The Best To-Do List

Mitch JoelPosted by

How do you handle your To-Do list?

I’ve been stressing over my to-do list. How about you? It’s funny, I’m not stressed over the growth of it and the activities that I need to get done. I’m actually stressing over the actual/physical list. Let me explain. I used to carry around a hard cover Moleskine notebook that I loved dearly. It had everything in it from to-do lists to book ideas to client meeting notes to random thoughts gathered at a conference and so on. It got to a point, where I was carrying it around and hardly looking back to any of the older pages of notes that I had taken in the weeks and months that had past. Along with that, if I were asked for my notes on a client meeting, I found myself shuffling through the pages and my digital calendar to figure out where these thoughts might be. I was also an early adopter of Evernote. Once I got heavily vested in the digitization of my notes, I found myself having lists in multiple places. Along that journey, I started getting worried that Evernote could get hacked or my info could get lost (again, this is long before the company had become the juggernaut that they are today). A couple of times, Evernote froze/crashed on me and I started getting really worried about the stability of it as well. So, I wound up switching to the native notes application on the iPhone. At that point, I had notes in a physical notebook, stuff in Evernote and other stuff on the native application. At that point, I became interested in using my iPad for close to everything, and feel madly, deeply in love with writing notes on the iPad with a stylus and the Penultimate (now owned by Evernote) and NoteShelf applications. Yep… I was screwed. Now, I had stuff all over the place.

Getting organized.

At the end of last year, I recognized the error in my ways and the trouble I was experiencing. In short, I was spending a lot of time trying to get more efficient at using the tools that were simply supposed to make me more efficient. It was very meta. I was downloading apps, trying them out. Some were better on iPhone and some weren’t great at being integrated with the MacBook Air and my current email/calendar system, etc… I was reminded of this unholy mess of notes, ideas and content earlier in the day because Business Insider had a little news item titled, The Best To-Do List App For iOS Is Free For Today Only. Many people are very excited about the amazing to-do list app called, Clear. It’s typically, $4.99 but it’s free for the next little while (so go and grab it, if you want it). My initial reaction was, "awesome! Gotta grab me that!" And I did. It’s gorgeous. It’s easy to use. Tons of cool little usability tricks with swiping and pinching. It seems like a total cinch to use. Then, that sinking feeling came over me again. Am I starting over with another note, list, to-do app… again? Nope. Not me. I deleted it. Sorry Clear.

What has been working?

Perhaps you will view this as the most anti-technological way of getting organized. So be it. It has been working so well for me, that I’m almost a little embarrassed to admit it. Here is my system for staying organized. I hope it works as well for you as it has been for me:

  • Paper. I use a simple 8.5 x 11 piece of paper. I put my to-do list on it. Only the immediate/short-term things that need to get done. This sheet stays on top of all other notes. I also have one sheet dedicated to business development needs for Twist Image. That’s it. I keep it all in a manila folder. If the sheet is more than half marked off, I start a new sheet and copy the items not done over to a clean sheet. If I’m not around the folder and need to add an item, I email it to myself and add the item later in the day. If it’s a client meeting, it gets a new sheet of paper and once the notes are filled or no longer immediately pressing, those notes get put in a client-specific manila folder (historically, I have rarely had to go back and access these older notes). If I am doing an interview for a podcast, blog post, book, etc… I use another new sheet of paper and once the interview is done, I have an interview folder (again, I hardly ever need to go back once that content gets published). In short, I never have more than 3-5 sheets of paper to carry around.
  • Notebook. Moleskine. I. Can’t. Quit. You. I carry around a soft-cover Moleskine for all of my more creative thinking (ideas for clients, posts, quotes, podcasts, conference notes, book ideas, presentation ideas, etc…). Quite frankly, I could use the same one-page technique as above for this, but I just love the feeling of writing creatively in the Moleskine. Plus, it does feel like a separation of client work/business-related stuff to the deep thinking stuff.
  • Technology. I use a password protected resident note application for more sensitive things. If it’s something that really needs to be on a to-do list, I only use the technology to email myself a note about it. That’s it. Kinda lame, right?

It seems to work.

From my vantage point, having that physical paper open on my desk – and within constant view – seems to be the best/most functional way to ensure that stuff gets done (plus, that folder is so easy and light to travel with – be it from meeting to meeting or country to country). This simplification of the process also keeps everything very clean and organized in my mind. That being said, I am left wondering if I’m missing something by removing all of the technology, bells and whistles that seem to get some many people so excited? I’m reminded of Michael Hyatt and how passionate he is about Evernote, and everything it has done to simplify his life in terms of organization (check out his post: A Handy Index to All My Evernote Posts).

What’s your take? How do you stay on top of everything? Has technology helped or hindered you?

