3 Levels to Upgrading Your To-Do List
Everybody has responsibilities and commitments of different degrees and areas every single day. Everybody needs to get things done. Most people struggle to remember what they ought to be doing very often. It is pretty evident that you cannot fully rely on your brain capacity to remember everything you should and want to do. So how do we solve this?
When it comes to productivity and getting things done, the number one tip most people would tell you is to keep a to-do list. It is by far the most commonly known system that promises productivity.
The to-do list I am talking about in this article is a simple list of tasks. Nothing more than that. If you are already keeping a to-do list, well, congratulations! You are already one step ahead of everybody else who isn’t.
Now let’s talk about how you can upgrade that list of yours to further reduce the stress that comes with getting all the necessary things done. There are a few levels of upgrading with each level varying in the amount of effort you have to put in and also the amount of time you need to get used to such systems. But trust me, once you have everything set up, these little tweaks in your productivity system would make your life so much easier you wouldn’t remember how you lived without these.
Everything I am about to show you can be done both in digital and analog. You can choose whatever tool or app of choice for everything I am about to tell you as long as the tools you choose serve the purpose.
Level 1: Use your to-do list together with your calendar.
To-do lists naturally have no sense of time. You have the assignment that is due tomorrow and the things that you have to buy during grocery shopping next Friday and things you want to do but within no fixed timeframe such as calling your mom or learning to play the guitar all mixed up in a single list of words. That is not good. It shows you the things that you want to do, but that is not enough.
The first real upgrade to your to-do list is to use your to-do list alongside your calendar. Calendars have a sense of time, they are the perfect companion to your lists that do not.
Once you have a to-do list, identify the things on that list that has a specific date or deadline attached to them. Add it to your calendar.
Level 2: Keep a few different lists
The one-size-fits-all approach definitely would not work on the wide variety of things that you might need to or want to do on a daily basis. Therefore, it is useful to keep a few different lists.
I recommend keeping four lists:
- Capture list: This list is for you to write down anything that pops out in your head. You will have to frequently come back to this list to decide further what you are going to do with the things you put on this list. In short, this is a place for you to quickly capture what pops out in your head so you don’t forget it before being able to do anything about it. You are not supposed to be categorizing anything that goes into this list because you want the capturing process to happen as quickly as possible. Categorization and organization come later.
- Anytime list: This list is for you to put down anything that does not have a very specific time attached to it. What this list should mean to you is “the things inside me are things you can do whenever you have the time to do so,” Everything on this list should be things that you can start on your own at any time.
- Waiting list: This list is for the things you could not do at the moment. Maybe you want to go buy the groceries but you have to wait for your housemates to tell you what needs to be bought, or you want to do homework but you need to wait for the lecturer to post a brief about the homework online. These are things that have to be done, but could not be done at the moment.
- Someday list: This is basically a bucket list. These are things that are far away — things that you might want to do in the future. Things on here are things that yet deserve your attention on an everyday basis, but are also things you do not want to completely keep your mind away from.
Level 3: Using to-do lists and calendar together with notes
Now you have your time-constrained tasks all in your calendar, while all your other tasks are in organized lists for different purposes, you can now add one more component to your productivity system, which is notes. These notes can be written memos, printed documents, briefs, pdf files, links to websites, or digital notes. In other words, you have to have all necessary references and documents ready when you actually decide to take on a certain task.
For example, if you decide to go grocery shopping, you might want to have a list of things you want to buy ready. You would probably also want to have a Google Maps link of the place for you to easily get the directions, opening hours, and contact number ready.
If you are working on a project, you would want to have documents stating exactly what the expected outcomes are there, and all the important links to resources that might be useful.
This reduces the friction for you to do the things you ought to do. The less likely you are to look away from the actual work you are doing, the more likely you are to focus and produce quality work in an efficient manner.
