Making a Simple To Do List the Intuitive Way

Do you tend to constantly think about what you want to do next, whether it be tomorrow, next week, next month, next year?  Does replaying your plans and To Do list in your head drain you of your time, productivity, and energy?  The solution is deceptively easy: get used to writing down these plans step by step and filing them away in Evernote, preferably using the GTD system.  (If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend you go over my basic system for using GTD with Evernote as I’ll assume you’ve internalized that material for the rest of the article.)


I’m a big fan of the GTD (Getting Things Done) even though I don’t actually follow it to the letter.  One of the most amazing aspects of the system is how it encourages you to get thoughts out of your head, usually thoughts about what you want to do, whether it is something simple and mundane like washing your car or more complex like brainstorming ideas for your next online business.  Great ideas, as well as fleeting memories about an important obligation you haven’t completed, often spontaneously evaporate from your mind, just like how they’ve haphazardly entered it.  Capturing these fleeting thoughts is no trivial task and the GTD system is an excellent but still imperfect for doing this job.


When you have a bunch of independent tasks that you need to do, like getting groceries after work, booking plane tickets for your next trip, researching a new mobile provider, etc. then getting these things out of your head and into the GTD System is easy.  But if the tasks you’re agonizing over are interdependent and part of a single project (i.e. Step 1: Buy Groceries.  Step 2: Chop the vegetables.  Step 3: Cook), then merging these thoughts onto your Simple To Do List or GTD “folders” can be confusing.  In other words, it doesn’t make much sense to file “Buy Groceries” in your 2-Next folder and “Chop the vegetables” into the 3-Soon folder if you need to buy groceries first before you can start chopping veggies, for example.


Enter the Deceptively Simple To Do List


Yep, this is all you need to do:


  1. Open up a document
  2. Write down all the steps for the project from start to finish.
  3. File it away in Evernote, preferably in the appropriate GTD Folder (1-Now, 2-Next, etc.)


That’s it!


When you first get started, don’t think too hard or go into too many details.  Just do a brain dump and outline, at a high level, what you intend to do from start to finish for that particular project.  You can go back later and modify the steps or add more details.  This is also why I recommend a computer document over pencil and paper, contrary to what some purists preach: “pen and paper is all you need.”  If you decide against using a computer, then at least use index cards because it’s easy to change the order later on.


Further Tips and Refinements


If you just do the 2 simple steps above every time you have a giant project you can’t stop thinking about, then you’ll already be ahead of at least 50% of the population in organizing and planning your projects and obligations.  But don’t just stop there; we’ve got more improvements to make to your simple to do list!


Having an outline of your project from start to finish is better than nothing but often, it’s not sufficient.  You’re still gonna be agonizing over the details of the project over and over again before you take any action, and sometimes in the midst of your agonizing, you might come up with a great idea or two.  You’d want to get these ideas out of your head and into Evernote as soon as possible!  Go back to your simple to do list and see if there are any steps that have been bugging you a lot.  If so, sit down and break down that step into smaller micro-steps.


Also, take a look at the order you’ve chosen for the project.  Does it still make any sense?  Have you already gotten started on it and realized some unexpected changes or hurdles that necessitate changing the order?  Although many projects can take on more than one single sequence of steps, you still need to decide on a specific order and write it down.  Otherwise, you’ll end up jumping between different steps of the project instead of focusing on one step at a time.  Strive to order the steps in an optimal way but remember: having AN order down is still better than having NO order at all!


An Example: Booking a Vacation


Suppose you’re planning a vacation.  You might draft an outline of the steps of your project as follows:


  1. Research plane tickets and determine the best days to leave and return.
  2. Ask boss for time off during your desired period.
  3. Book the plane tickets.
  4. Research attractions at your destination.
  5. Book hotels.
  6. Book a rental car.


So you create an entry in Evernote that looks like the following:


evernote simple to do list


Later, maybe it finally dawns on you that there are a ton of potential attractions at your destination.  Your mind is constantly nagging to you when you’re going about your day that your Step 4 isn’t detailed enough.  So you decide to expand it into several additional step:


  • Use Wikitravel and Virtual Tourist to locate some spots to visit.
  • Ask some friends who have visited there what their recommendations are.
  • Visit a regional forum (i.e. City-Data) to connect with locals there and hear their recommendations.
  • Decide on the spots to visit and put them into a list in Evernote.
  • Use to decide on an optimal order to visit the spots.


So you replace Step 4 with the above steps in your note:


evernote initial to do list2


You decide that since your trip is only about a month away, it’s urgent that you get the ball rolling on your planning.  So you drag this note into your 1-Now folder in Evernote as per the GTD system:


evernote gtd



Now, if I were actually planning a trip in practice, I’d be expanding a few more of the steps I’ve outlined before proceeding.


Finally, once you’ve started taking action, you can cross off the steps you’ve completed from your simple to do list:


evernote completed




See?  That wasn’t TOO hard, wasn’t it?  That’s the beauty of making these simple to do lists: you can choose how detailed you make them but it’s better having a brief and high level one than none at all.  While there’s little need to do this for simple and quick tasks like feeding your cat, you should definitely get into a habit of breaking down a project into linear steps and recording them down if you find yourself thinking about it excessively while taking relatively little action.

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