12 comments

  1. Oh, Mitch, I feel your pain! I have notebooks, various to-do apps and even random pieces of paper. In January I made a valiant attempt to streamline my to-do tools and processes. This is a work in progress. Good to know that a digital rock star like you deals with this as well. I think in this case paper is probably the way to go. Who knew? πŸ˜‰

  2. I’m going through this EXACT same exercise right now. For years, I’ve used a mini ringed notebook for my weekly to-do list. At the end of every day, I would write the next day’s list on a sticky note (now I use my whiteboard desk).
    I never have really grabbed hold to Evernote, but have really tried using it in recent months. It works okay. I do like that I can write on my whiteboard desk and snap pictures to save to Evernote instead of having endless scraps of paper everywhere.
    But, the challenge is still the to-do list. The notebook has mostly worked great, but I’m constantly rewriting, flipping pages and as my client list grows, my little notebook doesn’t cut it. Not to mention, the list isn’t great for managing my team. I’m trying Asana for that, but I still haven’t gotten the hang of it. And, it’s great for tracking projects and delegating, but I’m not loving it for me.
    Much like you mentioned, there’s something about writing things down and having a list right in front of you that seems so much easier and better than thumbing through an app. I’m still trying to find the perfect system for me. But, maybe it’s paper after all. πŸ™‚

  3. I’m in the same boat. I’ve downloaded and tried so many, including the iDoneThis Today email I get to track what I’ve accomplished. My whole life has gone digital, but there’s something incredibly powerful about writing things down.

  4. I so feel everyone’s pain. I have notes in multiple places as well. And paper is my enemy… because I rarely go through the old stuff I keep around. What I found works for me, seems old school but its Outlook. I put everything on my calendar or create a task for it with a reminder… its open on my work computer everyday and it feeds to my android devices. And I know how long I needs reminders for certain things so that is very helpful for me to get pinged with reminders. I too, like you Mitch, have the places for things I know I will go back and revisit periodically. I have separate mini notebooks on my office shelf that is easy for me to reference: technology notes, ideas, important client meeting notes (deemed significant enough to transfer from 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper originally created on). And I don’t just use it for work… I use it for EVERYTHING. My husband sends me meeting request for his personal stuff… I send him meeting requests for mine… and our three little misfits (who I think have more commitments and busier social calendars than my husband and I).
    I’ve tried other apps… and they all wain… but this system of paper and Outlook seems to be the thing that keeps me “organized”.

  5. I think this massive appetite for productivity apps can be counter-productive. People flit from app to app, testing every one and not becoming more productive or efficient in the process.
    I like Evernote for long-term stuff. Articles and notes I want to use in speeches, emails, blogs, etc. For short-term reminders I also find the Apple Notes app really simple and seamless. If it’s high priority I might email it to myself.
    But like you, the big daddy for me is paper. I have a weekly to-do list with several categories—personal, client, marketing, etc. And I also write down each day’s priorities in an old-fashioned DayRunner calendar.

  6. That comment got away from me before I was able to add this: I’ve found the best cure for “to-do list” overload and the difficulty of keeping track of things is to learn to say no and to manage my priorities so that I only commit to the important things that I can actually accomplish.

  7. I am using Evernote with IFTTT to get my Blog feeds (like this one) via RSS and then I can tag and store them effectively if I decide they are reference worthy. I also use IFFTTT to trigger other events to synchronize documents, notes and visuals (scanned notes), Google Docs/Drive with Evernote clips into appropriate categories.
    I also have an affinity for my moleskin sketchbook but for projects and creative idea spaces I use Curio which is fantastic for storing, organizing and brainstorming ideas in a visual way. Curio also syncs with Evernote so this combinations work great for me. Like Mitch my task list is still a sheet of paper.

  8. I use them all, too. I like writing lists by hand and getting to check them off in ink. I’m looking forward to seeing how we all integrate everything in our lives and maybe I’m dreaming, but balance social media presence with just being present.

  9. I am still a big Outlook user and I simply use the Calendar, which seems to work for me. Not Tasks, not some PIM, just a simple Calendar with reminders. I rely on the calendar for all appointments, so why not important tasks. Any specific task, where I need to block out a chunk of time, I put in my calendar, and I can add any thoughts/comments right in the Appointment notes section. When that time comes around, I am reminded of the task. I may take right to it or I may suggest a reminder at a later time, but I will NEVER forget about it completely this way. In some cases, I find myself getting these tasks done earlier, as I look ahead in my calendar and might decide to grab one of those To Dos and get it done sooner. For less important tasks, I usually just leave it in my Inbox, and will get to it when I spend some time going through and cleaning up my inbox.
    Certainly not perfect or eloquent, but it usually works.

  10. Same story for me ;-). But now i use omnifocus for my todo and that has done me well for a few years now. It is the one app that I know that can reproduce the GTD way of working.
    But what do you all then do with your web research notes. I have notes In Evernote, pocket, diigo, bookmarks ( In 4 different browsers etc)
    Does any one have a malice solution?

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  12. hi, to Do list is really works, my productivity increase around 10-15%. The notebook has mostly worked great, but I’m constantly rewriting, flipping pages and as my client list grows, my little notebook doesn’t cut it.

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