How to Use a Closed List System in Workflowy


July 21, 2021
lists that are closed with a lock

Closing a Backlog

A “Closed List” is any list to which nothing new can be added.

“Gracie, can you come up to my office and help me close a list?”

Since reading ‘Do It Tomorrow’ by Mark Forster, this has become a request I make of my wife every week or two. We sit down together at my computer, looking at potential projects and tasks I might want to focus on, sorting them until we had 5-10 items on it, then I say, “The list is closed” with a formal sounding voice, (and feel like I should have a gong to ring to signal “The Closing of The List”)

Earlier, I had opened up Workflowy and sorted through the items on my “Potential Closed Backlog Items” list (image shows the top of a list of 30 or so items that have been added to the list over the last several weeks).

I then sorted them roughly by my priorities, then I called Gracie up to my office.

We then discussed the items and sorted them a bit more.

“Well, I know you said you definitely wanted to do some marketing, so let’s add that to the next closed backlog.”…so I clicked and held that node’s bullet, and dragged it into the backlog list.

“Let’s stay focused on converting the 2nd guest bedroom into an exercise room since Ronald (our son) really wants to work out.” so “Guest bedroom emptied out” was slid onto the backlog list.

We kept on talking until I looked at the backlog, and it “felt” about the right length, and that is when I said “The List is Closed” (mentally inserting that gong sound)

Why do I close a list? And what does that even mean?

Well, I have been using this system since reading Mark Forster’s book ‘Do It Tomorrow’. In that book, Mark exposes the difference between an open and closed list

  • Open list
    • New items can be added
    • Tends to grow
    • Sequence and prioritization is important
    • Relatively difficult to clear
    • Demotivating

  • Closed list
    • Nothing new can be added
    • Tends to get smaller
    • Sequence doesn’t matter
    • Relatively easy to clear
    • Motivating

The title of his book is derived from one way to close a list: “Do it tomorrow” means that you make a list for what you will do tomorrow, then close it……” tomorrow”, once it comes becomes “today”…so when you wake up in the morning, you have a closed list of things to do…and as emails, phone calls, requests from coworkers come, they are triaged to make sure there are no actual emergencies that must be dealt with, and all the rest are things that will be added to FUTURE closed lists, but TODAY, you do what is on the closed list for today. This is a way to push back on our society’s “always on, always available, always interruptible” tendencies, and you can just calmly address the tasks of today that are on your closed list.

Do It Tomorrow is one way to close a list. My favorite way is the “Closed Backlog” explained above in the scenario with Gracie and I. I decide on tasks I want to get done roughly in the next week or two, add those to my backlog, get alignment with my stakeholders (which in my case, is my wife…but you might need to include your boss and co-workers in the discussion before closing a backlog).

What is this closed backlog? Is it all I work on ever?

No…I have daily, weekly, and monthly routines and tasks that I always do. Things like playing Tennis with my buddy Chris on Wednesday afternoon, or going to church on Sunday morning, or having reading night and freshly made cookies on Monday night with my family…those things don’t go on my list…they are just my normal rhythms.

I also have my work-life…and I handle work-related stuff in other ways. This list ends up being tasks and projects to improve my or my family’s life…things that me and/or my wife want to get done. We have a long list of those things, but the next Closed Backlog is things I will work on in the margin of my life for the next week or so. And at that strata, nothing else will be added except emergencies and time-sensitive opportunities.

What it looks like in real-time is: when I get home and my afternoon routine flywheel stuff is done and I still have an hour before supper, I will go and install the doorknob on the guest hall door, and check that off. If I end up having a day off from work, I will look at my closed backlog for options of how to spend my time that day, and might cross off installing smoke detectors, creating an Instagram and Facebook marketing advertisement, and check those items off.

Is this “just” a task list? Well, yes and no. yes, it is a task list, but it isn’t “just” a task list…my typical task list is pretty “open”, meaning for that list:

  • New items can be added
  • Tends to grow
  • Sequence and prioritization is important
  • Relatively difficult to clear
  • Demotivating

A task list as I normally have operated is an amorphous list of things I “might” do if I get to it in time, and the priorities are ever-changing as more things are added, priorities shuffle from day to day. So there is always the question of whether or not a particular item will be done, or if it will always be displaced by something else on the list which can lead to the kinda embarrassing situation of saying, sometimes for years, “I need to clean out under my deck” and it never actually getting done.

