To-do lists: a guide for control freaks and rule-breakers

My younger sister and I shared a room for sixteen years and it was fun most of the time. I can’t say we never quarrelled but as a young kid you usually enjoy having a playmate around at all times. The problems began when we hit our teens and suddenly discovered that our personalities differed. And I mean, a lot. Our desks became a perfect manifestation of those differences: mine was neat and tidy, except for an occasional pile of books or an abandoned tea mug on the side; hers was in a constant state of disarray, with books, toys, art supplies, CDs, empty dishes and scraps of paper, all piled up and pushed aside if she needed to clear up some workspace. That unruly mess bothered me so much that every now and then I’d clean it all up in my sisterly frustration. And then she’d ask:

Hey, where’s that super important list of random things?

She’d make little lists and draw very detailed calendars on those wrinkled scraps of paper, you see. And the seventeen-year-old me would throw them away, because why on earth would you write down important stuff on the back of an old receipt? My notes were neat and organised, hers were not. And it took me a while before I understood that those were just two different approaches to information management. Sure, she was still figuring out her preferred system, but even then it was clear that it would eventually be different from mine.

This whole story came back to me in a wave last week, while I was listening to a recent episode of Gretchen Rubin’s Happier podcast. The main takeaway from that part of the program was that the way you note things down and visualise your tasks should reflect your personality, lifestyle, and relieve stress surrounding day-to-day tasks. This is why finding a system that works best for you is so important.

Below you’ll find a few of my favourite methods. I tried all of them and they really work. They are all paper-centric, but I promise to cover digital tools in another post.

A distraction-free list

My typical daily to-do list is very short, as I try to avoid scheduling more than three high-impact tasks per day. This leaves room for any emerging issues that require urgent attention. It does not include any lingering five-minute tasks – I usually plan them the day before and deal with them first thing in the morning.

Obviously, many things can come up during the day, but I loathe distractions and interruptions, so if anything lands on my lap while I’m busy, I quickly determine whether it needs attending to immediately or not. Anything that can wait till later goes into the “Notes” section. If I have ten minutes between crucial tasks or at the end of the day, I deal with a couple of those.

Personal Kanban

This visual planning system was originally developed for Toyota to improve their manufacturing efficiency. The goal was to make the scheduling process transparent and easy to follow, show the team the amount of work in progress and the number of tasks still pending. The industrial version was then adapted for personal use (you can read more about it here), and is one of the greatest task management tools I’ve ever used.

The rules are simple:

  1. Break down the process (your goal / project / entire life) into small, manageable bits and write them down on sticky notes. Take your time and make sure that each task is well defined and specific (e.g. “Proofread the final version of chapter 3 of my thesis.”).
  2. Prepare your board: you can use a whiteboard, a wall, or a page in your notebook.
  3. Decide which tasks you need to focus on first. Place them in the “to-do” section.
  4. Pick three items that will become your Work In Progress and place them in the “doing” section. The number of WIP items should not exceed 3. Once you’re done with a task, you can start working on another item from your “to-do” list.
  5. Once dealt with, the item should be moved into the “done” section. It doesn’t have to stay there forever (Yes, you can trash this sticky note at some point. I mean, what’s done is done, right?), but there’s certain pleasure to be had from ticking things off your list in a very visual way.


Now, let’s talk about the layout for a second. Creators of the original method suggest three columns: “to-do” (also known as “backlog” or “options” ), “doing” and “done”. My preferred approach, however, is slightly different: I’m a big fan of the Freezer, a subsection of backlog that contains tasks that are currently outside of the main scope.

Allow me to use my own goals as an example. My current kanban is devoted entirely to my online coding courses and each sticky note represents one of the languages or tools that I want to explore. There are many languages and frameworks that I’d love to master one day, but right now I’m focusing on the fundamentals. I still want to include all those cool things in my kanban, though. The Freezer is a perfect solution for a situation like that: I can go back to those great ideas once I’ve got the time and the resources.

Kanban is my absolute favourite when it comes to planning complex projects and visualising my long-term goals. I occasionally suffer from Too Many Ideas syndrome,  and this technique is very efficient in reducing the “bad” kind of multitasking, as it only allows you to work on three things at a time. It’s very flexible as well: you can add your own columns and sections if you wish or colour code the whole thing.

Eisenhower matrix

I want to write a separate post about the Eisenhower Matrix, but I still think it’s worth mentioning here. This is not exactly a list, but a visual tool which might help you categorise and prioritise your tasks. It is based on a single principle: urgent and important is not the same thing. The matrix simplifies decision-making and defining your points of focus, allows you to to weigh each task against the value it adds to your life… and works beautifully with sticky notes. 

And now 3 options for all you beautiful rule-breaking moths out there: 

  • Done list: Whenever you feel bad about not being productive, ditch your typical to-dos and use a “done” list instead. It’s really difficult to feel unaccomplished after you looked at a list full of your achievements.
  • Could-do lists: If you ever feel overwhelmed by obligations and the word “should” sends shivers down your spine, it’s a sign you might want to make a “could-do” list. Thinking about the tasks ahead of you as opportunities instead of duties will certainly take the edge off your busy day. Sure, it’s just playing semantics, but motivation is really all about perspective.
  • “I will do one thing today” list: focusing on one task every day and getting it done can really boost your self-esteem and help you develop healthy, productive habits. I have serious problems forcing myself to be productive during weekends and holidays and this simple idea helps me immensely.

Whether you are a nine-to-fiver, an entrepreneur, a stay-at-home mum or a student, you probably need some sort of a system to manage your workload. I hope you’ll find some of my tips useful and I’d love to hear more about your favourite organisation and time management tips, so feel free to leave a comment below.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s