As soon as I started working in my first full-time job out of college, I became addicted to to-do lists.
You already know that I have a thing for planners (if you’re new to the blog, it’s worth noting that I use both a Passion Planner and Powersheets on a daily basis), so I was thrilled with the prospect of graduating from the academic agenda I used in school to something a little different. If you’re wondering where I got this weird obsession with stationary and calendars, you can blame my mom. Growing up, I watched her fill the pages of all kinds of planners with colorful pens and neat handwriting, so it felt natural to me to do the same. I was meticulous with my agenda as early as middle school — although I did go through this weird phase where I covered every inch of each page with a highlighter mural that, in hindsight, was very messy — and I developed different systems with each year that passed. By the time I got my corporate job, I knew that a paper planner was necessary for me to stay focused and organized. I picked one out from Barnes & Noble, packed it in my new bag, and got on my first early morning commuter bus to New York City.
Within a few days, I realized that I would need to go a step further in order to keep up with my new workload. I started sticking Post-It notes to the pages of my planner, each one with a list of must-dos for that day, the following day, and the day after that. When I got tired of juggling all of those Post-Its (and when it became clear that I was responsible for using most of the sticky notes in our department’s supply closet), I streamlined my process by keeping daily to-do lists in the same notebook that I used for projects and meetings. I lived and died by those to-do lists.
When I first went out on my own as a freelancer in September 2016, there was honestly no need for a to-do list system. In those early days, I was still building up my workload, and since I wasn’t managing deadlines at that point, there wasn’t much to prioritize! I would make notes in my planner about what I wanted to accomplish, but it was much less specific than what I’d done before. And for more than a year, that worked!
At the end of 2017, I started to hit overwhelm. I’d taken on a bunch of new clients and projects in a short period of time and was forced to make some major adjustments to my schedule and routine. I struggled in that place for a long time, and while I still have my moments, I’ve been feeling a lot better lately. So, what’s helped? I brought back the to-do lists. And the Post-It notes. So many Post-It notes.
In that spirit, I thought I’d share a few specifics about how I manage my to-do lists in hopes that they’ll help you the way they helped me! I know it seems like a pretty straightforward subject, but I always find that it’s helpful to break things down into their smallest details. Plus, I just love talking about systems and productivity and all things related to my planners! Here we go:
The Do’s of To-Do Lists
- DO… be consistent. Once something becomes a habit, you don’t have to think about it anymore. I write my to-do list every night and stick it in the same place (the bottom-right corner of my planner page for that week).
- DO… make your to-do lists chronological. I add all of my deadlines and assignments to their respective days in my planner as I learn about them, but I’ve become so much more focused — and so much less overwhelmed — since I started creating a separate daily list of what I need to accomplish in order. I determine the order based on urgency, when I know I’ll be mentally freshest, and how different tasks will slot in around meetings.
- DO… add the easy stuff. I’m a big believer in setting yourself up for easy wins. Once you start checking things off your list, you’re going to crave checking more things off your list over the course of the day. Even if it feels silly, add something super simple to the early portion of your list.
- DO… write your to-do list the night before. I started doing this back in my corporate days, and I think it’s really important. It cuts out a lot of mental energy first thing in the morning when you can open up your to-do list and already know what your priorities are. In my experience, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and stressed at the end of a workday, but if I start listing out to-dos for the next day — especially anything that I didn’t get to that day — I can wrap things up without feeling too far behind.
- DO… include meetings and appointments. This is especially important if you’re writing out your tasks chronologically! It’s also an easy way to ensure that you’ll have something to check off.
- DO… include email maintenance as part of your list. I don’t know about you, but managing my inbox is easily one of the most — if not the most — stressful parts of my working life. It seems like there is no end to the messages that come in, and it can get pretty overwhelming sometimes. If I don’t plan out specific blocks of time for email as part of my to-do list, I tend to feel like I need to respond to every message as it comes in, and that’s just distracting. I usually keep track of follow-ups and outreach that I need to send in my planner, and that dedicated email time gives me a chance to go through all of those at once, too.
- DO… make your to-do list dynamic. I typically write a rough to-do list for the day as I’m finishing my work the day before, but I come back and take a second look at it right before bed. Taking some time away gives me a chance to gain fresh perspective on my priorities and have a more realistic sense of what I can accomplish the following day.
- DO… use your inbox to support your to-do list. If there are important messages that you need to respond to within a certain period of time, keep them in your inbox so they’ll stay top of mind as you figure out how to prioritize. I tag my emails to make it easier to see what needs to happen in my email and why. I talk more about my email systems here.
What kind of systems do you use to get things done in work and life? I’d love to hear more in the comments below!