But in this Closed List system, once something is added to the backlog, and the backlog is closed…then that thing WILL actually get done; it will not just get shuffled up and down the list with the pulsating tide of incoming and staling tasks; it is part of a system where –

  • Nothing new can be added
  • Tends to get smaller
  • Sequence doesn’t matter
  • Relatively easy to clear
  • Motivating

Try It Yourself

Open up Workflowy and create a “Potential Future Backlog Items list”. Start adding items that are currently kind of “hot” to you or your spouse, or co-workers…things that are urgent and/or important that you have been thinking “I need to get to that”.

Start with a list of 20 or 30 things…as many things as spring readily to mind. It doesn’t need to be exhaustive, just a list of items that are “hot” and current and you know need to be done, or if they were done, would improve some aspect of your life, or relieve some pressure.

Then create a “Closed Backlog #1” node, and start to analyze the list…what is that one task, which if done, would really make life better, or reduce stress, or make your spouse, or boss, or coworker really happy? Grab that task, and slide it into “Closed Backlog #1”. Add a few more tasks. I don’t recommend making it too big. you don’t need to…as soon as this “Closed Backlog #1” is complete, you will create “Closed Backlog #2”.

What works best for me is to add roughly enough tasks that I think I will be able to get done in a week or so. Really, I just add things to the list until it “feels” like the right amount to me. It ends up being a task list I could probably get done in a couple of days if that was all I was doing, but working on it in the margins of my life (an hour here and there throughout my week) ends up taking a week or more.

Then Start

Add the Closed Backlog tasks into whatever systems you currently use. I use a combination of GTD and SCRUM, so these tasks get added into context lists, and my Sprint planning, but that is just me. However you handle your daily and weekly tasks…just spend a few minutes integrating these items into that system, but keep the Backlog separate and visible, so you can watch it shrink until it disappears…then go find your spouse or whoever your stakeholders are, and say, “Hey, can you come up to my office and help me close my next Closed Backlog?”


There is a special feeling I have when I check off that last item on a close backlog…it is like finishing the first book in a series. The book was so good, and when you close it, you just take a minute and enjoy the memory of reading it, then turn and enjoy the realization that there are 4 more books (or whatever) in the series…knowing I have a trusted system, knowing that it actually works for me, and knowing that I am regularly checking off some top priority items in a relaxed way is a great feeling.

For someone with such a divergent and scattered brain as me, this has been an easy way to elevate my experience of my life. I explained to Gracie this morning that it feels like if the whole house is very untidy, but my office is very clean and organized…when I walk through the house and see all the things out of order, then walk into my clean office, all my muscles kind of relax and stress melts away…that is what a closed backlog feels like…there is no place for divergence (open) in it…it is strictly convergent (closed), and so when I think about it, it settles the roaring tide of thought in that one area. I love how I think…the way my brain functions…it is beautiful and thoroughly enjoyable to me, but it is cacophonous and ever-moving…so to have a few places of calm is like finding a quiet eddy in a whitewater river.

It has also improved my relationship with my wife. Before, if she asked me to do something and it got added into my systems it “might” get done…or it might be displaced by something else before it got done, and keep getting bumped down the list for whatever reason. Now, she knows if something gets added to my Closed Backlog, it absolutely will get done…so she can be patient, and she knows if there is something she really would appreciate me doing for her, or us doing together, the way to do that is to say, “Let’s add ‘painting guest bathroom to this Closed Backlog'” and then she knows it will be done…so it is this nice, low-stress, low-pressure way for her to be able to trust me, and I don’t have a sense of failure each time she asks me to do something and I just lob it onto the big pile of other things I know I “should do someday”.

If the idea of the Closed List is intriguing to you, try it out. And you might want to buy Mark Forster’s book ‘Do It Tomorrow’ for a lot more thoughts on the topic of how to lead a more effective life.

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