5 To-Do List Management Tools
Amanda Ruehlen, Former Project Management Director
I’ll confess, I’m no master at the perfect system to manage work-related to-do lists. My usual pattern goes something like this: I discover a new to-do tracking method (whether that’s a new app or just something different to my workflow), I use this new system religiously, I burn out and abandon this system entirely about two weeks later, and I finally revert back to using several different things to keep up with to-dos.
As a project manager, to-do wrangling is crucial in staying afloat. I’m most stressed not when my workload picks up, but when I don’t have a good grasp on what exactly needs to get done. There are so many different tools to organize to-dos, whether that’s by project, urgency, importance, timeline, people involved, etc., that I’ve had a hard time sticking to one tool that works for everything. Recently I’ve decided that rather than striving to use one all-encompassing tool, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to embrace a few of the different things I’ve tried out and use them all. None of these are earth-shattering tools (and I use the word “tools” loosely), but finding the right combination between these five has been key in keeping me productive and checking to-dos off my list.
My master list and weekly planner
The simplicity of this tool is my favorite part. You can load in your to-dos for different days of the week or put them in the “SomeDay” bucket. Cross off to-dos when you finish them, reorder them, or move them to a day in the future if you know you won’t get to it immediately. If you don’t cross off a to-do one day, it automatically bumps it to the next day. The weekly view makes your list seem more manageable when you can go ahead and assign your tasks to different days of the week. My TeuxDeux list is the closest thing I have to a master list and a weekly planner, and it gets pretty granular - everything goes on here, regardless of urgency, project, importance, etc. TeuxDeux doesn’t have any sort of notification system, but to me that’s another perk. I don’t need a notification for everything on my list, and I can use a notification system for a smaller set of items that actually require notification (more on that if you keep reading).
2. Sticky Notes
My first line of defense: write down first, triage later
I’m talking about actual paper sticky notes, usually found sprinkled all across my desk and the sides of my monitor. Sticky notes are usually my go to when a to-do first hits me. No matter what, I go ahead and write it on a sticky note - sometimes that’s during an impromptu phone call, or when a random thought about something that I need to do pops into my head. If I’m in a meeting without my laptop, I usually put a few sticky notes on the notepad I’m using to take notes so I can separate out any action items that come up, then I stick it to my desk when I return from my meeting. At the end of the day, I aim to clean up my sticky note graveyard by either checking things off or transferring them to my TeuxDeux list. Then I throw that sticky note away, and start fresh the next day.
To-dos that come up when I’m armed with my laptop instead of paper
I use Notational Velocity when I’m on a phone call or in a meeting where it’s appropriate to have my computer open to take notes. My Notational Velocity notes can get unwieldy, but that’s all right. The ability to search so easily within Notational Velocity means I don’t have to keep it super organized, because I know I can find something via search if needed. I make the title of the note something descriptive about the meeting, then start typing away as I take notes. Any action items within the notes get an asterisk so it will stand out. Once I’m out of the meeting, I transfer the actions to my TeuxDeux list, just like my sticky note approach.
4. Google Calendar
I often put to-dos on my Google Calendar for tasks that are likely already on my TeuxDeux list, but they’re time sensitive ones that I must do on a certain day. Rather than using the “tasks” feature on Google Calendar, I prefer to make these an event. Any event that functions as a reminder I make red so it stands out from the meetings on my calendar. Depending on the nature of the task, sometimes I set up reminders for a week before, a few days before, or a few hours before it's due.
5. Email Inbox
Many people use their inbox as a constant reminder of things that require action before they can archive or file an email. That approach overwhelms me, but I do like the in-your-face reminder and how it usually motivates me to get it done so I can have a cleaner inbox. If you have a lot of to-dos, this can easily make your inbox a mess. To cut down on that, I use different colors of starred messages in Gmail to denote different threads that are sitting in my inbox: green means it’s an action I can do right away, red means something or someone is holding me up before I can do it, and yellow means I need to keep my eye on it, and that I may end up needing take action on my end (or perhaps I’m just still thinking about how I want to respond).
Even if you haven’t found a system that works, the worst habit of all is the painful mental backlog of things that you haven’t documented. Just write them down somewhere, anywhere. Getting to-dos out of your head and somewhere else will go a long way for undue stress. If you can’t find a good system, then try out a few different tools and see how they can complement each other. You may surprise yourself with how naturally a nice system will evolve.
How do you keep up with a to-do list? If there is all-in-one solution you’ve found, I’d love to hear about it.