Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Using a Two-Column To-Do List.

Last week I wrote about a bunch of different kinds of lists. This week, I am going to explain my To-Do List System.

[A caveat, though - please do not feel that I am in any way implying that you should be doing what I do. That would be weird. Different people are different. I find, however,  that this system works for me, and I love systems so I am going to write about it here as is my blog-given right. I would love to hear about the To-Do list systems you all use too!]

I have a number of To-Do lists around my home, my office, and my various internet accounts. I have project specific lists on binder paper in folders for those projects. I have lines piled up in the "all day" section of my google calendar. I have a post-it with prep activities for the night before a work day next to my coffeemaker. I have a list of goals for the year above my desk. I have a list of goals for the Summer nearby. All of these, however, feed into the daily To-Do list that I carry with me.

Mostly fictitious example of how I handle To-Do lists.

How I handle this daily list is based partly on:

1. my deep-seated love for physically crossing things off of lists. This means I carry an actual physical paper and pencil list because that allows me to <3 cross things off of it <3 even though it is, in some ways, less convenient than a digital/virtual list would be. An added benefit is that I find the act of writing the things down with a pencil helps reinforce my memory that you know, they should actually get done. Because I'm kind of embarrassed to admit this, but unfortunately

2. I will forget to do things if they are not on lists. I put "wash hair" on my to do list. I will literally forget when I washed my hair last if I do not see it crossed off on an earlier day's list.

So, those possibly shameful facts admitted, here's how I do it.

Twice a week, Wednesday evening and Sunday evening, generally, I sit down with my calendar up on my computer screen, my lists of projects and goals next to me, a picture or list of my farm share foods, and I create my plan for the next few days.

I use a lot of exclamation points.

I use a two-column stenographer's notebook (like this one, but not actually this one because I buy in bulk) that I divide into a "work" column and a "home" column for each weekday. I have a long commute, so I include what I want to get done on the train in my "work" column. As per my earlier post regarding meal planning, I write down what I plan to eat for dinner, and what I want to pack for the next day's lunch.

Weekends (theoretically) involve no separation of work and home life, so I use one column for each day.

When list items need to happen at a specific time, I put a star next to them. I like stars. I also work out travel time ahead. If I am meeting friends for a movie downtown, I use Hopstop or Google Maps to figure out how long it will take me to get there and then put my leaving time on the To-Do list. I program my phone alarms to remind me to be where I need to be when I need to be there.

Some notes:
1. I pair congenial tasks. That is, I don't just write "wash hair," but rather "wash hair and dishes" because I need to wash my hair about as often as I need to do dishes, so why not do them at the same time?
2. I don't like calculating percentages of how much of a given project is done. That's just math pretending to be efficiency. I instead make each To-Do list item something that can be completed. SO I might have an entry such as "sort 101 essays into batches of 10" and then a few entries that each read "Mark a batch of 101 essays."
3. I'm lying about some stuff for clarity. I NEVER write "sort 101 essays into batches of 10" or "Mark a batch of 101 essays." I write things like "SORT 101" and "MARK BATCH 101." Full disclosure; etc.

EDIT: A wonderful two-part to-do list has been recently posted on UfYH - the listmaker uses one list to set a schedule of tasks to be accomplished chronologically and then and makes another list of rewards for completing tasks! This means the listmakes GETS TO CROSS OFF TWICE AS MANY THINGS.

SO! What do YOU do to keep track of things? Or are you pleasantly superior because you don't need to keep track of things at all?


  1. When I started my current job I switched to a method of rewriting a physical to do list daily (or near daily) and putting projects as component parts. Some items may be inbox 5, which then becomes inbox 0 if done early. I will put things included as parts of other items if they are time consuming and I want to cross them off when done.

    I need a seperate to do list for long term projects.

    When approaching a bunch of deadlines clumped together I make a Done is Good list. This used to be finals, in school, and now is things like things that need doing before vacation. Each task is divided into component tasks and often packing is on there. The big tasks get check boxes, and often candy rewards. Depending on mood done is good lists can get pretty decorative. I find they work best for things like finals or vacations where you actually get to enjoy a done, as opposed to regular work or day to day life.

    I used to have personal task to do lists in text edit which I priority sorted and assigned due dates on. I should bring those back.

    1. I totally appreciate your point that list items get modified throughout the day. I should try this. Instead of changing the list item, I cross the thing off and then add another item that has the next step so that I get to cross another thing off.

