Fool-Proof Method to Simplify Your ‘To-Do List’ + Lighten Your Mental Load

to-do listAdmit it. You have probably awaken in the middle of the night to add something to your to-do list. I know I have. My to-do list was starting to haunt me. It was weighing down my mental load—never-ending and seemed to grow by the minute. Tackling the to-do list felt futile on any given day.

The weight of it all was constantly on my mind. Most days the to-do list was preventing me from being fully present with my children and husband.

I mean, how could I sit down and read just one more Curious George book when I have 86 more boxes that needed checked off?

But I just couldn’t get it right. For a while, I was convinced that a paper list was the best way. Then I found myself misplacing sticky notes and starting from scratch. I explored every app on the market yet never found a consistent solution that worked for me.

I even dabbled in bullet journaling for about 2.4 minutes before I realized it was far too complicated.

So I stopped searching Pinterest for solutions and came up with a fool-proof method that has left my mental load so much lighter. This method helped me to be more productive and has reduced my stress levels.

It’s so simple that it’s barely even a strategy–it can be described in four sentences. First I will explain the method and then highlight why this [ridiculously simple] solution increases productivity and decreases stress.

The Method: How to Simplify the To-Do List

Keep two lists, the Today list and the Not-Today list. The Today list is very short and manageable. It only includes a handful of items that I can actually get done today. The Not-Today list includes everything else that is swirling around in my brain.

That’s it. Simple, right? Keep reading. 

Here’s what it looks like: The Today list and the Not-Today list

How this Method Increases Productivity

Rather than dwelling in my overwhelm, I am able to focus on accomplishing the tasks that are of the highest priority. It reduces decision fatigue and allows my brain to focus. On a regular day, my mind would be flooded with the “busyness” and heaviness of it all. I wouldn’t even know where to start.

With this method, each night before bed I skim over my Not-Today list and select a few (usually 3 to 4) items to add to my Today list. Once I have chosen the select items, my mind is at ease. The rest of the Not-Today list is intentionally left undone. 

How this Method Decreases Stress

Each day, the few most important tasks go onto the “Today list”. I get to check all the boxes, finish my list, and then something magical happens.

I get to sit down without a load of anxiety about unfinished business. 

Because all that “other stuff” on the Not-Today List…well it’s not getting done today. And I am completely at peace with that. It’s almost like I have packaged it all up into a box and stored it away for another day.

All the other stuff…it’s off my mind. This results in the end of each day feeling a bit like this.


The simple things can be the most powerful. In this method, I am giving myself permission to take each day one-at-a-time. I take on a few tasks each day and then allow myself to tune into all the important things of which I was missing out. Like snuggling my family, laughing, and being 100% present when playing with my kids.

Why this Method is Sustainable

When it comes to complex systems and strategies, I fail. I can’t keep up. The simplicity of this method is the beauty of it. It’s something that works effectively and can be sustained.

I use the Evernote app (free version) to manage both of these lists. I find it particularly easy to use on my Apple Watch, but I also reference the lists on my phone frequently. This method could easily be done using pen and paper or another note-taking app as well.

I should note that this strategy is for tasks, I separate out appointments. When it comes to appointments, I use the calendar in my phone to schedule those into the future, then I set each appointment with an alert for the day before. That way, the night before I can include those appointments on my Today list for the following day. 

When it comes to finding systems and solutions that work–keeping it simple is always my preference. How do you manage your to-do list?

Denaye Barahona

Denaye Barahona is a loving wife and mama of two. She's a therapist for moms, an author, and the host of the top-ranked Simple Families Podcast. Denaye holds a Ph.D. in Child Development and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She has been featured on the likes of The Today Show, Netflix, The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple, Forbes, and numerous other media outlets.