Much “To-Do” About Nothing

Feb 20 (Day 51): To Do List
Image by dmachiavello via Flickr

Last week, I talked about setting goals. We discussed rather large, longer-term goals and how to be effective when setting them. However, one of the key components to achievable “big” goals is a clear understanding of the many “small” goals that comprise them.

What does this mean?

Well, for example, I’m currently revising my very first NaNoWriMo manuscript by using Holly Lisle‘s How to Revise Your Novel course. This is a massive undertaking, one which I’ve been working on for the better part of a year, and a project on which I have a long way to go. So the question is: How do you manage to keep moving along when faced with such a huge prospect?

The answer lies in taking one small step at a time and rewarding yourself when you do. A couple years ago, I learned this technique from Holly (she is a wealth of information for writers; if you haven’t checked out her site yet, go do it now!). In her article on how to maintain your writing discipline, as well as every other bit of chaos that intrudes on your life, she suggests making a sort of “to-do” list. But this isn’t your ordinary, fridge to-do list; this is the mother of all to-do lists.

Don’t worry, it’s not as frightening as it sounds, and it actually works a lot better than just scribbling some notes to yourself on a scrap of paper.

First of all, you’ll need a corkboard, or some other board to which you can attach index cards. Obviously, you’re also gonna need some index cards. The amount doesn’t matter, as you’ll just replace them when you need new ones, and anyway, they’re cheap. In her lesson, Holly advocates using different colors for different tasks, but I don’t usually bother with that unless I feel a real need to prioritise.

So, make three cards: one that says “Do,” one that says “Doing,” and a third that says “Done.” Pin them (or use a magnet or whatever) across the top of the board to form three columns.

Now, take any index card and write today’s date in the top left corner. In the top right corner of the card, write the date by which you wish to complete this particular task. Then, on the index card itself, write something you need to do. The trick is to make it measurable and to make it manageable. For instance, “Finish revision” is not a good one for the reasons we discussed last week. However, “Finish revising Chapter 13” is. Lastly, write a line near the bottom of the card where you will eventually write the date of actual completion.

You can use these cards for anything you need to get done. For instance, here is mine for my students’ French homework that I need to grade.

(My cards happen to be red only because they were left over from something else; the color doesn’t mean anything here, although you could assign writing-related projects to green, real-life chores to red, etc.)

You should only make enough cards for the next week or so. Then, once you have them made, pin them up in the first column under “Do.” As you work on your projects, move them across the board to the other columns. Be sure to put it under the “Done” card when you are actually done! This visual signal is more rewarding than you might think, and it gives you a real sense of accomplishment to see them pile up on the right side of the board.

Once you have started some more cards under the “Do” column, discard the old done cards as you need space, or if you have recurring things such as “Grocery shopping by Saturday,” you could start its march across the board once more.

Here is a picture of my current to-do board (sorry the quality isn’t very good at all):

It’s been too long since I’ve used this handy tool for, but every time I keep it up, I feel much more productive and I can stop stressing about what I need to do since it is all right there to look at. Also, by assigning the dates by which I need to finish certain tasks, I am assured that I can be free to write since I know I will have to do other things by X date.

I hope this technique helps you stay organised and efficient! What methods do you use to stay on track? How would you modify this board for your particular needs?

79 thoughts on “Much “To-Do” About Nothing”

  1. Nah, the “Mother of all to-do lists” doesn’t sound ominous at all!


    Great post. Congrats on the novel — I’m just proud to be able to post a blog a week (or so). I’m impressed with those who actually find the time and resources to tackle something like NaNoWriMo!

    1. Thanks! Keeping a blog is a major step towards establishing a writing discipline, so congrats on that. It is hard work keeping it all going, but the satisfaction of seeing your productivity is a great motivator, in my opinion.

  2. Excellent work – on both being FP’d and completing NaNiWriMo. Rewriting is a pig, but a necessary pig, and finding a method that works is key to success. I have a similar system to your, but using a dry-wipe board. I realise now that I miss out on the satisfaction of seeing the “Done” line fill up as the week progresses.

    Best of luck with the rewrite and the future.

  3. I have to-do lists floating around everywhere, so I like this idea of keeping them centralized. Where can I find a cork-board large enough, though? I’d need one roughly the square mileage of the lower 48 states.

    1. Remember though that it only has to be large enough to fit about a week’s worth of items. The key is to help you stay sane and organised instead of messy and overwhelmed.

