I don’t know about you, but I need help to keep track of my commitments, opportunities I might be interested in following up on, and ideas that are mere thoughts now, but might turn into actions later.  I simply can’t keep it all in my head.

Traditionally, all these things have lived in what we have come to affectionately refer to as the almighty “To Do List”, except that the list is much broader than that.  There are definitely things that you have or will commit to doing – activities to be transcribed to calendars which represent the commitment of time (and energy) to completing.  Other items in the “To Do List” are simply ideas, opportunities, explorations, and should be considered as such to limit the mental burden of the larger than life list. This is especially important for creative people.

“To Do Lists” ought to relate to the actual amount of time and energy we have available to us…not what we dream we might have.  I suggest thinking about “To Do Lists” into two parts for an effective time management planning approach, activities:

a) To Schedule – items that deserve a place in our calendar

b) To Consider – items that need more definition and prioritization before earning a place in our calendars

You may actually write all the items in one place, but be aware of what are real commitments versus those that aren’t.  Here is a look at my ACTIVITY LIST hierarchy using the Workflowy tool and right after – a few key components for an effective list tool.



1. Have only one place to check.

Key to a successful system is knowing where to find it.  Create your list(s) in one location.  If you need to refer to your list on the move,  choose a format that is portable – either paper, on your phone, computer, or even better,  in the cloud.


2. A flexible structure will help organize your thoughts and make the list easier to use.

For years I used paper, refining my system as I went along, to make it work better and better for me. At first, I would designate a page in my log book as a “to do list”, and just keep adding to it. I found myself re-writing lists from time to time as most things would get crossed off, but a few would remain and need transferring to a new page.  This was sometimes tedious, but it was fairly effective.

I struggled a bit with wanting to manage to do lists for different areas of life or work so I moved to using sticky notes to group like activities – one for blog updates for example, another for vacation planning.  I placed the notes on pages at the back of my journal making them easy to find. Once a project was complete, I could simply eliminate the sticky note. It helped to be able to think about commitments on a project basis, and find them easily instead of digging them out of a long list.

Now, with work and life integrating more and more, I like to have work and personal lists on one place I can go to at any time. Recently I have been using Workflowy – an online tool which lets you create sub-categories to your hearts content. Since I run two businesses, I am thrilled to be able to quickly access both my business lists and my personal list. Great thing is it’s a free tool for about 500 items, which I sincerely hope your to do list fits in.  Here is a link in case you’d like to try Workflowy. By using this link, you’ll get an incremental 250 items.


Anyone who knows me will understand my wish for Workflowy to add in colour, for faster recognition of categories.  Search is possible in Workflowy by tagging words by placing the # sign in front of terms you would like to search by.


 3. It must be easy to update.

If your to do list takes too long to access or to update then there is a strong chance it won’t be used. This is a major reason I know a lot of people choose to stick with pen and paper.

If you create an overly complex system to track to do’s you will also be less likely to use it. The list should serve as a memory jogger or menu from which to plan your time.

You may wish to note critical dates for required deliverables and any high priority or urgent items.  For this I created a category in Workflowy to capture key dates for things like passports, insurance, domain registry dates, association memberships and so on. There are things that I also note in my calendar but want to check on at a glance, for peace of mind.

Dry-erase boards are another great tool to help with lists for those who are office based. They are easy to update and help you maintain a highly visible reference for dates you just can’t afford to forget.


4. You will want to be able to tick things off.

I’m still looking for research to get at why this is, but overwhelmingly people say it simply feels good to have a sense of accomplishment. Some to do list apps have been given failing marks for not providing the ability to keep a record of prior tasks.

How do you manage your to do list? Got any tips you’d like to share? Please post them in the comments below.


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