  2. My listing habits are very similar, although I don't use a notebook — I use printouts from work that I've torn into half-pages (I keep a large stack of these on my desk at work and a smaller stack at home). I tend to use the page horizontally, so that it can be torn in half again with just the "home" side of the list coming along with me at the end of the day.

    I regard these lists as ephemeral enough that not only do I want to be able to cross things off, I then toss the used page into my shredder (FOR EXTRA DONENESS!!!). Disclosure: Sometimes things migrate onto the next day's list, but oh well.

    At home I sometimes make a more elaborate version, involving pinning a large sheet of marker paper up on the wall and creating a grid of tasks, often color-coded in my brightest Sharpies so that it's eye-catching. Using a grid form rather than a list form helps me make it as hierarchical or non-hierarchical as I want. Things get crossed off in black Sharpie. I resort to this for when I have a mountain of chores, as the bright colors help me trick myself into thinking the things on it are splashy and fun, because I am apparently six years old...

    1. (Also, this was Lisa, as neither my Google account nor OpenID seem to want to actually identify me in any way!)

    2. Oh, I ABSOLUTELY make any list I post as attractive as possible. Often weirdly thematically colored, too. My evening before work prep list is, in fact, in madras colors of sharpie because (ahem) they remind me of prep school.

      I am impressed with your ability to throw away done lists! Obviously YOU do not forget when you last washed your hair.

      I'm curious about your grids. How do they work? Can you show me an example?

    3. Hairwashings happen every other day for me so it's pretty easy to keep track of. :) Other persistent tasks tend to migrate from list to list, with the older list getting trashed. I am such a hoarder that tossing my lists into the shredder is an extra important satisfaction.

      I have no current examples to show of my big grids, but I promise to take a photo for you the next time I make one! ;D

  3. For a short time, I used Wunderlist on my tablet. I missed the satisfaction of physically crossing something off my list. For someone who keeps the world organized for a living, I keep very few personal lists. At work, I use excel because it is clean and easy to read. At home, I use either a small notebook or a large legal pad.

    If I have a large task, I will list it and then color code (and indent) beneath it smaller tasks that will allow me to accomplish the biggie.

    1. It's been interesting to see how many people's lists are hierarchical! I don't think my mind works that way. Even my project lists are linear or just divided into a few basic categories and all the tasks in those categories are in there all jumbled anyhow, like video game controllers in a bowl. On the coffee table.

  4. You are a list genius.

    About half of my days are full of things I can keep track of without even thinking about them. Sometimes those things I do involve tasks that I have the same ordered list for every time, like if I am on an appointment to take pictures for a tag sale, item one is to help stage the house (there is a mental list of the order in which I know Ronnie likes to do this), item two is to either take pictures or video or stay out of the way (which involves a mental list of what is and is not for sale being in or out of the photos, respectively) depending on how I'm planning on promoting that sale, item three is to remind Ronnie to get the client's CCN, item four is to remind Ronnie to schedule the next appointment if she does not remember on her own, item five is to start grumbling about lunch. (You can kind of tell from all my asides that my style is to make sub-lists within my lists.)

    For days and tasks where I am working on back end stuff I have mental long-term goal lists so I first brainstorm whether I want to add any new goals to that list, then say those new goals out loud, then mentally break them down into tasks I can complete, then write down (on any paper that is handy) the tasks I can complete on the spot or over the course of one day, then add any tasks that are the same for every sale that I should accomplish that day (so I don't forget them while I'm focused on non-repeating tasks), then work to complete the tasks.

    For my mental lists, I replace items in ordered lists with the next item and goals with new goals or expansions on goals. For my written lists, I usually cross items off with a squiggly line when they are done. If I am having a bad day and do not complete all of the written tasks, I email myself a list of any that absolutely must be done timely and work on them the next morning. I do not worry about the rest until the next time I can evaluate what can be done Right Now to accomplish long-term goals because sometimes there will be a drastic change to how I want to proceed based on how the tag sale world reacts to my previous efforts and the old written tasks will be useless. I don't like to keep around inapplicable lists because I am bound to be confused by them.

