A simple list to help you to prioritize and focus on what's important to you. Free template!

So many things to do . . .

Stop me if this sounds familiar. You get these great, big, cool ideas, and then lose them because finding the time for them just ain’t happening. Or, you have that thing that you keep remembering that you need to do—you even put it in your calendar a couple of times—and just haven’t done it.  You have a bunch of little lists here and there for different areas of your life, and they keep running into each other. Maybe your to-do list makes you want to cry.

The Big List helped me, and I think it will help you, too

It certainly sounds familiar to me, and I made a simple tool for myself to help me with keeping everything straight. After six months of using it, I’m here to tell you that the Big List could change your life. Or at least make it less stressful.  

I’ve made it easier by making a free template for you, so keep reading if you’re looking for a way to prioritize and get clear on how you’re spending your time.

The Big List


So that part about the to-do list making me cry? I was serious. About six months ago, I felt completely overwhelmed. I’m one of those people who’s constantly thinking up new ideas and then losing sight of them only to remember that I really needed to do that idea before I could do this other thing that I thought was so cool. Honestly, being a creative thinker is nice sometimes, but it does come with its drawbacks.

The thing was that I had plans for my overarching life goals and desires. However, these brilliant plans would run right into something practical I needed to do. I’d set about blocking off time only to find that appointment smack dab in the middle of that glorious morning of focused time I’d envisioned for myself. Sh*tsticks.

And I’d been a project manager!

I’d been a successful project manager. How could I possibly have gotten myself into this mess? It got to be so much that I actually broke down and cried.

In a bit of a self-pitying snit, I wrote out this list of all the things that I needed to do in my journal. And then THIS, and THIS, and (sob) THIIIIISSSS. POOOOR MEEEEE!

It was not my finest hour.

Rainbow and a stop sign

Something funny happened

Gradually, though, something else happened. Writing everything down in one place had the effect of calming me down a bit. I stopped crying at least. For the first time in a while, I could at least see the mountain of crap that I needed to climb, even if I didn’t yet see a path up said Crap Mountain.

I remembered a Big List form work

And then I remembered the Big List. What I called the Big List came from a project that I’d served as the business delegate for and then took over as the delegate product owner of the resulting product. If you’ve ever worked on a technology product before, the acronym MVP will mean something other than a champion to you. In the tech world, MVP stands for Minimum Viable Product, and it’s what you go for with an initial release.

The idea is that you get something that does the job and then improve on it. We’d rolled out the product as a MVP, and, goodness, there were a lot of ideas for how to improve upon it. We had known issues, things that had come up consistently in help-desk tickets (I was the help desk), great ideas from stakeholders, and the usual unexpected things that come up with new products.

Competing priorities (most of them screaming)

People being human and all that, everyone tended to think that their issue was the most important thing to tackle, and they expressed this with panache. Despite our best intentions, we simply didn’t have the bandwidth to address everything, and so we needed to prioritize. Enter that list I was talking about.

We made a list

We held a workshop with the business team and added everything to one big old list. We then went through each item and classified it as follows:

  • Should we consider doing this at all?
  • How important was it to address?
  • Was there a hard deadline that needed to be met?
  • How big did we estimate the task to be?

And checked it twice (OK, like five times)

A lively discussion ensued. After an initial assessment by our team, we refined it down with the technology team to items we needed to address right away and in what order. We then came up with features that would be ready for set timed releases. Finally, we also finalized the list of features that we would not build, or at least not right away.

That list did the job

It wasn’t perfect by any means and executing the plan still came with a lot of stress (I’m shuddering just thinking about it), but that big old list did its job and then some. We had a plan and it got results. We could answer questions about when something would be ready and inform people if we would not be doing something at this time. The bonus was that there were a number of little things on the list that we were able to sneak in if there was a lull during one of the larger tasks.

It was the big list that could. And did.

Golden Hour Rainbow

Back to my pity party

So back to my pity party last summer. As I calmed down, having rage-written out a giant list of to-dos, I had the thought, That big list worked for that huge project with tons of stakeholders. I bet I could make it work even better for just me.

So, I set about creating the Big List

The next morning, I gathered up all my rando lists and known to-dos, sat down at my desk, and opened up a spreadsheet. In a few hours, I’d made the Big List for my life. Just seeing everything in one place made me feel so much better, and I hadn’t even acted on it yet.

Including areas that helped me prioritize

In addition to the usual time/size/timeliness issues, I also included my life values (curiosity and creativity, wisdom and growth, and compassion and kindness) to help ensure alignment. And, instead of areas of a technology product, I looked at it in relationship to my life areas (health, relationships, vocation, money, and fun, as well as a big project or two). I also included a question about whether a task would move the needle or not—in other words, would prioritizing this activity help get me closer to where I want to be in life?

I looked things over on my newly minted Big List, decided what I could do over the next week, and added it to my calendar.

The Big List strikes again!

And, Dear Reader, wouldn’t you know it? That Big List did its magic again. I had everything in one place where I could see it. My Big List came with me on my phone, so I could add to it as needed (eventually, I just started batching things, but it’s nice to know that it’s an option).

Each week, I review what I’d planned to do and what I actually did and have a little reflection. I’d update the list with new items as needed and any progress. I’d then look at everything again and make another plan.

After six months, I can tell you that the Big List works

I’ve used the Big List for six months now, and I think that it’s so helpful that I’m sharing it with you.

