriss fan, but the “put only two items on your to-do list” mantra has always been tough to swallow. Throw a couple kids into the mix and forget about it! Although, I must agree that if you pair it down to just the essential tasks, it can make a huge difference in your sanity.

  7. Thera on the 30th September

    Hmm I don’t know, I would certainly never finish in time for deadlines if I’d stick to two things a day :/

  8. Dan on the 7th October

    I’ve been real interested in condensing my to-do lists lately. This is an interesting approach. Being a student, I’m not sure I can shrink the list down to two items. However, this post does serve as inspiration.

    Btw, I included this post in my links of the weel section at I figured students could find use in this.

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