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How to do to-do

After reading the LifeHacker article on purging to-do lists a few days ago, I realised I had something to contribute. This is unusual for me - normally I just read the LifeHacker and 43Folders feeds envying other people's organisation and productivity.

My own to-do list has never needed drastic purging. Okay, there have been one or two occasions when I lost my list and survived knowing I missed a few tasks, but I've never considered doing it on purpose.

I always used to think this kind of stuff was just advanced procrastination, but not any more.

Below, I describe the simple system I use. It's grown organically from a simple memory aid, and all the little modifications have been added when I realised they were necessary. Hopefully others might find it useful.


A squared notebook, a pen, a pencil and a ruler. I love paper. I don't keep digital to-do lists because they can't be done quickly away from my desk. I spend a long time each day on a train, too, and I'd much rather pull a paper notebook out than try and work with a laptop in cramped conditions.

The notebook I use is a squared cahier, but any similar sized notebook will do. Squared makes it easy to make tick-boxes which, as you will see, are important.

Setting up

My to-do list spreads across two pages, so I skip page one and move to the first two-page spread. That spare page could be used for your name and number, in case you lose it. Mine has scribble on it.

The lines are drawn to give a header to contain the start date of the current pair of pages, a wide central column to contain the items, a column for dates items are added (far left), a column for codes (more on that shortly), a column on the right of the page for a tick-box per item and a column furthest right for the completion date. The two pages are identical. The image below explains better than my description.

Here's a drawing that might be clearer:

It sounds like a lot of effort, but I find I only need to do this once every two to three days.

Using it

The wide central column is for tasks. I won't try giving advice on writing good to-do items - there's lots of that about.

When a task is added, I put the date it was added on the far left and draw a tick-box in the narrow column on the right.

A completed task gets a tick and the completion date in the far right column. Very satisfying.

Codes on the left

The narrow column on the left lets me put in a code to describe the kind of activity needed to complete task. Most tasks don't have one. The ones I use are:

These work for me. Other people probably have different kinds of tasks, so I wouldn't recommend anyone trying to follow my codes.

Many people advocate having multiple to-do lists. The GTD people call them "contexts". I've never liked the idea of multiple lists, even if they are digital, because it's just more things to maintain. The codes I use, however, mean that I can still batch process tasks of similar type. Send all e-mails, for example.

Filling up: built-in cringe-busting and purging

The real trick with this kind of to-do list is what happens when you fill both pages.

When this does happen, I move to the next pair of pages. There are always tasks left over, and these get copied to the top of the new list.

On the page from which the tasks are copied, instead of ticking the box, I put an arrow coming out of it to show it's carried forward.

On the new page, a chevron next to the tick-box shows that it's carried over from the previous page. If it's carried over again, it gets another chevron. If it's carried forward again, it gets yet another chevron.

This simple notation is what stops me from needing to purge the list in the drastic way suggested by the LifeHacker article. I can always see which tasks are becoming stale. That forces me to think about why. Usually it's one of the following:

The chevrons really do help identifying those tasks that need a shove one way or another. It's my way of doing cringe-busting, but doesn't require scrapping your list and creating another.

This modification was inspired by the dash/plus system created by Patrick Rhone.

Symbols on the right

The arrows and chevrons are most useful, but I also have other symbols that allow me to see what's happened to tasks.

A deferred task has a "D" put in the box. It's really important to actually have a system to ensure that it does return at some point.

A task that is complete on my part, but requires a response or action by someone else gets an item put into my waiting-on list (thin paper glued in the front of my book like library stamp sheets) and a "W" in the box:

For me it's important to be able to follow-up on tasks like this, and having a record that a task moved from requiring action to waiting for something really has helped. It stops me falling into the trap of thinking something can be forgotten because my part is done.

Those tasks that get dumped get a cross like this:

And those that get divided up get a cross like this:

It kinda looks like the big square gets divided into smaller ones, which suits, I think.


And that's it. I sometimes use a highlighter if a task is super important or time-critical, or I know I have very little free time and want to make sure a certain task is done, but that's really more a symptom of my addiction highlighting things than part of the to-do list.

It's easy to maintain, highlights stale items, implements a sort-of GTD-style context system and incorporates a record of how tasks are dealt with.