To-do lists that actually work

I’m not actually much of a fan of to do lists. They aren’t actually much use, in my view, at getting things done. Like planning your writing with bullet points, to do lists often look more like wish lists by leaving the important stuff out, reducing hours or months of work into one line, without helping you to turn your list into reality… leaving you feeling like a failure at the end of the day, at the end of the month, at the end of the year.

  • Finish lit review
  • Write chapter
  • Empty inbox
  • Update website

Yeah, right.

However, it’s not always possible to keep everything you need to do in your head, so here are three strategies that have worked for me, one based on place, one based on time, and one based on outlines. 


1. The post-it note cascade

2012-02-16 14.41.02

When I was working a lot on web projects, I spent a lot of my work time at my desk, trying to make masses of tiny changes: tagging, linking, and laying out multiple pages across each site. Changing one thing could mean a cascade of tasks as you followed every link, cross-reference and repetition across the site.

None of my tasks were real, either. Everything happened on a screen, in 2D. I couldn’t touch it, and no-one else could see it. I just sat at my desk and clicked on things and typed stuff. For weeks on end. Sound familiar?

So, I started to use post-it notes. Each post-it note could either be a topic note (like Hyperlinks, or Research) or a task note (like Check links to AIRport, or Read Wong 2014 article). A topic note could sit on my desk for months, on top of a stack of task notes. Task notes should describe a job that will take 30 minutes or less to complete.

When you have finished the task, you peel it off your desk and throw it into the recycling. This is enormously therapeutic. Not only does your progress become visible and tangible (both to you and your colleagues), but particularly unpleasant tasks can be crumpled up and tossed, torn up, or even burned, once complete.

Of course, as you are completing your tasks, you often find new ones to do. That’s alright, you can add new task post-it notes as you go.

Because this is a strategy that depends on place, space, making something physical, you need to be doing most of your work at a particular desk. In my current job, I’m in meetings or teaching or working elsewhere on my laptop too often, but I still use it from time to time for specific projects.

2. The calendar trick

Busy people find that the issue they face when trying to get things done isn’t knowing what needs doing, it’s finding the time to do it. That’s why putting time in your calendar for it is so useful.

Most of my colleagues have blocked out spaces for meetings, trips to the dentist, days of leave (I know, we share calendars). But the rest of the week is just empty space. This is ironic-their calendar looks free, but that’s actually the time they are really doing their jobs and getting stuff done. I know that if I don’t protect the time, someone will book it, so I block everything in, and if it looks free then it really is free time. I also block in the maximum a task will take, so I am likely to end up with more time in the day than I expected, not less.

Mostly, that means creating repeating events. (See this series by Sarah Wendell on how to take this to the next level.) I block in an hour for lunch every day, so that even if my meeting runs over and I’m interrupted, I should still get some break. I block out in my times when students can book meetings with me via Calendly on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I block out my regular meeting with my boss. I block in self-care tasks like going to the gym, and going to the Farmer’s Market on campus. What does that tell me?

Calendar screen shot

There is zero way I’m ever going to get anything done on Wednesdays. Wednesdays are for meetings.

That means that I can’t have meetings on Thursdays, which I block out for tasks instead: like ‘Answer email’ and ‘write report on public lecture’. I send out two or three email newsletters a week, and I block in time to do those too. I add things to my calendar that will take 10 minutes, because I know a lot of the time, I’m only going to have 3 or 4 minutes at my desk. (Or I’ll look at the calendar, think “I’ve got plenty of time” and get nothing done.)

This technique also helps me to say ‘no’ to new tasks that I don’t have time to do, or at least to say ‘not now’. You’d be amazed how many jobs disappear when you answer, ‘Delighted to help out, I can fit you in at 11.30 next Thursday.’

3. Online lists: Brain dumps, collaboration tools, and repositories

I’m currently a fan of Workflowy, but I know people who swear by Trello and OmniFocus. For a long time, I did things in plain text TextEdit. You could use index cards, and sometimes I use notebooks. So this section less about the actual technique of making the to-do list, and more about the  technique of thinking about the to-do list. 

Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 6.46.02 PM.png

Huh? you might rightly say. What do you mean?

Okay, so what actually is the point of a to-do list? Is it a way to plan what you need to do (like the calendar trick), or a way to mark your progress through a lot of tasks (like the post-it note cascade)? Sometimes (as here) the point of a to-do list is to get it out of your head. 

When you have a lot of things to do, they are taking up mental processing space and energy. This alone can be stressful–your mind keeps whirring along, waking you up in the night, putting your tasks in your dreams. Writing them down can get them out of your brain and onto paper. 

Right now, I’m loving WorkFlowy because it allows me to not only get the whole task onto the page, but allows me to store everything about it in the same place. I have the full text of standard emails I send stored in the notes section of tasks. I have the various Excel formulae I’ll need once or twice a year.  I don’t have to remember any of it, because it’s all there. (Yes, that section is called Useful doodaddery, I highly recommend you have a similar section, though you might want to call it Tool Box or How To).

Sometimes you need to delegate tasks, getting them out of your head, off your desk and out of your calendar. Online to-do apps are great for delegation and team work. I have shared this list with my administrator, marking tasks for her to do with @alice. Trello lets you assign tasks and to see how they are progressing, as people drag the task to the Doing or Done! columns.

Whatever you are achieving with this kind of to-do list, it’s not about planning the tasks, but about storing them somewhere else so you can sleep, or problem solve, or focus on other things. Writing stuff down is sort of magic for that.


So there were three to-do list strategies that actually work, for three different reasons.

I’d sign off here, my work being done, but I felt this post would be incomplete without the list that changed my life. So, one bonus strategy:

4. The Done List

When I was doing my PhD, I found it really dispiriting when nothing ever got finished. Every day I sat down at my desk, read, thought, wrote, and yet, two years in, I wasn’t anywhere near finished. I had whole chapters that were finished, except for the final revisions I’d need when I put it all together. I had piles of books I’d finished reading, except for when I was going to need to go back and check them one last time. My PhD was going to take 3 whole years.

My partner would come home after work and ask how my day had gone. Mostly I’d just talk about how much left there was left to do, so all he could say was “Never mind, you’ll get there in the end”.

Then I discovered the Done List  (see here for a good explanation, I can’t believe I’ve only blogged about this once before, and then tangetially–sorry!). Instead of always looking at what was left to do, I started to list what I had actually done in the day. Suddenly, I was able to tell my partner “I read three articles and wrote 400 words”. “That’s amazing!” he would reply, “Let’s celebrate.”

I also started to get a sense of what could be done in a day, not just what I wanted to get done, or what I thought other people thought I should be doing.  So I started to plan in a more realistic way. (I also started to realise that I was, in fact, pretty productive, when I finally started to turn the conversations with my fellow students around from “what should I be doing in a day?” to “what do you actually get done in a day?” Try it. It’s illuminating.)

In the end, this is what to-do lists should be about. Helping you get stuff done, and helping you feel calmer and more in control about the process. This post is way way too long already, but I know that other people have other techniques that work for them. Do share your to-do list life-hacks in the comments or via Twitter. I love hearing your stories!



Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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