The ‘To Do’ Book Method

Writing a to do listFor years, Suw Charman-Anderson struggled with an unruly ‘to do’ list, trying all sorts of apps and websites and techniques to try to get it under control. None of them worked, until she stumbled on an innovation that would change everything about her ‘to do’ list. 

In what I am sure is a familiar story for many, my ‘to do’ lists started off as handwritten lists, often on scraps of paper that would be jammed into a notebook. Every item would be crossed off when it was done, and periodically a nearly-finished list would be amalgamated with the scraps of paper into the one new canonical list.

In 2001, when I got my first Palm Pilot, I migrated my ‘to do’ list to it. It felt like progress, but it didn’t make managing my work any easier. As I left the web design world and moved into consultancy, my ‘to do’ lists got more complicated as I juggled multiple projects running alongside each other. Then along came Omnifocus, which was hailed as a breakthrough in our ability to organise multiple complex projects. Each ‘to do’ item belonged to a project and had a deadline, status and notes. But after a while I realised that Omnifocus was where my ‘to do’ items went to die – I’d type them in and never look at them again. I read the first few chapters of Getting Things Done, but never got reading the whole book done. I tried Trello… and then Todoist, Wunderlist, Things, and many more that I’ve forgotten the name of, but every time the app would start to creak at the seams with ‘to do’ items, I’d forget to update them for a bit, and then I’d have a tedious task of sorting it all out. And every time I’d go back to scraps of paper and sticky notes.

Then I found out about disc-bound notebooks, where a T-shaped nick is made in the edge of the paper and it’s slipped onto a disk with the same T-shaped edge. The disc holds the paper in place as if it were in a spiral-bound notebook, but you can easily remove and replace individual pages. This may sound like the least interesting innovation you’ve ever heard of, but it revolutionised my ‘to do’ list.

Managing ‘to do’ lists for multiple projects

Ada Lovelace Day is a surprisingly complex affair, with multiple projects running in parallel and lots of ‘to do’ items that need to be tracked and completed. Having a single list would rapidly become unwieldy and confusing, so instead I have separate lists for each project, and these lists are collected in a single disc-bound book. And, using dividers which are also re/movable, each set of lists for each project sits in its own section of the book.

TUL disc-bound notebook

Right now, I have 14 sections, arranged in order of importance. Key projects, like Ada Lovelace Day Live, the Finding Ada Network, and Fundraising, are at the front of the book. Projects that I have had to put on hold are in the middle, and the very last section is for ideas I may never get around to. This means that nothing is ever forgotten until I decide it is no longer valuable to remember it. If I have a sudden thought about something I’d like to do one day, I jot it down and it goes into the “Future” section. But if I want to get myself up to date on what’s next for Ada Lovelace Day Live, I flip straight to those pages and there are my lists.

When a list is complete or needs rewriting, I can remove and discard the old page, and put a new one in its place. I never end up with a scrappy notebook full of half-crossed off lists. Everything is organised, tidy, and in its place.

A disc-bound system

I now have a whole set of disc-bound notebooks, with pages frequently being transferred from one to another.

We start with my day-to-day book that I used for making notes whilst I’m working or on a call. That one frequently has ‘to do’ items jotted down whilst I’m in the middle of other things or as part of meeting notes, so those get regularly transferred over to the To Do Book. But because the disc-bound system I used also comes with its own special hole punch, it also has a load of scrap paper in that I can doodle on when doodling is required!

I have a project book, so that I can keep notes together. Every call with my Advisory Council, for example, will result in notes that are transferred to the project book once I’ve gleaned everything I need to from them. The project book contains only live projects; completely projects will removed, clipped together, and stored. I also have a disc-bound diary, and a couple of special project books where I know I’ll be writing a lot more notes than normal.

Because pages can be removed and replaced ad infinitum, when I travel I can take just the pages I need, leaving all the rest behind.

The To Do Book Method

So, here’s how the To Do Book works in reality.

  • Monday morning: It’s time to review the ‘to do’ lists for my most important projects. I run through all the lists and pull out the most important and urgent items, writing a list for week on to a new sheet of paper.
  • Every morning: I look at the week’s list, and pick between three and five tasks for the day, and write them in my diary.
  • Every day: If a time-sensitive task comes up, that gets put immediately into the diary on the right date.
  • Every evening: Clean up the lists – anything that didn’t get done is transferred to the next day, and I add the next few tasks, though never more than five in total.
  • Friday evening: Clean up all the lists, transfer new tasks to the right project, and see how much of the week’s work I got done.

It’s a simple process, easy to manage and easy to adapt. So if you find yourself getting overwhelmed with complicated ‘to do’ lists and find that an app just doesn’t cut it, invest in a disc-bound notebook and see if this works for you too.

Posted in Skills & Training.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *