Better Time Management #1. The Power of a To Do List

Richard Branson has spoken many times of the one tool he could not have built his business empire without. It doesn’t cost much. It doesn’t need to be plugged in. And you can take it with you anywhere.

If you haven’t guessed yet – or you didn’t click on the link – it’s a notebook, carried with you at all times and used to write down any ideas, new appointments or commitments and random thoughts. Successful people the world over swear by this simple system – and anyone can use it to become more productive.

Before we look at how to use it, here’s why using a notebook is so effective.


In his brilliant book ‘The Organised Mind’ Daniel Levitin tells a story of the time he met the presidential candidate Jimmy Carter:

“He spoke as though we had all the time in the world. At one point an aide came to take him off to the next person he needed to meet. Free from having to decide when the meeting would end, President Carter could let go of those nagging inner voices and just be there.”

The nagging inner voices he means are the constant worries you’ve forgotten to move that dentist appointment, the idea you’ve just had for a better way to write that report, trying to remember whether it was 7 or 7.30 that you said you’d meet your friend for a drink.

The less of these kind of thoughts you have to deal with, the freer your mind can be to focus on what’s important. As David Allen, author of getting things done says in this brilliant talk:

“Your brain is for having ideas, not holding them”

Imagine how much clearer your thinking would be if every little decision you had to make through the course of a day was taken care of by a team of staff. If you never had to look at your calendar because someone would always tell you where you needed to be.

Unfortunately, not all of us can justify a team of staff to run our diaries. But we can take one important concept from this, and apply it to our own daily routines.


This simply means taking the items occupying your mind out of your head and into the world.

Here’s Levitin again:

“When we have something on our minds that is important – especially a To-Do item – we’re afraid we’ll forget it, so our brain rehearses it, tossing it around and around in circles in something cognitive psychologists actually refer to as the rehearsal loop… The problem is that it works too well, keeping items in rehearsal until we attend to them.”

Writing things down solves this problem. One of the first steps to great time management is to write down everything.

By writing down your thoughts as soon as they come to you, you are telling your mind that you will come back to them when you choose to. You’re reassuring it that it doesn’t need to worry about holding onto them for you.

One of the reasons we feel stress is that our minds are trying to remember too many things at once. Psychologists have found that we can only effectively hold around 4 items in our working memory – any more than that and we start to become overwhelmed.

Almost all of us encounter more than four things we need to remember throughout the course of a day. Writing them down is the first step to becoming less stressed and more productive.

Of course, the system only works if you come back to your notes. So make it a habit once a day to return to your notebook and deal with all the things you’ve written down. Add those dates into your calendar. Call back the dentists. Spend some time expanding on the idea for the lyrics you had for that song.

Aim to make this a habit over the next month and keep note of how you feel. Possible effects might be that you feel less stressed. That you become more on top of your work. Or that you have an idea that launches a multi-billion dollar business.


Want to improve your own Time Management? Our popular Time Management workshop is running at different times throughout the term. Book here: (then write down the date!)


Ben Martin

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