The To-Do List Conundrum

I’ve always been fascinated by planners and productivity blogs and things like that. I’ve even given GTD (Getting Things Done) a try. And nothing’s ever "worked" for me before.

Now I know why.

Last year, I went the DIY way and made my own planner, which I used to a certain extent before my excitement about being productive fizzled away. The reason, I’ve realized, is this:

I never really had a whole lot of different things to do.

Not that I wasn’t busy, because I was, especially with all the indexing I was doing. But back in the day, my to-do list tended to be the same every single day: Index. Write. Exercise. That was it.

No wonder I got bored with my planner.

But now, here we are, and boy, has my life changed. In other words, I am busy, really busy, but unlike the busy-ness of before, when I’d be swamped by a deluge of indexing deadlines, I’m busy doing a lot of different things. There’s still the indexing, but now also the freelance writing and blogging, plus the marketing required for this new branch of my business. And the personal side of life, which has been really heating up, since both Ward and Dylan are in upcoming Canadian Opera Company performances. Not to mention the fiction writing, which still obsesses me but now that I’ve gotten back into a daily writing habit, it’s not an obsession that’s frustrating any more, thank goodness.

Last week, I took a look at all the things I had to do each day – big things, little things, important things, not so important things – and I knew I had to get a handle on it all.

But the big conundrum: electronic or paper?


I’d been using the Carrot To-Do app for a few weeks. It’s a fun app to use (there’s nothing like being called a "lazy human" by your productivity app) and after a while, you realize you really don’t want to make Carrot upset at you. But I was finding I needed more than an app that lets you list and prioritize your to-do’s, no matter how much fun the app was to use.

I downloaded a couple of other to-do list apps, but they just didn’t feel right to me. A planner/to-do list system is just so personal to each user, I think, and no amount of tweaking worked for me.

So why not print? Well, the thing I’ve discovered is this: I almost always have my phone with me, even when I’m at home (which I usually am during the day, although at night i can often be found shepherding Dylan to and from his many different activities.) To make a to-do list function well for me, I absolutely have to have what I’m using close by at all times.

But I really like paper-based systems. I like the feel of my pen writing things down on the paper, and if that paper happens to be gridded, I’m even happier. But unlike my phone, if I use a paper planner I won’t always have it on me.

Or would I?

I decided, finally (last night, actually) that it’s just a matter of developing a new habit. I can have my written to-d0 list right in front of me when I need it, as long as I make it a habit to always having it nearby. Right?

Photo 2013-09-23 12 52 54 PM

So I found that DIY planner I’d created last year, and I opened it to the first blank page (I’d used up about a third of the book last year). I stamped a date on each open spread, starting with today’s date (I stamped about two weeks’ worth of spreads) and then I put a "must get done today" list on the right hand side of the first spread, and a running to-do list of things I’d like to get done but which aren’t urgent, on the left hand side.

There’s room for doodles, and I plan to draw a box and brainstorm ideas every night, too. The book is a sturdy Moleskine with gridded pages (yay!) and although it’s hardbound, it’s not so heavy that I’ll feel like I’m carrying an elephant on my shoulder when I stick it into my handbag.

It’s here in front of me as I write this blog post (on the list for today: "write blog post" – hah! You see? It’s working already!).

We’ll have to see how it goes.

What about you? What kind of planner/to-do system do you use? I’d love to hear about your methods, since I’m still tweaking the one I’m using!

13 thoughts on “The To-Do List Conundrum

    1. Belle Wong Post author

      Are the three calendars for separate areas of your life, Kathy? I’ve been wondering if it might be more effective to group things into categories, like “work”, “home”, “appointments and activities”.

  1. Beth

    I’ve had a hard time coming up with a system that works for me, too. I do pretty well with just a plain old spiral notebook and pen, but I keep thinking there’s got to be a better, easier way to organize things, and I’m not always good about keeping my notebook with me. I hope your new system works for you!

  2. jenn aka the picky girl

    Yeah, the electronic thing for to-do lists only works so far with me. I use toodledoo at work to keep things in check, but I have to write things down to remember them. I haven’t been good lately about keeping my planner with me, but I need to start. Too many dates running around my head getting mixed up with other things.

