Tooling Around: How do you get your to-dos done?

Before I launched Never a Plain Jane Designs I had a series of corporate jobs: Bookkeeper, Business Assistant, Legal Assistant… I also spent some time with the title “College Student.”  All of these have something in common: a job description.

Ahhhh, life with a job description was so easy.  Perhaps not challenging or fun, but easy.

All my tasks were laid out before me and ready to be tackled on a daily basis. All my deadlines were crystal clear. Work was as easy to do as it was to avoid.

And then I decided to work for myself. When I fill out forms I can proudly put my job title as “Owner” or “Designer” or “Self Employed.” Is it fun? Yes. Is it challenging? Yes, yes!  Easy?  A resounding no. I don’t have a clue what I am supposed to do. My deadlines are fuzzy, steps for completing projects are made up as I go, and there is no manual.  I think we all know what happens when we aren’t sure what to do: bury ourselves in Pinterest, of course.

But that, obviously, is bad for business. So to make it a little easier to do my job I have turned to lists. When it comes to “to-do,” there’s an app for that. TeuxDuex (get it? “to do”), BaseCamp, AtTask, Evernote, and about a million others (give or take a thousand).

I’ll get to a few of those eventually, but first I chose to to try an old school method of task-tracking: the whiteboard. Actually, I’ve been using a combination of whiteboard and Google Calendar because I just don’t have time to make and fill in a giant calendar on a regular basis. (I’m looking at you Gwyn Michael!)  Although, I would not cry if someone got me one of these:

Click on image to follow link

So, here’s the how-to of my to-do.  My Google Calendar holds due dates, holidays, appointments, etc.  Then I assign each major task a large chunk of my work day.  The task list holds ever more ideas for garters.

On Sunday evening I take a look at Monday and write a to-do list on the whiteboard. It looks like this:

Isn't the Pottery Barn number so much prettier? I think I could get more done if I had it instead.

In theory all of those items get crossed off the same day they are put on. At the end of the day I look at Tuesday and make a new to-do list starting with any unfinished (boooo!) Monday tasks. Rinse and repeat each work day.

I’ve given it a week and, so far, it has worked out really well for me!

This sucker is big! I have six square feet to write upon so there is room for the day’s tasks, some notable trends in fashion, a shopping list, and any details or notes I want to add. No more keeping track of separate scraps of paper or losing sticky notes that have fallen behind my desk because they lost their sticky.  Also, big = visible.  As in, with that list staring at me all day it is a little hard to ignore.  In other words, it is just as easy to do work as it is to avoid it – maybe easier.

Speaking of being visible, the whiteboard is accessible. I don’t have to wake up my sleeping computer or log into a website to see what I need to do.  If I suddenly stumble across extra time I can simply pop my head into my workroom and see if any tasks can be fit into the time available.

I can make my list as pretty and colorful as I like. Let’s face it, if the list is fun to make and fun to look at, I am more likely to do it and then pay attention to it.

You know that feeling you get when you slam down the phone receiver after an unpleasant phone call?  You just can’t get that by pushing the “end” button on a cell phone. It is the same way for to-do lists.  Clicking the little tiny “completed” box on the computer screen is no where near as satisfying as drawing a big black line through completed tasks. it feels so good to turn one’s head at the end of the day to see six square feet of done-ness. Conversely, seeing a still-full list is nauseating and I’ve quickly learned to avoid that by, well, getting stuff done.

Like any system, the whiteboard to-do list is not perfect.

It takes some measure of discipline. Not only do you have to make the list, you also have to know when to stop making the list.  A long list is overwhelming and usually means several items will be left for the next day. It makes a girl feel unproductive and leads to list avoidance, which pretty much takes us back to square one.  Even if you have achieved the perfect list length, it is easy to lose an hour color-coding and decorating your really big whiteboard. I don’t mind starting my morning exercising my ability to draw flourishes and swirls with dry-erase markers. Unfortunately, that isn’t the best way to finish blog posts or sew sequins onto silk.

Whiteboards also suck at being alarm clocks. I can stare at that sucker all day and not once with a little box pop up to tell me  have a teleconference in 20 minutes or a wedding show in three weeks.