  4. Wow, I envy you for keeping such a tab on things. I LOVE your notice board. And all the very best with revsing that novel. I have a short novel that I haven’t looked at in 2 years…..I should revise it some day :). K

  5. This is very helpful thank you! I am already picking out a place on my wall to get this started! Since I am writing my thesis right now, I have loads of index cards 😉 The work I have to do always piles up in my head and I only think of tasks like “write 20 pages until Sunday”. Needless to say, I am disappointed with myself a lot…So again thanks for this and congrats on being FP!

  6. Awesome, I have been keeping ‘to do’ lists for quiet some time now but never on a board and I do believe that having it in sight instead of in a book that I almost always cannot find is the key for me. I am off to Officemax. Thanks.

  7. Congratulations on your writing accomplishment! A novel is something very few people could put in their “Done” column.

    I’ve been reading quite a bit recently on productivity, managing goals and the like. Your method has many of the same elements others find successful.
    1. It’s so simple, even I get it.
    2. It breaks down big goals into small, digestible bites. You are biting off one task at a time.

    Reminds me of a blog I recently read on Jerry Seinfeld’s secret to productivity.

    He keeps a large Annual Calendar on his wall, and marks it with a red X every day where he writes something. After a while, you have quite a chain of red X’s that you don’t want to break. Seems like another great idea to me.

  8. I am not a “list” person; I might just lose it amongst my disorganization. However, this idea of a corkboard seems quite appealing and manageable. I just may give it a try; if I don’t forget : )

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

    1. Thank you so much! I had no idea when I posted it yesterday that it would end up there today. Rest assured it is in the Done column. 🙂

  9. I love these helpful posts; my to-do list confounds me. I just started using iCal on my mac, which let’s you make to-do
    lists for each day, and then let’s you check them off – quite a fun exercise. Incidentally I just wrote about it yesterday, although I hate it when people plug their blogs this way.

  10. Great post and great idea! Thanks also for sharing about Holly Lisle – have had a look at her website and think she has a wealth of ideas to put into use and practice 🙂

  11. Very very nice post!
    Congrats on being FP!
    I must admit I was surprised to see another blog post on list making on the front page of WP.
    Is it a writer’s thing?
    I have a big family I care for and work full time yet I don’t keep lists.
    What’s wrong with me.
    Anything important that I need tend to goes into my inbox which is by my TV. I peruse it at night while watching Glee, American Idol…
    My only list is grocery that floats around the kitchen.
    My receptionist calls me at 7 a.m. to advise me of my schedule for each day.
    What are you all writing on these lists????
    What am I missing????

  12. That sounds like a fantastic idea and now my notice board will actually come in handy (instead of hanging in a dusty corner of my room with old calendar months pinned on it)!
    I think that this is what I will be doing tonight (it’s gonna be an ‘easy’ weekend for me). Congrats on being Freshly Pressed and thanks for the great advice/idea 🙂

  13. Loved the good, simple, sound advice. Instead of the done card, I get out the red pen and give the accomplished task a big, fat, red tick: very satisfying. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

  14. great idea. if only i had room for a cork board.
    this is very doable even though I likely won’t do it, at least not immediately.

  15. Excellent tips and ideas that you have included. I am a daily note/ list maker. I set countless goals and set out on a long journey to achieve them. Sometimes I simply get so caught up that I am overwhelmed with to-do’s. I really found your post enjoyable.

    Have a great day =)

  16. I think one of the more important bits here is the sentence, “You should only make enough cards for the next week or so.” People like me tend to go all-out for these lists and put things on them like “Revise novel” or “Get new job.” These are not things that any mortal can just “Do” as one step.. instead they need to be kept in a separate place as goals. Then their component parts can be pulled out — e.g. “Revise Introduction” or “Set up RSS Job feeds”.

    I even have to restrict myself to things I will do in the next 3-4 days, because beyond that I do begin to get overly optimistic or perfectionist toward my own actions.

    I hope that will help someone who, like me, has tried this sort of method and gotten overwhelmed with all the index cards that seem to never leave the corkboard — Keep it simple, immediate, and restricted to things that can be done in one session. Longer tasks need to be broken up.

  17. I am also working on my first novel. I had been thinking about doing NaNoWriMo last Nov but I was already working on the novel. I didn’t want to put it aside and start something new. I may give it a shot next year.

    Great link! Thanks!

