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'The Burner List': A simple to-do list to help you tackle major life goals

Design a to-do list that forces you to prioritize one project at a time.
Traditional to-do lists may force you to prioritize too many things at once.
Traditional to-do lists may force you to prioritize too many things at once.Jamie Grill / Getty Images/Tetra images RF

Bestselling author Jake Knapp keeps his to-do list focused on one priority at a time. It’s a to-do list, he says, that defies all the rules.

“The rules are you should capture everything — you should keep track of everything,” Knapp tells NBC News BETTER. “But for me, I found it was better to let some stuff go and be a little bit non-responsive and fail sometimes.”

Last April, Knapp left his job at GV (formerly known as Google Ventures) to become a full-time writer. He says he designed a process at GV called “design sprint” which teaches employees to focus on just one priority a week. Knapp eventually started modeling his to-do lists after that philosophy, which he wrote about in his bestselling book “Sprint.”

He says traditional to-do lists were forcing him to prioritize too many things at once.

“I was just cataloging all these things other people wanted me to do and my to-do list was a reflection of that kind of overwhelming nature of the modern world — of the demands that were on me,” he says. “And I was trying to keep up, but I was just keeping up with what other people wanted.”

Knapp designed a to-do list that forces him to prioritize one project at a time. He calls it “The Burner List,” which he likens to a chef whose concentration is primarily on the dish in front of him.


Draw a line straight down the middle of a piece of paper. Title the left column “Front Burner,” instructs Knapp, and the right column “Back Burner.”

Divide the Back Burner column in half to create a separate space in the lower right. Title this the “Kitchen Sink,” he says. These are the three crucial elements:

1. Front Burner (Left Column)

This is where your most important project goes. Only one item is allowed. List the to-dos you’ll need to complete the project underneath it. Keep lots of space in this column so you can write down additional action-items as they arise.

2. Back Burner (Right Column)

This is where your second-priority project goes. Only one item is allowed here. Since it’s less important than your Front Burner project, it should only take up half the space.

3. The Kitchen Sink (Bottom-Right Column)

Your least important actions items, which have nothing to do with your Front and Back Burner projects, go here. Putting them in this smaller space will force you to limit your smaller priorities and stay focused on your bigger goals.


The Burner List is effective, Knapp insists, because it forces you to keep your attention on what’s most important. It also forces you to leave out the meaningless stuff, he explains.

“Right now the front burner of my to-do list today is about the book that I’m writing,” says Knapp. “So it’s all stuff about the book.”

On his Back Burner are projects for his various workshops and training engagements, he says, which he will work on when he’s done writing for the day.

The least important stuff he needs to do are in his Kitchen Sink, he says, like writing his next newsletter and cleaning his desk.

“All those kinds of stuff are in the Kitchen Sink and then that’s it,” he says.

“There’s no room for anything else.”

The Burner List encourages you to say “no”

A self-described push over, Knapp says he used to juggle multiple projects. Many of them, he says, were more important to the people who requested them than they were to him. He says The Burner List encourages him to say “no” to those insignificant tasks and helps him tackle his personal priorities.

“We can’t do all the things people ask us to do today,” says Knapp. “So I think it’s sort of a reflection of the reality of my capacity. My capacity is limited.”

The writer says he used to feel guilty about not getting things done, but that’s no longer the case.

“If I finish what I set out to do each day on the Front Burner and maybe on the Back Burner, I can step away,” says Knapp. “And that way it gives me more time, but also more space to focus and be present in those moments when I’m not working.”


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