I have a sneaking suspicion that this is the best method for me, but before I hang my whiteboard on the wall and purchase a huge calendar decal, I’m going to give two of the free online services a chance to make my life easier.  I’ll take a week to try TeuxDuex and a week for Evernote, then I’ll let you know how they compare to each other and to my current six square feet of to-do.

In the meantime, what are you using to keep your self on task? Use the response boxes below to tell me about your post-it note escapades and internet task lists. For those of you looking for reviews on phone apps, well, I don’t have internet on my phone so please discuss your experiences in the response boxes as well.

18 thoughts on “Tooling Around: How do you get your to-dos done?

  1. I depend on Google Calendar as well, and use that to filter into Google Tasks. I’ve tried a thousand other things, but this seems to be the best for me. I’m also using Evernote right now to try and keep my notes and documents in order.

  2. I make daily and monthly to do lists and sets of goals. I try to focus on a few small projects and one big project every day, but since I’m also working retail sometimes that doesn’t quite work.

    I would love to get one of those giant calendar white boards, and when I have a place to put one I think I will! :)

  3. I am so the type of person to want a whiteboard! I may have to treat myself to one when I go back to work. For running the day to day of the house and all the stuff that goes along with that and to make my blogging happen I write 5 to dos in my notepad everyday (one for the house – one for blogging). I focus on each task individually and don’t allow myself to get distracted. Once one is done I get to add another to the list but I HAVE to do them sequentially. Otherwise it is too easy to skip the very dull very necessary ones (which are listed first) There are only ever 5 things to do – if I get only 3 done, great, I’m still getting something done. If I get more than that done it’s a bonus!

    I don’t know how I managed without lists. This is how I manage to achieve more – when I read it back it sounds a little geeky but it works for me!

  4. I too am a google calendar fan & my smart phone creates a list of calendar reminders for me daily which I have to actively dismiss before they disappear from my notices. Technology can be really helpful that way! I’m a big fan of planning way ahead so I don’t stress out about deadlines. I have a big show coming up next weekend & only a few little tasks to take care of :-)

  5. I love this post! I love all the different ways we try to manage time and get things done. I use a day planner for business tasks and a wall calendar for family appointments or events. I’m thinking of using a big blackboard so I would be able to visualize the list better, and as you say, have the satisfaction of drawing a big line through the finished tasks.

  6. I use BaseCamp for getting ideas out of my head and somewhere I can look at them — I used to use Google Tasks, but it wasn’t _big_ enough, if that makes any sense.

    I use my Google inbox as a more immediate tasks reminder — the email I get when someone buys something stay there until it’s shipped, and I get reminders from Google Calendar there as well, which leads nicely into the fact that I use Google Calendar to keep track of shows and seminars and anything that happens at a particular time.

    I’ve been vaguely poking at where to make a ‘today’ list, distilled down from all the kagillion things I have going in Basecamp, and I’m thinking the whiteboard might be it. Worth a try at the least! Thanks for the idea.

  7. I too am engorged in and loving my Google Calendar. I’ve tried evernote and basecamp and the simplicity and accessibility just hasn’t measured up, of course I always consider that I’m using them wrong or not to the full capacity, which leads me to say: I’m looking forward to hearing your reviews and gleaning some insight!

  8. I love your post! I use old-fashion method for scheduling my time and to-do lists because I just CAN’T stick to the one I make on computers.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love technologies! I use them all the time. I don’t call my mom anymore, I skype her! But the one thing I can’t manage with technologies is my time and actions!

  9. You’ve struck a nerve here – I hit an organizational wall a couple years ago and started using OmniFocus to capture every last worrisome idea. I don’t give them all due dates, but I do capture them and organize them into lists. When I feel like working on my website, for instance, I have a list of things I can do. I assign due dates for recurring tasks, and for things that are due in the next week only, and each day tackle the list of things for that day. New idea? Pop it into the inbox and assign a due date for it later. There’s an iPhone version too. I’m sure Evernote is equally good for this. The trick is capturing the ideas so you can stop worrying about them. My iCal production calendar looks a lot like your Google calendar. I love the flexibility of digital!

  10. I use google calender as well but not as much as I used to. After some trial and error I found what really works best for my brain is:

    Monthly vision/goals then I take those and break it down by week, I have a moleskine weekly planner.. I do better when it’s in writing for some reason. I have it right next to me all the time. I put my list of what I need/want to do that week at the bottom I put my menu ideas and blog post ideas for that week. That has kept me on track way better then anything I have tried.