    1. I love that you say goals aloud! I bet that functions a lot like me writing things down.

      Also, as above I am impressed with Lisa's ability to throw lists away, here I am impressed with your ability to keep lists in your head. You must be a some kind of list psychic. ;)

      You note that your style is to make sublists within your lists - that totally makes sense to me. It is in fact kind of staggering how many of the things on my daily To-Do list actually just mean "consult another list." Prep for Friday? That means look at the list of things to prep in the evening. Teach a class? That means consult my lesson plan, which is a chronological list of things to do during the class period. Email? That means reading the list of unread emails in my inbox and then replying to those in the starred list. I could go on, but I am sure you get the picture.

    2. Although I do get the picture, I enjoyed your list of lists you look at after consulting your master list. ;)

  5. One of the more influential ideas I've incorporated into what I do came out of a book I read on Est of all things. (It was really the only useful bit in that). It suggested you organize larger lists via whether you are ready to handle them yet. So you might have a "I could do this right now" list, a "this is a long-term goal" list, and medium level "things I'm planning" one.

    I have about 100 open to-do list items at any time, so grouping into major categories and having an electronic copy is a must to hold the whole thing too. I indent things using a multi-level tabbed bullet point look to give a hierarchy. The deeply nested tasks I will sometimes redraw as a tree; those are equivalent structures, just shown differently. You can write such a list with a simple text editor using characters like "*" for the bullet points; you could save it as a word processing document. Right now I am using Zim: http://zim-wiki.org/manual/Plugins/Task_List.html It stores its data as simple text, but makes the list look nicer, and easier to edit in some ways.

    But most of this starts on paper still. I write down new things and approaching deadlines, then cross things off as I go. Eventually it becomes obvious a new sheet of paper is needed. At that point anything I don't see happening that day gets moved onto the electronic record. I normally review that at that time, whenever a new paper version is being assimilated, to see if any older items there should pop back onto the daily one.

    1. Greg, that's a great system! (As long as, unlike Est, you take bathroom breaks when appropriate.)

      I don't think Blogger ever told me about this comment, though. Are the "trees" you describe like the checklist post its I make?

  6. I store my lists electronically because I LOSE TINY PIECES OF PAPER. In the last week, I found a check from February tucked into a magazine. I still have no idea where my first 2011 W2 went. I try to avoid this by limiting the paper in my life.

    My work to-do list, which mostly works for me, after a lot of
    tinkering. I have a list labelled with the current month and year. So, August2012.txt, right now. It has the following groups:

    1) ACTIVE: The projects and tasks that I am currently involved with, as either code monkey or manager, roughly in priority order. The list includes the project name, a reference to the ticket or project number (if applicable), and a brief note on status ("Live Tuesday", "Awaiting feedback from Kevin"). I currently have 24 items on this list. Larger projects will often have their own note file, with my own personal notes that don't really need to go in the official project queue to annoy other people.

    2) WATCH: Projects that other people are working on that I may need to know about, or might need to opine on. "Other people" usually means fellow members of my team, but occasionally means a thing other coworkers are working on that may impact my projects. There are currently 12 items on this list.

    3) TWEAK: Completed projects that have not been finished to my
    satisfaction, usually b/c the code is messy. AKA Things To Work On
    When Bored. These projects get renamed so they don't get confused with the official project. I also put future pet projects here. It may need a new group name.

    4) ON HOLD: Suspended projects. For reference.

    5) INACTIVE: Projects that were canceled before completion that I
    suspect may come up in other project form. For reference.

    6) COMPLETED: Projects/tasks from the ACTIVE list only that were
    completed in this calendar month.

    Ideally, once a day I would sort through my inbox, moving new projects and tasks into this to-do, updating existing projects on the list, and filing the emails away. In reality, this happens about twice a week for not-my-projects.

    At the start of each month, I start a new file for the new month. I copy everything from the previous month's list, except for the
    completed tasks. I keep my old to-do lists. This means I can easily grep through my old to-do lists to find out when a thing happened. I store these lists in dropbox, so I can access them at work, at home, or, completely hypothetically, on my phone, if work calls me while I'm sitting in Bryant Park.

    Are you glad you asked?

    1. On reflection, this is less of a to-do list, and more of a "Don't let shit fall off your plate, dumbass," list.

      Yes, yes I do regularly insult myself on my to-do list.

    2. I am SO GLAD I asked!

      I find it fascinating that 4) and 5) are two different categories. It would never occur to me to separate these, but I immediately see why it makes sense to do so. Also, I agree that 3) needs an awesomer name than TWEAK. Perhaps FIDDLE? CARESS? GILD?

  7. A column that carries the load down to a foundation must have means to transfer the load without overstressing the foundation material.

    Fiberglass columns