    1. Belle Wong Post author

      That’s really why I started too – things were getting so chaotic and I had too much stuff running around in my head. There’s definitely been less chaos since dumping the stuff onto paper, but a lot more tweaking is required, I think. Thanks for the tip about toodledoo – will check it out!

  3. Bernadette

    It’s somehow comforting to learn that other people struggle with this kind of thing and devote time & energy thinking/planning/trialing . I’ve tried a few different ‘systems’too – including GTD although I don’t hink I ever really gave that one a proper go – I think I lost interest. Although I like paper I found it didn’t work for me – I always seemed to forget my book when I REALLY needed it and I seemed to spend a lot of time re-writing the same non-urgent-but-want-to-do-it-eventually tasks on new pages of my book. So I’ve ended up with a digital to do list and I chose Remember The Milk (RTM)- I started out with the website but there are apps for any device you can think of too and they all syncrhonise. It’s a lot more simple than some of the digital to do lists but it allows me to do what I need – I have a few different lists (only hafl a dozen) and some tags I use consistently and I also give most of my tasks a location such as Home or Work or Shopping Centre so that when I go to those specific places I can just see the tasks that are relevant to that location. You can also allocate things like duration (how long you think the task will take), and priority but I don’t use those very often. One feature I use a lot is to set repeat tasks for daily/weekly things. I like the fact it is available to me anywhere – if I forget my phone I can usually check a computer (at work) or borrow someone else’s phone/tablet to check the RTM website online. Almost all of the features I can think of are available completely free of charge – only a few of the specialist features in the app versions require a premium account – but I pay an annual fee for premium membership just so I can support the company as I really like the product and their attention to development. The fee is around $20US a year.

    I never thought I would use the siri feature on my iPhone but I must say I do use it for tasks – I’ve set my iPhone up to use my RTM account as my tasks/reminders list and I can tell siri to add a task like “remind me to buy coffee tomorrow morning” and she adds a task to my RTM list – this is great for when you’re driiving around and can’t easily jot down a new task :)

    1. Belle Wong Post author

      Thanks so much for this, Bernadette! I’ve been using my new system for half a week now and I’m definitely running into problems because I don’t always have my planner with me. Remember the Milk sounds like something that might work for me. Another area I’m running into problems with is what you mentioned – the list of things I want to do daily or weekly. I’m seeing already how it could get tedious writing these items into every day in my planner, so a repeat task feature is looking good. I still like writing everything down in print, but maybe I could use the planner as more of a daybook/notebook. I just realized I’m already keeping separate lists of things on my iPhone on a list app (books to buy, sites to check out, things like that), so if I could merge all of that into one using RTM, that might be the way to go. Thanks again for the recommendation!

  4. heidenkind

    Yeah when you don’t have a lot to do planners can get pretty boring! I tried the whole planner thing for about 3 months earlier this year and decided I didn’t need it on a daily basis. Right now I use Google Calendar for hard deadlines, and if I’m feeling overwhelmed with the day’s must-do tasks I write them down on either a sticky note or in my planner and cross them off as they get done. Best of both worlds!

    1. Belle Wong Post author

      I use Google Calendar too but often I forget to put things into it, which defeats the purpose of using it :( Writing down my tasks has definitely been a big improvement for me in terms of getting things done.

  5. Beth F

    I don’t have all that much going on: work, work, work; cook; blog; exercise… I keep a desk calendar (paper) for work tasks and a wall calendar for family stuff (invites, dr. appointments, etc.). I’ve tried desktop, phone, day planners, you name it. Love the *idea* of a fun to-do list, but really never use them.

  6. Joanna

    I think about this all the time! I feel like I’ve tried everything out there and can’t find anything perfect. I like writing things down too, it’s just not the same online. I’ll try doing what you do with your notebook, I always have a notebook with me anyway.

  7. Jackie Bair

    Hey Bella! Are you still using the paper method for a task manager? I’ve had to play around with a lot of systems to find something that works for me, and I’m still working on it. For calendars, I use google calendar, with multiple calendars for each part of my life (personal, blog posts, my daughters, tutoring, etc). I’ve also been using Remember the Milk for my tasks, and Evernote for a notebook. I love love love paper notebooks (I could spend hours in an office store!), but I always have my phone on me, so I have to go digital to make sure I actually write down what I need to.


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