My TODO list is a .txt file on the desktop

About six months ago, I finally reached a breaking point: my email-based TODO system stopped working.

It was beyond its breaking point for a few years, actually... ever since I my average daily email volume increase from maybe 5-10 'important' emails to deal with to 50+.

My email-based TODO system used to go like this:

  1. Email myself things I deemed important enough to do the next day
  2. Next morning, when I checked my email, knock off the top item in that list, and try to work down the list a bit
  3. Anything else, forward that email again for the next day

Once an item got maybe 5-10 Fwd:s in the Subject line, I would decide whether to nix the TODO item entirely, or move it off into a Trello board—in either case, likely to be forgotten forever.

I didn't say the system was good.

But it did work, before my inbox became full of actually important stuff relating to running my business. TODO file for the day of the week

With the tsunami of emails, a new system was devised, and it centers around a file on my desktop, called: [day of week here].md

And the file, this morning, looks like:


  - [ ] SHORT: Water cooling Pi 5, close-up thermal images of Pi 5, overclock testing
  - [ ] Mount PoE Pi 5 in network rack
  - [ ] Pi 5 Silicon video script


  - [ ] Benchmark Arm NAS
  - [ ] Set up Samba share on zfs pool on NAS
  - [ ] Set up AirPort base station
  - [ ] Retro Mac video script
  - [ ] Test Hailo AI module, check into Frigate integration

My rules for this file are:

  1. No more than three items in 'Today' (I usually complete one, maybe two if I'm crazy lucky)
  2. If an item is bumped down to 'Soon' and doesn't make it to 'Today' within a week or two, knock it off into my Trello board.

This system works surprisingly well, and since I have my Desktop folder synced between my Macs and iPhone using iCloud Drive (one of the only good uses for that!), the file is always up to date on all my devices.

Using Markdown's checklist syntax and not deleting items or rearranging them until the end of the day means I have a nice visual indication of how much I've completed on a given weekday.

For larger tasks, I still have a Trello card or a separate project folder somewhere that I stash all the important information, but if a task cannot be distilled into a short sentence, it's not worth working on, thus it doesn't go in my [day of week here].md file.

And yes, I use a 20% grey desktop background.


This looks like a totally workable system. I also use .md files to keep track of things, though not quite as formally. But I store mine on a NextCloud NAS. NextCloud has .md support built in, and I'm never on the same computer. I might use my laptop one day, a Raspberry Pi another day, or my tower another day. So having NextCloud as a central point to store things makes it so I can use any computer I want and still get to what I'm working on.

This starts to remind me of the org-mode in emacs :-) And you seem just like a type of person that would enjoy it! Aside of setting up agenda, having everything in the .org txt files, you can easily refile things, change their status etc. Personally, I have backlog list where each task has high, mid, low priority marker. Then I take 2-3 tasks I deem important and move them to "TODO" state, where I only see those in a special agenda view. From there I can switch one task to IN-PROGRESS and focus on that one solely. Once done, it gets marked as so and life is good. If something spills over to the next day, it simply stays in TODO state. If that repeats with that one task and I notice it wasn't so important after all it goes to backlog or cancelled if I don't plan to do it at all. In which case it prompts me for a simple explanation about changing its status. This came in handy few times when I stumbled upon old discarded task and wondered why didn't I go through with it.

Hi Jeff, long time reader!
Just to offer you another rabbit hole, I use:
Imapfilter (scheduled on server) to mark read not recent unimportant emails and move to my archive mailbox very old emails. You can use this to move/copy mails on “today” and “soon” subfolders, and clean that up afterwards.
Omnifocus (apple platform, but you can use also Things and similar software) for my todo list, I apply templates so I can create hierachical activity structures for my todos
And the most important, old but gold: I run popfile (24/7 on server) which uses a Bayesian filter to auto-file emails in subfolders.
From there, I apply a GTD approach more or less as you.

If you use Notepad on Windows and put .LOG. On the first line
Each time you open the file it will add a new line with the current time and date
Effectively giving you a running time line of each edit

I’m curious about the one-file-per-day aspect. What advantage does that bring, and what does the maintenance overhead look like (clone/rename yesterday’s file, remove completed items, promote a “soon” item to a “today” item, etc.). Are the 6 days that aren’t today a historical record of last week, or a view ahead to the coming week?

I just rename the file every day, don't worry about versioning or anything. At the end of my work day, I reorganize the tasks and delete what I've completed.

I do a similar sort of thing, but use the Notes app with a 'Desktop notes' note that is left always open in its own window, i.e. I double click on it to keep it as a separate always open window. That way it's also synced across all my devices and has the built in but basic (I prefer this) notes and indent/lists feature.

I used to use email to track tasks because it seemed convenient at the time. Using a text file worked better, but a couple weeks ago I put all my tasks on one Trello board after reading Cal Newport’s book A World Without Email. It seems to work well so far. I like being able to see different categories in separate columns and adding extra information and tasks on the “back.” I have also noticed that people love to talk about productivity. ;)

The never-ending search for the right to-do thing... I have a combination of Nextcloud and Obsidian at this point. I used for about a year, but then something happened with upgrade/permissions on the work computer. Obsidian allowed me to keep the same workflow/tagging system I developed AND a nifty plugin that lets me rename screenshots on the paste. It also allows me to check off todos from any page it's placed on. It's a work in progress, but at least it's still just text files and images. :)

Jeff, It seems that your system would be well served by adding a tool like Obsidian. It natively uses markdown .md files and would provide you some tools to automate some of what it sounds like your doing manually. I use obsidian ever since I ditched evernote years ago. I back it up and sync it between devices with syncthing. Check it out, might be a good system for you. Shalom!

Many years ago I've read "Time Management for System Administrators", which was my first contact with time management. Idea is from another book: "Getting Things Done". You don't have to religiously follow it, but I'm sure you will find few ideas there.
Let me share a little bit - it's not enough to collect ideas/tasks, you have to review them periodically and clean the last. Usually urgent tasks land on top of our list, but urgent doesn't mean important. Check also Eisenhower matrix.
Good luck!