    I still like my apps and online tools for some lists and things but for a week by week basis this works!

  11. I am definitely an old school kind of girl- pen + paper for me vs. any digital device/calender/application. I love drawing my own calender out and doodling in main events for the day- like due dates and appointments. I also love buying tons of colorful pens and highlighters and beautifying my calender- its like a daily work of art :)

    For day to day tasks I will write up a TO DO list the night before. I make sure to limit it to only 2-3 actionable items- otherwise I get overwhelmed and don’t do anything. Usually I accomplish those 2-3 tasks and can easily knock of any extra agendas for the day after that. Sometimes I can only do 2 things before I need to veg and decompress for the rest of the day (it happens!).

    Also a huge thing for me is changing my mentality from “I’m going to try to get x, y, z done tomorrow” to “By the end of tomorrow I WILL have accomplished x, y, z”.

    It makes it less of a challenge and more like i’ve already done it (mentally at least) and now my body just needs to catch up to the fact.

  12. Great post–thanks for sharing! I am a sucker for my to-do lists :) I have a social marketing calendar on Google so I can remember what to tell my great readers to anticipate AND I have a white sheet of paper that sits to my right everyday. I break my days up between product development, networking/marketing and clients. And at the end of each week I write the next week’s schedule and then I TAKE THE WEEKEND OFF–it’s always needed.

    My sanity is pretty calm so perhaps it is working :)

  13. Great post! I too am in that limbo place of finding the “right” system. I have a good ‘ol fashioned paper planner I bought on Etsy and I love it. The paper version works great for me as long as I remember to take it out and open it up. But, I long for a digital something so I just signed up for Workflowy. Can’t offer an opinion on it yet but their tagline is “organize your brain,” which I love.

  14. I’m so glad I’m not the only one without Internet on my phone! Like many here, I love paper (after all, I make stationery) and pens. I’ve tried digital ways to stay organized, but it’s easy to “snooze” a task and ignore it. I make a weekly to-do list and have an accountability partner who I work with once a week. If either of us don’t get our list done, we owe the other a lottery ticket…you never know!
    I love the feeling of actually checking off items on my to-do list. Presently, I still have a full-time job to pay the bills, but do need to start making a daily list, even if I only have time to do one or two things a day.
    Great post!

  15. I’ve developed a neat system as of late. I’ve taken on a day job that has some tasks that get repeated often. I decided to create a poster board layout that has boxes for the days of the week across the top, with lots of room underneath to add tasks. Then there’s a thick line and under that is nice, big white space…. and here’s the kick:

    POST ITS!!

    I use small post-its because I can move them around as needed. Only one task goes on each post it so I can easily see if I’m overloading myself or not and can take the task off the moment I finish it, not waiting to get the other thing done too. That creates a great sense of accomplishment. But anyway, I can color code for work, my personal business, personal life, etc. I place the post its on the appropriate days and then if my schedule gets derailed (canceled meeting, sick family member, last-minute 4 hour event, etc) I can switch that easily to a different day.

    And only the items with deadlines go under the days of the week. The smaller tasks that I want to get done, but usually don’t have time for, get placed in the big white space under the days of the week. Then I challenge myself to complete two of them a day. Some days are too busy, but some days I get three or four done! And I really love that I can just move stuff around whenever. No writing or erasing. And any time I get a task, it just gets a post it and gets stuck in the white space until a deadline starts approaching. That way tasks don’t get lost either!

    Sorry I wrote a novel! I just really love my system!

  16. I’ve got a weird mish-mash system going on, but it really works for me! I use a combination of a giant whiteboard (actually a stick-on Whiteyboard) to manage projects – the whiteboard for a massive overview (open projects, projects to close this month, proposals, leads) and Basecamp for specific tasks. Then I use a little tiny notebook (it’s a Behance Dot Grid Cahier – I love the dots!) to manage each day. Appointments and notes go on the left page, and a list of five to-dos on the right. Sometimes these are big, and sometimes they’re small, but I find that five things – whatever the scope of those things – is as much as I ever get done in a day. At the beginning of each week, I fill in one or two items for each day based on ongoing projects, and then at the end of every day, I look at Basecamp and fill the next day’s holes.

    Plus, I love the ability to cross things off – such satisfaction in that!!

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