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Try This Time-Obsessed Designer’s Approach To To-Do Lists

Forget the app. Grab a piece of paper.

Try This Time-Obsessed Designer’s Approach To To-Do Lists
[Image: courtesy Ideo]

There are countless to-do apps designed to help us be more productive–but no matter the strategy, it’s very easy to lapse back into old habits after a few weeks. The designer Jake Knapp knows the struggle, having fallen off the wagon himself.

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Knapp is a fellow at Ideo and the former design director of Google Ventures. He knows a thing or two about using time productively: He codified the concept of a design sprint, a five-day process where designers rapidly come up with ideas, prototype, and test a product, ultimately publishing the framework in his 2016 book Sprint. By tackling a problem or challenge in a short period of time, Knapp found that a group of designers and engineers are able to think of better ideas and build them faster and more effectively.

So, when Knapp decided to share his own approach to to-do lists, we listened. His strategy is based on a cooking metaphor, he explains in a blog post. The metaphor divides tasks into the front burner, the back burner, and the kitchen sink. The first step? Divide a piece of paper down the middle so you have two columns. The left-hand column is the front burner–the place for your number- one most pressing project. The right-hand column is your back burner–your second most important project, one that can take a back seat while you focus the majority of the energy on your primary project. Tasks for each project are filed in their respective column. And the kitchen sink is the space at the bottom of the right-hand column for everything else that doesn’t fit within your first two priorities.

This “burner” method, Knapp writes, helps him focus on what’s most important–because there can be only one task on the front burner. Knapp says he makes a new list every few days, since he goes through the tasks pretty fast–and that’s part of the effectiveness of the system. He certainly has a lot on his to-do list: Outside of his work at Ideo, Knapp also maintains the Time Dorks blog, where he and Googler John Zeratsky write about how to use scheduling to get more done.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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