Putting everything into action
Everything I said up till now can be done 100% digitally, 100% analogously, or anywhere in between. For people that do things in analog, it is rather straightforward. Using a calendar, keeping multiple different lists, and keeping a notebook with all the necessary information nearby is not that daunting of an idea. However, the digital nomads out there might face quite some problems putting all that into action, since we are bounded by how available applications work. In most cases, our applications do not talk to each other, making things a bit harder on those operating on a single screen each day, since there is only so much you can see and do on a 15-inch screen.
Using the right digital tools
After countless days of experimenting, I have come across a few digital tools that would help make the processes mentioned above manageable. Just to clarify, everything not mentioned here does not mean they are not good tools or they cannot be used in this manner. You can tweak the use of anything to fit your needs as long as you know what outcomes you are expecting from using these tools. At the end of the day, they are just tools.
Level 1: Finding the right calendar app
If you use the basic calendar apps that come with your devices, you will realize that the calendar app does not really talk to your reminders or to-do list apps. But you will only be adding your tasks to your calendar when there are time-or-date-specific tasks. It is alright if they do not talk to each other. Whenever you refer to your calendar, you will only see anything that has an attached date or time. When there are no such urgencies present, you can look at your to-do lists to see if there is something else that you can or want to do.
If you really want a calendar app that integrates with your Reminders or equivalent apps, here are a few suggestions: Moleskin Timepage + Moleskin Actions, Fantastical 3.
You can find more options here: Finding the right calendar + to-do list combination for your iPhone.
Level 2: Finding a right to-do list app
The basic to-do list app on Apple devices is the Reminders app. To be honest, you can do plenty with it already. Level 2 of upgrading your to-do list requires you to keep four different lists. You can easily do that with the Reminders app. I am sure you can do as much with any other app that keeps lists.
If you want something more advanced that is designed specifically to suit this need, you can try: Things 3, Todoist, TickTick.
Level 3: Agenda — the time-based note-taking app
This agenda app integrates note-taking with a calendar and reminders. I find this app being the most appropriate for the intended purpose. This is essentially a note-taking app, with the special function of being able to attach notes to specific events that you have on your calendar or reminders. There is quite a steep learning curve when you first use this app, but it will grow on you in no time once you learn how to use it.
Bonus Tool: Notion
If you have not seen Notion in action, you really should. Notion is an all-in-one platform that allows you to write pages of notes and embed pages in pages in pages endlessly. You can create a homepage of everything that is going on in your life, create a database for each area in your life separately, view data in tables, boards, spreadsheets, calendar view, lists. Basically, you can do anything with Notion.
Notion does not have a sole intended purpose. You can do anything with it. The trouble with it is that you have to set it up in a way that suits your intended purpose and the setting up is not as intuitive as it seems, especially if you are unfamiliar with the platform. However, if you are able to fully utilize Notion, it is definitely a great tool.
What I personally use
Personally, I don’t like Notion. Throughout my journey of upgrading my to-do list, I have settled down with a few apps to help me get things done effectively on a daily basis.
Calendar: Moleskin Timepage — The calendar does not really matter to me. I could use the default Calendar app but I am using this because it is a lot prettier.
To-do list: Things 3 — Things 3 never disappoint me. It has been my productivity lifeline since the moment I bought it.
Notes: Agenda and Bear — For me, Agenda is for event-attached or task-attached notes, such as what to say in a meeting, what was said in a meeting, things to remember from a conversation with a team member about a project. Stuff like that. In addition to that, Bear has been my Notes app replacement for a while now. Bear’s superior organization functions keep me away from any other app. Both these note-taking app support markdown.
To upgrade your boring to-do list to serve you better, use a calendar, categorize your to-dos into multiple lists, and attach notes to your to-dos. In practice, it looks like a calendar app, a to-do list app, and a note-taking app. However, in reality, it is less about exactly what app you use but how you use them.
Hopefully, this article has been helpful in pushing you to upgrade from a to-do list to a full-fledged productivity system.
My name is Carlson Ng and I write about creative, digital lifestyle and self-improvement. I am still a college student and aspire to be a creative that is free from a 9-to-5. If you want to hear more from me, feel free to subscribe to my newsletter.