Marking up your to-do lists for increased productivity

“Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable.” — Francis Bacon, Sr.

It’s no secret that writing things down is beneficial in several ways. A mind that’s not trying to remember tasks is better prepared for problem solving and focusing on the present. Good ideas are fleeting and need to be captured, irrespective of when they happen. It’s important to have written goals and lists that can remind you of what you need to do. There’s more, of course, but I’m going to address that last point.

I’ve been keeping a to-do list in my pocket for years. For most of that time, it was a simple list of things I needed to do. That’s great, but I found problems. Notably, I’d feel guilty about tasks I couldn’t complete because of my circumstance.

For example, I can’t make progress on “get pants hemmed at the tailor” while I’m stuck at my desk. I can’t pay the registration fee for the kids for soccer while I’m standing in line at the DMV. Likewise, I often don’t have the energy or time available for more demanding tasks when I’m reviewing my list at the end of the day.

Looking at items I couldn’t take acton on was stressful. It was time to re-think the simple to-do list. The following are several ways to sort, organize and prioritize the items on your to-do list for easy reference and guilt-free productivity on the go:

Sorting by context

Step one was to sort by context. I know a lot of people dislike this idea, but hear me out on this. At the top of my to-do list, I’ll put a heading like “@phone.” Beneath it I list tasks that require a phone call. Next, I’ll put “@errands” and “@computer”. Appropriate tasks are listed under each one. That way, when I’m at my desk with some free time, I can look at “@phone” or “@computer” and hammer out those tasks. I don’t even see items listed under “@errands”, so I don’t feel guilty about not making progress on them. (David Allen refers to these location-based lists often in his writing.)

Time and Energy Available

Of course, context isn’t the only way to decide what you can work on at any give time. It’s smart to also consider your time available and energy available. When your fresh first thing in the morning, tackle those jobs that require much physical and/or mental energy. Reserve something less taxing, like filing receipts, for the end of the day or after lunch when you might have a dip in focus. Likewise, I don’t always have the time to lay out the new flower bed. But a free Saturday afternoon lets me do just that.

Word Notebooks

A few weeks ago, I came across Word Notebooks. My notebook addiction is legendary, so I could not resist buying a pair. They’re similar in size and shape to the Field Notes brand notebooks that I love so much, but offer something different.

Each paperback notebook has a “use guide” that’s printed on the inside cover and in the margin of every page. You’ll find a small circle around an even smaller circle. The idea is to highlight the importance and completion state of each item with these circles. Here’s how it works.

  • Color in the inner circle to identify an item as a bullet point
  • Highlight the outer circle to identify something as important
  • Put a single line trough both circles for items that are in progress
  • Draw an “X” over items that are complete

It’s tidy and offers an at-a-glance overview of the status of your to-do list. Unlike the context system that I use or the energy-available strategy, the Word notebooks visually arrange action items by priority and state of completion. Pretty nice! Of course, you don’t have to buy a special notebook with pre-printed circles. You could roll your own solution.

The Dash/Plus System

My Internet buddy, author and all-around nice guy Patrick Rhone described a system that he devised for keeping careful track of the items on his to-do list. His system uses plusses, arrows, and geometric shapes to denote the status of an action item. It’s clear, simple, and doesn’t require a special notebook.

Now I’ll turn it over to you. Do you keep a plain list or have you adopted a system like these? Let me know in the comments.

18 Comments for “Marking up your to-do lists for increased productivity”

  1. posted by Jude on

    I’m mostly retired. I’ve allotted each my tasks to specific days of the week. At the beginning of the month, I figure out how much time I want to spend on each task during the month. For example, I spend 15 minutes each Monday on bills/budget. I set up a sheet in my notebook for bills/budget with the specific dates during the month that I’ll be working on that. I’m investing extra time at the moment in specific types of exercise (in preparation for a trip) as well as spring cleaning in the yard. Each project gets a sheet in the notebook, even though some of them won’t be started until June or later. When I sit down the night before to plan the next day, I can easily see what I need to work on. If I’m feeling totally unmotivated, I take all the tasks, stick them in’s list randomizer, and go from there. In general, I get a heck of a lot accomplished each day.

  2. posted by Viv on

    I keep a plain list that I print from my Outlook task list (because I like to have the paper list on my desk) but I just read through the simplicity of Patrick Rhone’s method and really like it.

  3. posted by Kate on

    I like the Word Notebooks system for tracking progress on multi-step tasks and might try adapting it for my own lists which I currently write out on sheets from the long, skinny Rhodia quad pads because they double as a page marker in my planner. Being able to check off tasks is hugely motivating 🙂

  4. posted by Emily on

    I use the Reminders app on my iPhone. I have separate lists for different types of to-do lists. For example, I have one for Work, shopping, bills, and just general things to do. I also use the Repeat option for things I have to do weekly or monthly at work.

