An Ode to the To-Do List

I am a person who cannot work in my own headspace. While some people can mentally visualize their schedule and tasks, I work far more efficiently when I get my thoughts out of my brain and into the world. After a conversation with a close friend or recording with pen and paper, I can then truly process my thoughts and get things done. This post focuses on writing as I find it very cathartic. Whether I need to make a difficult decision, to record a beautiful day or to remember my groceries, my scurried scribbling allows me to reflect and release.

This love of writing means I keep a number of notebooks. One of my realizations while moving cross country and continents was that I kept quite a number of notebooks. Each has its purpose: daily lists, agenda, language lessons, programming notes, personal journal and job notes. None are redundant as each fulfills a particular role. Perhaps this multitude of books goes against my search for simplicity, but for me – these books are essential to my version of it. They keep my ideas, goals, tasks and lessons straight, allowing me to move forward knowing these important items are recorded.

Pile o' notebooks

Combining my love of writing-it-out and organization, I love to-do lists. I have physical ones and electronic ones, often complimentary and always evolving. The lists are important for me to simplify my working style and here are my two main reasons I think to-do’s list are the best thing since sliced bread:

Get Out of My Head

There’s a big relief when my tasks leave my brain and are recorded elsewhere. Each time I write down a to-do, it is one less little concern that I need to spend mental effort remembering. Each task is like a bushy tree blocking the view of the beautiful forest. Trying to keep tabs on all the the daily or weekly tasks makes it difficult to plan for the long-term. By setting aside the smaller tasks, you allow space to look at the overall reasons for these day-to-day tasks. In this space, you can prioritize your work, consider how the small bits make up the whole and work towards a greater goal. I’ve had times when I’ve realized some of my daily t0-do’s that seemed crucial were really taking up a lot of time but were not helping my overall project. By having the mental space to see the overall arch, I could either minimize the time I spent working or worrying about the smaller tasks or ditch them altogether to focus on more useful ones. It’s refreshing and important to not get bogged down in the details and to make sure that you’re working on what’s important not only on what’s immediate.

Check Marks of Satisfaction

Notebook to-do listOkay, I realize this post is pretty nerdy in general, but the above statement takes the cake. However, it’s true: I savour the satisfaction of checking off an item. In a world with no goalposts or test results to indicate how we’re doing, setting a small, manageable task and then achieving it is a basic but clear sign of accomplishment. However small, marking off a task as complete shows that you’re on step further towards your goals. One student I knew would put “Brush teeth” at the top of his daily to-do list before the larger thesis and research items to feel the gratification of getting at least one item off his list each day. It’s a strategy I support. I also support SMART to-do lists; SMART stands for smart, measurable, achievable,realistic and timely. The SMARTer the list, the easier it is to check off items and feel that sweet, sweet satisfaction.


As noted, I find a combination of digital task managers and print to-do lists helpful to hold my project’s pieces. All my tasks for the week or month are recorded digitally, but I make a small print list for what I want to accomplish today. I’ve tried a lot of different programs and notebooks, but today I’ll share my favourites.

: My daily lists are simply in a notebook that is small enough to fit in any bag and aesthetically pleasing so that I enjoy using it. Agendas founded my love of to-do lists and while I’m leaning more to Google Calendar + iCal for my schedule, a good print agenda is a thing of beauty. Brownline makes a sleek and useful weekly agenda. Their design is helpful for understanding your time breakdown and has space for lists and notes amongst the appointments. Speaking of thoughtful design, Passion Planner seems pretty fantastic though I have yet to try it myself.

DIGITAL: The number of online task managers has grown exponentially in the past 10 years. For any particular niche or style, there’s a program for you. For team projects needing collaborative task management, my friend and tech-savvy blogger Mack introduced me to Trello. I enjoyed using Trello for its flexibility of boards/lists/cards, its highly visual format and its many integrations with other programs like Google Drive. However, when I left Edmonton I needed a list just for me, not for a team. Many task managers required me to assign tasks to me which is an unnecessary step. In one evening of persistence and nerdiness, I tried about 10 different programs and landed on Toodledo. Toodledo, with its punny name, is a simple task manager with handy features like Habits, Outlines and Lists to record items beyond the basic Tasks list. It handles everything I want it to do very well and has improved its features and aesthetic over the few months I’ve been using it. A big perk of both Trello and Toodledo is that are free to use with paid “Gold” versions for additional features.

Rainbow over the Danube
Our lives online and off-line are filled with more tasks and diversions than minutes in a day. Finding a way to record the important tasks and creating space to see how those tasks build something valuable in the long-term are important processes to progress towards your personal goals and not simply tread water. A to-do list is a simple but effective tactic to achieve this clarity. It can be the fanciest app or the simplest notepad, so long as it works for you.

What is your favourite way to keep a to-do list?



4 thoughts on “An Ode to the To-Do List

  • December 5, 2015 at 5:43 pm

    Thank you Hannah!!….this post truly speaks to me!!!
    I have never made lists….but have felt the weight of trying to keep things organized in my mind!!!!….nor have I kept a journal…this blog has inspired me to head out to purchase two journals…..I will let you know my progress as I put pen to paper and perhaps enjoy freeing up space in this sometimes overcrowded mind!!!
    I am enjoying reading all of your posts!!
    Sending love from Fundas to you and Derek!!!

    • December 6, 2015 at 1:12 pm

      Thanks for your feedback, Karen! I’m so glad you liked the post. And one of the notebooks I mentioned is one that you gave to me as I left Fundas! I hope you find clarity and satisfaction in your to-do lists, and I look forward to hearing about it! Big hugs to all the Gerums from Budapest!

  • December 6, 2015 at 8:55 pm

    Great post! I tend to use Trello for planning and things that are bigger than mere “is it done or not” tasks. For those, I settled on Wunderlist! Mainly because it works well on Windows.

    • December 6, 2015 at 10:57 pm

      Thanks, Mack! And that’s a great differentiator – Trello works so well to layout a whole project, but not as well on those satisfying little check-offs. Thanks again for introducing me to Trello, by the way!

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