Pictures of To-Do Lists That Work!

This week I thought I’d write a slightly different post than the usual ones focusing on one, new system. I thought it might be interesting to cut to the chase (years after people’s chase, in some cases), and survey individuals who have said, somewhere online, that they run long lasting, successful To Do Lists (thanks, Google!). What might these have in common? And what tricks can we draw to use in our own systems?

The criteria for inclusion I chose were:

(1) The people surveyed said that the system is effective (‘I couldn’t do without it’ is a good thing to read)

(2) They also say that they actually enjoy using their particular system (many of the posts people made were raves)

(3) Most importantly – all report happily using them for a long time (preferably years).

As people who are serious about productivity know, it’s easy to get excited about new apps and other productivity porn. As always, the best criteria is that it has survived the novelty period, and made it well into regular, real life usage.

I will highlight just five to get us started. As I’m building a collection of these, I’ll post more as part of an ongoing series of success stories.


1. The ‘Elegant Muji’ System

Jen Dziura writes about her simple, Muji ‘weekly calendar’ system, that she successfully uses as a time-based to-do list.

We have talked about time-based To Do Lists before. Some of the more original aspects of her particular version include:

  • Keeping a separate calendar (separate to her task list) for external appointments. Jen uses iCal – she says it helps keep them clearer in her mind if they are isolated in this way.
  • She uses larger or smaller text sizes to quickly communicate information about a task. Jen uses upsized text for projects that she knows will take longer than others, while easier, quicker tasks are written in a smaller font – as you can get more of them done.
  • She keeps all this going with just pen and paper. This is mainly because it helps her lock out the internet. She makes the elegant point that – to regain focus – all you need to do is close your laptop lid.

On the bottom left you can see a space for an “On Deck” list – current big projects she works on, when there is time. A “Deadlines” list is right above that.

Appointments, here, are notable by their absence: if there is an appointment on the calendar, that day is specifically not filled so much with tasks. Absence can be a marker of its own.

Muji does not sell these blank calendar online, but you can make your own, of course – just rule one up, or print one of the many free online versions. I would add that you should use paper slightly larger than standard printer paper (to get enough space for a busy week).

You can read more about her system here.


2. The ‘Listen to Your Crazy Successful Brother’ System

Melissa Easton‘s brother is responsible for one of the most beautiful to-do lists I have seen (and I have looked at a lot!). One of the downsides of using pen and paper is that they will get messy, real fast. Most successful paper to do lists, then, use the art of crossing things off as a positive, rather than a negative, design element. Melissa’s brother (and his partner) take this to a whole new level:

The couple run a busy travel company, and have both happily used something similar for over eight years. There are so many beautiful elements in this system. Stay tuned for a dedicated article analyzing it in detail, and looking at perhaps why it is so long-lasting. I’ll also take a look at how you can integrate some of its lessons into varied to-do systems, too


3. The Happy Scribbler II

Debi Van Zyl, a freelance designer in LA, also talks about her version of ‘positively scribbled’ to-do lists:

“This is a photo of my To-Do list. I got a lot of work done this week! I get such joy out of scratching out completed tasks. And when I use a sharpie it’s even more satisfying. Done done done. Done!”

Crossing off to-do elements releases endorphins, so it’s a smart move to use these to power your productivity. Also, spending money on tools you will enjoy every day – here, an elegant metal and perspex clipboard – is always a good idea. Anything you can do to stay in love with your system will be money well spent.


4. The ‘Disco Filofax’ Solution

The most striking similarities about long term, successful to-do lists is that the majority of them use quite ‘ordinary’ tools – diaries, clipboards, or blank lined books. Fuss is kept to a minimum, and the emphasis is on actual outcomes.

writes about her filofax to do list, above: “I keep my to-do lists in my filofax. As it’s summer, I do not have as many assignments to write on the week (so I can fit them) on two pages inserts. To keep them useful, I’ve been writing my to-do lists for the day on the pages. It has worked out well. Even “Do Nothing” is on the to-do list.”

My mother uses a simple desk diary for a to-do list, and it has similarly worked for her for many years. The lesson here is to not over think it.


5. ‘Three Line’ Superstar

Jackie Regales from has a deceptively simple looking, yet highly functional to do list. If we break it down it employs some quite sophisticated technology.

  • It is time based (“Before School Starts”), which means that it is not a ‘forever’ list (which often can become full of hundreds of daunting things that won’t – and shouldn’t – be done).
  • The other advantage of having a “medium” (eg. a month or two) deadline, like this, is that your list doesn’t need to get continually rewritten, become too messy, or need to be continually tidied up. Only at the end of the set period do you throw it away to start on a new one.
  • This list is divided into broad subjects: “Work”, “Family”, and “House”. We intuitively know which of the areas of our own lives currently need our attention the most. Sub-divisions like these let us jump to the relevant areas quickly, and easily. Uncategorized lists are often a big visual and mental mess.
  • Jackie uses a simple pad paper format, which is still the most easily purchasable and portable method. As mentioned above, paper avoids distractions like nothing else.
  • The “stars per item” are a nice, efficient touch.
  • The “three columns to a page” format allows for brief (often only three word) items – no long, meandering descriptions to wade thought.

You could even go as far as to say that Jackie’s list is a great mix of Darwinian evolution and problem solving, resulting in a long term, effective system.

It is perhaps interesting to to note – all five of these systems are paper based, which happens to be the form I use. Paper can be a tinkerer’s delight. If you are looking for more recommended paper-based to-do systems, why not look through our list?

You can see more to-do systems that have worked for many years in this reddit thread.

If you have a to-do system that has worked well for you for years, or find one posted about online or in real life, please send it in to us. Or leave a description or link in the comments. 

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