  5. posted by [email protected] on

    The most I do is put an asterisk by the must-do’s. Those notebooks look very interesting, though. Might have to check those out.

  6. posted by Nathan Beach on

    I’m addicted to David Allen’s GTD system. Wunderlist (free app for iOS, Android, and desktops) has everything in it you need. Plus it’s a very simple and clean app. I create context-based “Next Action” lists as mentioned in this article, then have projects, waiting for, and an errands lists… plus a “talking points” list (itemizing things I need to talk with people about next time I see them). You have to do context/location based lists or everything you can’t do in your current context will drive you crazy…

  7. posted by Ambre on

    I am using the kanban system. You have three columns backlog/ready/doing/done, you write your tasks on sticky papers, one paper per task, with different paper colors to based on the category of the task. And them you move your papers in the workflow with one simple rule, there can only be two tasks in the “doing” column.
    Thats a 3D TODO list with big advantage, it’s easy to reorganize and change priority without having to rewrite everything. And it removes the guilt out of todo list, your no longer desperate to have a finished TODO list with everything done (which never happens), you know there will always be stuff in your backlog, you take tasks when you are ready, and you know that anyway, you can only manage two per evening so do not focus on the others, there are for tomorrow.

  8. posted by Emily Guy Birken on

    I work from home as a freelance writer/blogger, and I’ve found that I need to really compartmentalize my to do list each day in order to feel productive and make sure I don’t overdo in one area of my life and neglect other areas. I used to create my list on paper every day, but I found I’d still skip all the housekeeping type stuff, so I created a Daily Docket based on Simple Mom’s idea, printed it out, and laminated it back-to-back. My housekeeping work is already written out, so I have no excuse to neglect it, and I have places to cover the other things I need to do:

  9. posted by Angel G on

    I just downloaded the Astrid App for my Android phone. The App is completely free and allows you to set up specific To-Do lists for things to do at home, at work, groceries etc., You can also set you the app to be shared with specific users, so my husband and I both share in the home and groceries list, meaning we can both see what needs to be done, or need to be purchased and cross things off the list as they’re completed. We’d tried a lot of other methods from a chalk board list, to other phone apps and a Google doc, but so far this is the best one I’ve used.

  10. posted by Ella on

    My system of marks is somewhat similar to Word Notebook. I use a square checkbox for important to-do’s, and a circle for “soft” to-do’s (things that I want to do but aren’t crucial). For both, I mark an X when completed, or one diagonal line for to-do’s in progress.

    I draw up my list of daily to-do’s on a lined post-it sheet (with space for 15 line items). I write this list the night before: 5 lines of square important to-do’s, 5 lines of round soft to-do’s, and 5 lines blank for other things that unexpectedly come up during the day.

    It’s a simple and flexible system, and I can see my progress at a glance without ever feeling overwhelmed.

  11. posted by Bob on

    I use a subset of the dash/plus system (NB: it’s given me some ideas for more functionality), but I’d like to add that I only use the right hand sheet for ToDo’s and the left sheet for misc quick notes. I start my day on a fresh sheet, list off the stuff that I need to get done that day and go back and pull relevant stuff forward from previous days with items outstanding. I also cut off the corners of sheets to mark places. The bottom right corner is always cut off to the current day’s sheet and the upper right corner gets cut off when all the items on that page are either done or pulled forward. This makes it easy to go back to spot outstanding items.

  12. posted by Steve on

    I really enjoyed your post. I have been using David Allen’s Getting Things Done System (GTD)for years. The idea of sorting to-do items by context is a very important point. If we want to maintain “a mind like water” we shouldn’t be thinking about things that we can’t act on now. I can’t pick up milk while I am sitting at my desk, but I can pay bills online if I have some downtime. That is why context is so important. Thanks again for a great post.

  13. posted by WilliamB on

    I *like* the dash system. It’s similar to something I already use, but far more elegant. Best tip yet from this site.

    I always have to-do lists floating around (this is less organized than it might be it meets the most important criterion: it works for me). If the list is long I’ll break it up as described above: things I can do before work, things I can do at lunch, errands, etc. It helps a little to keep me on track and a lot for not getting mentally hung up on items I can’t address right then.

  14. posted by Jen on

    I’ve used an adaptation of the dash-plus system for years. This post has given me some new ideas of ways to track what’s still open, what becomes a data point and other such ideas.

    Thanks for the informative post!

  15. posted by Pete R. on

    These are some great approaches. I am also a notebook’s nerd as well so it is intriguing to buy that Word notebook. 😀 The bullet points seems easy and I might even think about a way to integrate a similar concept on to my own Bucket List app ( ).

    Thanks for writing this up.

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  17. posted by Alexandre N. on

    I make extensive use of org-mode (, which is an extension for the emacs editor.
    It could be configured to really match your worflow and habits… I really love it.

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