The Burner List: an interesting approach to to-do lists

“There are a billion to-do list apps and methods out there, and I think I’ve tried 900 million of them,” Jake Knapp wrote. He then went on to describe his own paper-based process, which he calls the Burner List, using a kitchen stove analogy.

He creates two columns on a piece of printer-size paper. The left column — the front burner — is devoted to his single most important project. He lists that project name (for example, “write book”) and then a series of to-dos related to that project. The to-dos are items that can be done in the next few days. The to-dos will not fill the whole column, and that’s fine.

The top of the right column is the back burner — the second most important project — and its to-dos. The bottom part of that column is the kitchen sink, which is where he captures the miscellaneous things he needs to do that aren’t part of either project. Things like “schedule eye exam” and “buy cat food” go here.

You can read more about Knapp’s process on Ideo’s blog or on Medium. He’s an engaging writer, and it’s a quick read.

Two aspects of Knapp’s approach grabbed my attention. The first was the obvious focus on moving his big projects forward — something that often gets neglected amidst all the kitchen-sink type items we all have. Corinne Purtill wrote an article entitled The to-do list is a tyrant that will keep your life and your goals small, which addressed the problem of “a constant focus on short-term tasks.” With Knapp’s to-do list, any lack of progress on the most important longer-term projects becomes painfully obvious.

I also noted Knapp’s comments on how he re-creates his list as items get done.

The Burner List is also disposable. It gets stale fast as you cross off finished to-dos. I “burn” through my list every few days and then recreate it, over and over. This act of recreation is important, because I always discard some unfinished tasks which no longer matter and I reconsider what belongs on the front burner right now.

Colter Reed wrote an interesting blog post about this idea of removing some unfinished tasks from your to-do list. The whole post is worth a look, but the following captures the core idea:

Tasks expire, just like anything in your fridge. It was relevant once, but not now. You missed the deadline. You don’t have as much free time now. It’s not important to you now. If you’re honest with yourself, it probably never was.

A task on your list is not a permanent commitment. … You can renegotiate the commitment at any time, especially if it’s just with yourself.

If the Burner List doesn’t resonate with you, perhaps one of the many of approaches I’ve written about before will be a better fit. There are also a huge number of apps for managing to-do items, one of which might work well for you. Or maybe you’ll want to create your own way of managing to-do items, just as Knapp did.

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