Arrow left iconBack to thoughts

Project management and the art of the to-do list

by Harry Wray

We work in a world of information overload. Facts, decisions and tasks are thrown at us from all directions, in all contexts, from all media. We have a wealth of tools and apps to help us organise our lives, but how do we avoid the inertia that comes from so much choice?

Outsourcing to devices to organise our work and personal data has become part of how we manage our lives. It means we’re all project managers sifting through what’s relevant, needed and most urgent. How do we make sure we still get things done that aren’t urgent at all? We all have our personal systems to get things done – but what tools do we use to help us, what processes do we follow and how do we adapt these to suit our own ways of working?

The to-do list is perhaps the most personal of these processes, developed to suit how we work, and refined over time to the nature of what we do. To do is to plan; to plan is an art.

I did some research into the to-do list at work: what works for who, and why. Here are some highlights.

The COO method: Post-it™ notes

A tried and tested method – it’s hard to beat the efficacy of a simple post-it.

How it works:

  • Urgent jobs go on post-its, and can’t be removed until they’re done.
  • They have high visibility: they get stuck on a desk, next to where you’re working.


The Operations Manager method: Bullet Journal

You’ve no doubt heard this term being thrown around between friends or colleagues. Defined as the ‘analogue system for the digital age’.

How it works:

  • It’s a seamless blend of your work and personal life – using different symbols for different activities.
  • Urgent things go on the today list, and each day you make a new list.
  • You can deprioritise things to a ‘someday’ list.
  • Bullet journalling is a cult and it’s crazy. Watch: how to do it here.


The Experience Director method: Desktop to-do list

This method is especially effective for those who are surgically attached to their laptops.

How it works:

  • New tasks are added to a desktop app as they come up.
  • Things get checked off as and when they get done.
  • Your work and your to-dos are all in one place.


The Editor method: Diary or calendar

A personal, private method for organising your tasks.

How it works:

  • This list is written at the start of every week, and you check-in at the end of each day.
  • Anything not done rolls over to the next day.
  • No-one else is allowed to edit or write in the book.


The Producer method: Personal kanban

A method of tracking things that’s great for compartmentalising, and for projects with lots of moving parts.

How it works:

  • Kanban tools such as Trello allow you to put individual cards in daily columns.
  • You move cards as they happen, and update them at the end/start of each day.
  • It sounds nerdy; that’s because it is. Read more on the different methods here.


The Creative Director method: App

Apps like have gamified the to-do list method, making the process all the more satisfactory.

How it works:

This method combines personal and work to-dos, clearly identifying where they belong.

  • Today, tomorrow and upcoming to-dos are separately listed.
  • Anything not done automatically moves to the next day’s list.
  • It looks nice and it’s got everyone excited


For me, there’s simple comfort in a piece of paper telling me what to do. At work, pen on paper means it’s there, all the time, not going away until it’s either done or no longer relevant. It helps me to feel pressure to get through the most urgent things, to delegate, plan my day or even just put the accelerator on. But outside of work, I’m tied to Wunderlist app on my iPhone. It’s always with me; I often add jobs on the move and I can make multiple types of lists (things I wish James Dyson would reinvent, places I want to travel, top 5 anything etc.). Then there’s the motivation hack of clicking a checkbox and hearing the chime that means ‘getting shit done!’.

For project managers, sophisticated plans and elaborate lists are a way of life. But for the rest of us, our to-do lists can be as simple or as elaborate as we choose. Whatever gets the job done.

C'mon, that’s not a real email
Thanks for subscribing
Nice email!
Promise we won’t spam
Something went wrong. Please try again later.
Stay ahead
Sign up to One step ahead to see what inspires our thinking.
Press ENTER to submit