My dog Ollie’s flea and tick treatment that I had a hard time remembering, because the reminder went with the heartworm pill on my calendar? Fixed in my calendar and tracked on the Big List to keep it top of mind. That stretching routine I always tried to establish? It’s established and tracked. Finding a doctor in physician-strapped New Hampshire? Done, and appointment scheduled.

Big ideas don’t get lost, and it’s easier to make decisions

Big ideas that I never knew how to start and would often forget about in the shuffle? On the list it went to decide how to act on it. A few of them are done, and I’ve made tangible progress on a few others.

Things that seemed super important but really weren’t? Dutifully marked won’t do and filtered away.

Best of all, when I thought that I wasn’t doing enough, I could also see all the lovely green completed tasks and revel in my success.

Not bad for a free spreadsheet and a few minutes each week.

Big List magic—helping you to prioritize

The magic of the Big List is that you see everything you’re thinking about doing in one place and each task as it relates to everything else. If you add to it regularly, you will not lose another idea to the ether. And you won’t forget that you meant to start that stretching routine or eat a healthier breakfast (ahem, Sara).

You’ll also get to look at everything together and make decisions about what you will do—and more importantly, will not do—and why you made them. How you make those decisions is up to you. Perhaps you want to prioritize one of your life values, or focus on one particular area of your life.

Or, maybe you have a whole bunch of nagging urgent things that if you just actually sat down and did them would free your mind to focus on bigger things. It’s your Big List and your life. You decide what to do with it.

Use the Big List to decide what you will not do or will not do right now

As mentioned above, one of the ways that the Big List works its magic is in helping you to decide what you will not do. Say you have this really cool idea that popped into your head, and you captured it on your Big List. You decided to start work on it one week and assigned it to yourself. You did the first step, and then . . . a month or two goes by and you notice that your Last Assigned Date on your Big List was a while ago. Should you pick it up again?

A current snapshot—not a project management tool

The Big List gives you a current snapshot of your life. I do not recommend managing a big juicy project using the Big List, and the Big List was not designed as a project management tool. It’s good to have your project on the Big List so that it you’re capturing its impact on your week, but I wouldn’t add individual steps as items on the Big List.

If you are interested in doing some tracking, you might create a weekly planning document with a screenshot of your Big List items in it. I do that for reference and include some additional exercises, but it isn’t necessary.

A view of the Big List
A partial view of a sample Big List

Why is the Big List just a spreadsheet?

So, Sara, you worked on technology projects. What gives with a spreadsheet? I created the Big List as a spreadsheet, because I wanted something really simple that I could just look at in one place. You will likely find that a lot of items on this list are one-offs that don’t take that long, and creating a Trello card or Notion database item just seemed like overkill (I did try it). Personally, I do use Trello for my personal project management, and it’s great for getting into the trees.

The Big List isn’t the trees—it’s the forest view. The Big List gives me options and helps me to weigh them in relationship to each other and make decisions. That’s it.

How does the Big List work?

The Big List is a simple spreadsheet with a few dropdowns. Get my Big List template below or create your own!

Here’s the basic idea of how the Big List works:

  • Pull an initial list together with tasks big and small, ideas, aspirations, you name it. The Big List can help you remember to water your plants or help you find the time to create something that will change the world. Or maybe your world, at least.
  • Evaluate what you’ve put on your list by how it aligns with your values and goals, as well as practical things like an urgent deadline and knowing the amount of time required to get something done.
  • Make an initial plan for the week ahead by filling in the Next Steps column. If you both want to take action on the task and can find the time to do it, add it to a given week. Refine that list down further to get a more realistic picture.
  • Get out your calendar and put the action items from your Big List for the week in your calendar. If things don’t fit, make choices based on your priorities and adjust your Big List accordingly.
  • Go forth and do!
  • Add to your big list as needed, either throughout the week or in a batch.
  • Reflect on the week that was in relation to what you thought you could work on. Pare things down as needed. Make a new plan. Go forth and do some more!
  • And repeat.

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Tips for working with your Big List

Here’s a few tips and tricks I’ve come up with in the last six months. I’d love to hear what works for you!

Tips for adding to your Big List

While I recommend storing your Big List someplace where you can always review it and add to it (Google Drive if you use my template), I have come to embrace a batching process for this task. Since a lot of ideas come to me during my Morning Rituals practice, I have a tag in my ReMarkable tablet called “Big List.” I simply add the tag when I come up with an idea and then I add everything to my Big List at once.

You could also just add the “To Do” item and then fill in the rest when you’re doing your weekly exercise. Or maybe you’re the person who keeps a list open at all times and refers to it daily. Have at it!

How to deal with an item you just haven’t made time for

Here’s a way to decide what to do about this languishing item that you just haven’t made time for:

  • Decide that it really is a good idea that would move the needle for you and that you need to make more time for it. Plan your schedule accordingly.
  • Decide that you simply will not do this idea—mark it Won’t Do on your big list, make comment as to why and let it go.
  • Decide that now is not the time for this project but that you aren’t ready to let go of it just yet. If you thought about it in the spring, you might have time for it. Mark it Spring and pick it up then. If you keep kicking the can down the road, though, maybe you should let that particular idea go.

Start each quarter with a fresh list

I recommend keeping a Big List for a quarter at a time to keep it from getting unwieldy, but don’t worry—you don’t have to start with a blank list. Celebrate what you’ve accomplished in those three months! Evaluate your list to determine if things need to go. Save a copy of your list and start again for the next quarter!

What will you accomplish with your Big List?

Let us know if you try the Big List! I’d love to hear how it goes for you and any tips and tricks you come up with to make it yours. Let us know in the comments below!