  18. your description above of your website is interesting. this post of yours is also a good read. i’ve tried writing about overcoming procrastination, but i think i’m having a hard time applying it. haha.

    keep on writing about good stuff! 🙂

  19. Huh, that board hanging in my apartment finally will have a purpose! I have a little over three weeks before moving to a new home and have lots of downsizing/organizing to do. This may just be the help I need to keep on task.

  20. Hi,
    From a similar position as a young, aspiring writer, I think I may find this blog useful… I’ll hit subscribe and look forward to talking to you soon.
    Good luck with everything 🙂

  21. I think making visual, visible lists is very helpful as it also gets those orders out of your head, where they can easily get forgotten or overwhelmed by other non-writing concerns.

    My second NF book is out April 14 and, when I had to crank out 35,000 words in three months to meet my publisher’s deadline, I said, “OK, that’s 1,000 words a day for 35 days.” Then I did it.

    Every day I produced 1,000 words meant I had completed my set goal. Of course, if I surpassed it, great. But the endpoint was totally clear and unavoidable. Any day I missed or screwed up (which I never did) would only mean doubling the next day’s work.

    The word count function is my lifesaver.

  22. Simple system. Impressively so. As someone who constantly battles against getting overwhelmed by a never-ending to-do list, I am going to incorporate this plan immediately. Well, tomorrow. (I also procrastinate a lot.)Cheers and good luck with the novel!

  23. My first thought was, ‘Oh, I’d procrastinate doing the to-do list of things I’m procrastinating.’ As I read your post though, I realized it’s kind of similar to when I play games on Facebook (bear with me here) and they give quests. I will completely forget everything else I may be doing and focus on completing that quest. So maybe if I make my to-do list like a ‘quest’ I’ll stop my procrastinating!

  24. I find to-do lists effecgtive some of the time.
    I often “fail” becasue the list is too broad and contains too many items. I think this idea of Do, Doing, Done is an effective way for me to oraganize. Thanks for the idea.

  25. I read your blog off the “Freshly Pressed” yesterday and today waa’la.

    To-Do List

    1. Make new name for To-Do List.
    2. Make Sock Monkey
    3. Play Q*bert
    4. Add QWERTY, Q*bert & Kevin Bacon to Possible Future
    Cute Cat Names LIST
    5. Make a post where every word is a hyperlink
    6. Make my own Statue of Liberty Costume and dance in bizarre places (far away from a Liberty Mutual) with signs pointing to no where like the Atlantic Ocean. Who’s with me?
    7. Thank To-Do List Blog guy from Freshly Pressed yesterday

    Thanks. Yay, crossing you off in RED.
    🙂 DJ

  26. I have a number of lists, some I can’t find (the ones on the index cards), some are in my appt book, some are on my budget page…..I never thought of having a “done” category. Another list! My categories are To Do, To Buy, and To Do Later/Buy. I recently bought one of those dry marker erase boards, but a)it’s redundant and b) I’ve stopped looking at it.

    I can’t leave the house without an index card with a list of things to do while I’m out, and even then I miss something on the list.

    My favorite comment about list keeping is “Only have one or two items on it, you’ll get a great sense of accomplishment a lot faster.

    I wish I’d never started list keeping,it gets ridiculous and now I can’t stop. I mean, seriously, what’s the point of “do laundry” and “grocery shop” — it’s kind of hard to miss the pile of dirty clothes and take a hint, and you’ll get hungry eventually which leads to food shop. Could be swapping those two items from the to do to the done list every other day. Maybe I’ll put cork board under my To Buy list.

    Sometimes I’m all excited when I get something done I’ve been putting off, I check my to do list, gleeful to cross it out, only to find out it wasn’t on the list to begin with! Ah, life is too complicated. My only real useful list is the index card or appt entry of to do Today, and it’s easy enough to cross out out Tuesday and try it tomorrow with Wednesday written on it. I have to go now and check my to do lists, or I’ll get nothing done today besides making to do lists.

  27. Great post! Thanks for the tips. I have plenty of index cards laying around so now I just have to track down a corkboard and I’m all set. 🙂

  28. I became a fan of the action step method not more than a year ago. I think a lot of what you address here is great advice in the same vein. Discipline is much easier to realize with a frame in mind.

    Enjoy your thoughts,

  29. thanks for posting this it’s a great idea for a to-do list. i love the done section. i modified it and made a fridge-version. i used old fridge magnets and attached them to the back of the cards that i reuse regularly. cards that are one-time use i just put them up with the magnet without attaching it to the card. i am recycling outdated business cards (writing on the blank side of course) that were still sitting around in my house…

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