By The Beast

Getting Things Done

The To-Do List Method That Finally Got My Life In Order

Who knew graph paper could make such a difference?


By The Beast

Photo by Torey Van Oot

You’ve probably heard by now about the life-changing magic of a functional to-do list. You’ll be more productive! Less stressed! Ready to tackle goals big and small, succeeding beyond belief! But for many, finding the right format for organizing days and goals is the first — and hardest — task to tackle.  

I’ve tried pretty much every strategy under that ever-revolving sun (apps, fancy bullet journals, basic lists on legal pads) to bring order to my world. The systems and products never stuck. So this year, as I transitioned from an office gig to a freelance reporting career, I committed to figuring out a planner and process that would keep my life and time organized as I juggle multiple projects and deadlines. And I found it with a simple approach and a basic $12 notebook.

Each morning, I open my Moleskine graph paper notebook and jot down everything I need to do that day on the top half of the page, with tasks sorted into several buckets. (Most days I end up with four categories: Emails/Calls; Administrative; Writing/Research/Deadlines; and Home/Life.) Breaking down the list this way visualizes what needs to be focused on most and including everything on one page ensures that responsibilities and priorities outside of work aren’t forgotten or ignored, like walking the dog or dropping a package off at the Post Office.

Next comes the critical step that my previous efforts to get organized lacked. Inspired by the time-tracking experiments outlined in Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, I block out each day before it begins. On the bottom half of the page, I make an hourly grid and assign tasks and assignments into those blocks of time. (This is where having graph paper comes in handy, given my terrible handwriting and inability to draw straight lines.) I could do this electronically with my Google Calendar, too, but I find putting it all on the same page of paper helps. At this point, I also have a pretty good sense of how busy the day is going to be and can table or bump low-priority tasks that won’t realistically get done.

To do lists and organizational systems are incredibly personal things. What works for me, might cause your world to spin into disarray. But if you want to give this process a shot, here are some notebooks worth trying:

Moleskine Squared Softcover Notebook, $11 on Amazon: This is my personal go-to. I love the size, soft and flexible cover, and ribbon bookmark that allows me to open up to the current list without flipping through so many pages. Various sizes are available if you prefer a notebook that is larger or smaller.

Behance Dot Grid Book, $18 on Amazon: Not into pages filled with full-on grids? No problem. Grab this model from Behance for a notebook with a lighter touch: it uses, as the name implies, dots to give you the same structure without the lines of a full grid. Bonus: It’s perfect for a nostalgic game of connect-the-dots whenever you need a break.

Rhodia Wirebound Notebook, $11 on Amazon: This wire-bound model is slightly bigger, but still slim enough to slip into a computer bag. The header and elongated first column are great for titling your lists (and setting up the daily grid). It comes in multiple colors for those looking for a daily dose of cheer in their planner.

You have the method and you’ll get the notebook that works for you. The last, and most important, step of course is to tackle the list.

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