Hacking My To-do List

One of my biggest struggles involves channeling my excitement and energy for my different projects into successful execution. It’s difficult to channel the youthful vigor I have towards my startup and the community I organize into actionable goals and effective executions. I get really excited about my passions and over time I’ve come to learn some techniques for channeling that passion into productivity.

Analog Wins

I, personally, experience more satisfaction when creating my to-dos in a notebook than I do in a digital to-do list. The smooth feeling of pen on paper as I cross out yet another task or write another goal is satisfying beyond belief. I generally keep all my notes and to-dos in a single notebook that serves as a journal of sorts. When the notebook has been filled, I can fondly look back at all the accomplishments and interesting insights I have gained over several months. Some people are quite particular about their notebooks and I’m definitely not one of those people. I generally prefer larger notebooks over smaller ones and will only write on quad-lined paper. Why? Because you can write horizontally and vertically, sketch out nice tables and graphs, and create a neat table of contents. I’m currently working through a pack of quad-lined journals from Moleskin. The paper is crisp and the soft-beige view acts as a perfect backdrop to any pen color. I guess this means I am one of those people who is particular about their notebooks. I purchased the notebooks a long time ago from a local art store and they are unfortunately unavailable online, otherwise I would most certainly share.

Stateful To-do Lists

When I started off managing my to-dos on paper, I used a simple square that I would check off when I completed a task. Over time, I realized that this was not the best way to channel productivity. I forced myself to be too focused on the completion of tasks as opposed to prioritization of tasks so I developed a new labeling technique for my tasks. Instead of using squares, I used rounded circles to outline tasks that needed to be completed. The priority of a particular task was directly correlated with the size of the circle so that higher priority items had a larger circle. Tasks that were menial or quick to do were denoted with a half circle. Once a task was completed, I would slowly fill in the circle or half circle and relish in the satisfaction of yet another completed task. I’m constantly evolving the states I associate with different tasks and I’m sure I’ll be adding more shapes and qualifiers as I gain a more nuanced perspective into the nature of my to-do list.

Timing It

One habit I’ve been practicing for several years, since high school in fact, is measuring and limiting the amount of time I expect to complete on a certain task. When I create my to-do list, I write down the amount of time that I hope to take to complete a particular tasks. For example, it should take me 30 minutes to clear my in box (ha!) or 20 minutes to write a section of a tech talk. After I’ve completed the task, I log the amount of time that it actually took to complete and use it to estimate the completion time of similar tasks in the future. I’ve essentially ramified my task completion process. As I work on a task, I’m more focused because I know I want to be able to finish it under X minutes. As I become more proficient at a certain type of task I reduce the amount of time I want to spend on it. I’m literally racing against the clock when I work through my to-do list and it’s a delightful process.

Action Verbs and Numbers

When I started out with to-do lists back in high school, I would set up really vague tasks such as “Work on final project for history class.” What does that even mean? Over time I learned that there are more effective ways to write out tasks. I try to avoid the verb “work” and use verbs like “complete” or “finalize” which emphasize the fact that I am trying to get something done. I’ve also started to quantify and section out how much I want to get done, for example, I’ll create tasks like “Write 2 pages for final paper” or “Write 4 paragraphs for new blog post.” Having a quantifiable metric for the things that I want to get done has had a huge impact on my productivity, focus, and enthusiasm. In general, I make sure that every task I write down has a meaningful verb and a quantifiable measurement for completion.


So, that’s how I turn my passion into purpose. For the most part, it involves packing the right amount of detail and quantifiable metrics into my to-do list. With a robust to-do list by my side, I’m ready to take on the world!

I’m constantly evolving my task management techniques to maximize productivity. If you have techniques that you would like to share, feel free to hit me up on Twitter.

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