When I joined Red Square in 2013 the office used different pieces of software to keep track of daily tasks. The creative team used Things, while production, my team, used Wunderlist. I was encouraged, along with the rest, to keep track of tasks using the software.

Here’s the thing though—the best designed to-do list isn’t a piece of software, it’s a pen and a piece of paper. No matter how simple the app is, it will have more cognitive overhead than writing it on a piece of paper.

Over the years I’ve tried dozens of to-do apps with high hopes. Each time I come back to pen and paper. Don’t get me wrong. Both Things and Wunderlist are beautifully designed pieces of software. I have the utmost respect for the teams working on those products, but they don’t work for me.

This post isn’t about software though. It’s about helping you create a better to-do list. A better to-do list written by hand. As someone who juggles several projects, I’ve developed a simple framework for keeping track of tasks.

What does this look like?

A good to-do list should be simple. The less cognitive overhead it takes to create and maintain, the more likely you will continue using the concept.

A good to-do list should be adaptable. Take what pieces you like from the framework and add to it. Additionally, the list shouldn’t need any specific tools or software. It should work just as well on a napkin as it does on a fancy sketch book.

OK, let’s talk about how this thing works.

The Framework Concept

Sections and items form the base of the framework. Sections should broadly encompass the items within it. My work list has sections that contain individual clients along with a “MISC” section for miscellaneous items. The sections are more varied for my list at home. Some sections are projects, others are groceries, bills or other miscellaneous items.

Items live within the list sections. There are three states for each item: active, pending and Eliminated.

Active Items have a blank box and will need to be addressed eventually. These are essentially things that you need to do today.

Pending Items get a check. These are items that you’ve completed, but require the action of someone else. For example, at work this may mean I’ve finished putting together a scope document, and am waiting to hear back from the client. In this case the ball is out of my court, but I can’t quite forget about it yet.

Eliminated Items are crossed out. This happens when an item is completed or is no longer relevant. In the example above the client may have signed the scope document or passed on the agency.

A new list is created at the end of the day. All items that were not eliminated carry over, and are reset to a pending state. This becomes a reminder to follow up with the person the item is waiting on. Items that are the most important receive a star next to them. This signals that the task needs to be tackled first thing.

Pro Tip: If you are using a notebook, add tomorrow’s date to the top of the list. This way you can look back at previous dates and know when you did what.

To-Do List in Practice

I keep two separate lists. One is at work and is organized by client. The other is at home and is organized mostly by my side projects. I also add grocery items, bills to pay and miscellaneous items to that list.

Don’t have any idea what I’ve been talking about? See my personal list below (on one of my work notepads).

personal to-do list

The top of the list has items I need to do for Signal Tower. I just did an interview with Sacha Grief and need to send him a follow-up email about photography and other post-interview items. I’ve done my due diligence, but need to make sure he gets back to me. That’s why it get’s a check, but hasn’t been crossed off.

Compare that with the Advertisers section. I’ve added a list of advertising agencies in Atlanta and there isn’t anything else to do. That’s why it gets crossed off the list.

There aren’t any stars on this list, because none of these tasks need to be done immediately. My stars usually come in the form of a big asterisk.

What happens when I’m not at either of my desks?

Some say that this is the shortcoming of doing a to-do list by hand. I tend to email myself to-do items and add them when I’m back. It takes about the same amount of effort to open my phone and send myself an email as it would to open an application and add one.

You don’t need to go out and purchase a fancy planner. I use a 4-inch by 9-inch notepad that I was given when I joined Red Square. I tend to think that narrower and longer notepads make more sense, because you can add more items. It’s really up to personal preference though.

Listing Concerns

If you’ve reached this point in the post, I assume you’re either excited or skeptical. I hope you’re excited, but if not let me address a few of your concerns.

Don’t Things and Wunderlist allow teams to keep track of each other’s work?

Absolutely. If you’ve got a group of people and managers need to see what they are working on, software is a better solution. I tend to work independently of creative and other producers, so it doesn’t really apply to me. If someone want’s to see what I’m working on, they can come by my desk and take a look at my list.

How is this different than any other to-do list?

Maybe it isn’t. I think adding a pending state—at least for me—makes a pretty big difference. It also seems that others have started doing lists this way. A few of the other producers and account executives at the agency have adopted my strategy.

Hope this was helpful. I’d love to hear your feedback.

Posted by:Sam Solomon

I'm a designer, writer and tinkerer. I currently lead workflow and design systems at Salesloft.

4 thoughts on “ My To-Do List Framework ”

  1. I stumbled on your post after clicking through from an old y-combinator thread from March 2016. A link to this blog was there. Anyhoo, have you heard of Bullet Journaling? Google it if you haven’t. What you’ve described here sounds much like that framework over at Bullet Journal. The beauty of that system is that it’s modular and customizable. I bet your system could fit right in with the concepts they have over there. Check it out.

    1. I have heard of Bullet Journal! I did look at the Bullet Journal concept; however, the journal part didn’t fit my needs. I didn’t want to keep track of an index—I really wanted to have a clear indicator of how much attention a certain task should have.

      Appreciate the comment!

  2. This is good stuff Sam.

    A big reason why a physical ToDo list works is because it makes the intangible tangible. You have to look at it and you have to physically check it off. Now, if you are drastically unorganized and your list ends up under a bunch of other documents, you’re in similar trouble.

    A reason why the virtual ToDo list fails is because it’s similar to a to do list that you file away and rarely look at (by minimizing or closing a tab or app). The innovation of todo softwares are deadlines and reminders – turning a todo list into a calendar and schedule – espescially handy when you can ask Siri or Google now what your schedule is for the day.

  3. Your “To-Do List Framework” is much like my own. Writing things down, keeping my notepad with me wherever I go helps get things done a lot faster. Nice blog!

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