I'm Useless Without a To-Do List

December 12, 2017

This post was originally written for The Human in the Machine

As someone who has a lot going on, is often (unfortunately) absent-minded, and has 1000 ideas at a time rolling around in my head, productivity is something I need to actively focus on and keep myself accountable to in order to get anything done.

I’m useless without a to-do list, and that’s okay. Productivity takes practice.

For me, it’s all about systems; specifically systems of to-do lists.

It doesn’t matter where your system is, or how you maintain it, but as long as the system works for your schedule and is maintained in a medium you will look over and return to, it’s a solid choice. I’ve had two different types of goal/to-do lists (one digital, and more recently, a physical one), so it just depends on where you want to track your progress. I’ve found them both to be solid approaches.

An example of one of my todo lists
I've been keeping lists since high school. Here's one from a sememter at university — the only way I'm able to get everything done.

3 Years of Open Sourced Personal Goals

I wrote about my first attempt at keeping on track a little while ago. I Open Sourced my Personal Goals in a Github repo, and have been keeping track with that ever since. This system includes a few key components:

This system was great because:

My open sourced personal goals system lived where I lived: in my browser. And I extended this to by in my terminal too. Soon after beginning the system, I created as series of terminal aliases which helped me review my to-do list, check off items do week-in-review, and more, all in the terminal itself.

I made this system a habit of mine that I maintained for about 3 years.

I realized that the closer I followed this system (the more I checked in and the more on-top of my reviews I was) the more productive I was. Hands down. But I also saw myself moving away from this system, checking in a little bit less, and writing reviews days late as my life shifted a bit. So I wanted to revamp my organizational system and take it offline just to try something new.

I started bullet journaling along with maintaining the personal goals repo, and found that I really enjoyed my time offline spent organizing the thoughts in my mind onto a journal page. So now, I mostly focus on the bullet journal :)

Bullet Journaling

Bullet journaling references a specific style of note-taking created by Ryder Caroll. There’s a whole system invented by him that you can learn about here. My adopted system takes some cues from the original bullet journaling system, but is updated to my preferences.

For example, instead of bullets, I use circles and boxes. I use circles to represent events and boxes to represent tasks. When I accomplish something, I fill in the entire box. When it’s partially complete, I fill in half of the box.

It looks (kind of) like this:

September Spread 25 Days Project Progress

Journaling provides a blank page with a lot more freedom than a text document could, and I enjoy decorating it with color and symbols, physically laying out items, and correlating pages. But basically, I’ve converted my online system into a little notebook

I still do goal check-ins (I think this is really important) and I’ve also maintained week-long “sprints” of TODO lists, which I have found work best for me.

An example of one of my todo lists
Doing a check-in of my yearly goals.

So I want to go through one of those spreads with you: the one I find most useful — the weekly spread. I use separate journals for work and for my personal/outside-of-my-day-job projects, and spend time on them (it’s worth it and also relaxing) every Sunday night (for my personal to-dos) and an hour Monday mornings for my work to-do list.

Spending time figuring out what you need to accomplish is not time wasted! It’s critical time spent that will reduce wasting time in the future.

Weekly Spread

For me, I break up the weekly spread into th following sections:

Example Weekly


Akin to the “week in review” I would do for my open source personal goals, I do a migration for my bullet journal. I basically go through all of the tasks I didn’t get done and decide which ones I want to move over to the following week, put in the backlog, or discard, and use the following key to mark the space just to the left of the box/circle:

Then, I go through and write up next week’s list :).

It’s important to have a set date/time to review and update your system periodically (I use Sunday nights or Monday mornings for this). Consistency is really key here to make this something that actually makes you more productive. If you write a list once and never refer to it, then it’s not very useful!

TLDR: Play with different types of TODO list systems. See what works for you, and stick with it!

I hope you enjoyed this post. Let me know what you do for productivity below!