Between a full-time job, a growing family, and five-too-many hobbies, it can be a challenge to stay on top of my to-do list and organize my life.
And yet, when I’m overwhelmed, I often make the mistake of seeking out new and elaborate solutions to my organizational woes:
- I read blog posts about complex productivity systems and frameworks.
- I browse Amazon for new books on organization and time management.
- I spend hours designing intricate spreadsheets to tack my time and to-dos.
Or at least, that’s what I used to do.
These days, I use a surprisingly simple but effective method to organize my life and stay on top of my to-dos. And as a result, I do a pretty good job of keeping my levels of stress, anxiety, and overwhelm under control.
I call it, The 3 Little Lists.
- The Daily Index
- The Weekly Scratch Pad
- The Monthly Bucket List
List #1: The Daily Index
At first glance The Daily Index looks like a simple to-do list. But it has a very specific format and ritual that make it much more powerful.
Here’s how it works:
- Every day before I leave work, I pull out a blank 3×5 index card.
- I write the name of the next day on top then draw a horizontal line across the middle of the card.
- Above the line, I list the 3 most important things I want to accomplish the following day. If necessary, I add items from The Weekly Scratch Pad (see #2 below).
- Below the line, I list as many other things as I would like to get done (I use the back of the index card if this part of the list gets too long).
- I leave this card face up on my desk overnight so that when I get to work each morning and sit down, I know exactly what I need to do.
I think there are two big reasons The Daily Index is so helpful:
- The Top 3. The problem with a traditional simple to-do list is that not all to-dos are created equal. With a traditional simple to-do list, it’s easy to get confused and uncertain about which tasks are most important. What’s more, it can be tempting to procrastinate on big items by crossing off little items. The Daily Index takes care of these issues because it forces you to prioritize your work ahead of time, commit to it, and not get distracted from them during the course of the day.
- The 4:55 Drill. While the index card itself obviously isn’t essential to the process, even the 3 priority to-dos aren’t actually the most powerful part. For me, the ritual of deciding on my daily to-dos the day before is crucial. For one thing, as I discussed in my article on The 4:55 Drill, figuring out and committing to my tasks for the next day helps me relax during the evening and not take my work home with me. Additionally, I’m far less likely to procrastinate and get distracted when I first sit down to work in the morning if there are three super clear to-dos on a nice little index card staring up at me from my desk.
So, get yourself a nice stack of 3×5 index cards and try it out!
List #2: The Weekly Scratch Pad
The Weekly Scratch Pad is my take on The Weekly Review from David Allen’s excellent Getting Things Done system (If you do really want a more in-depth organizational/productivity system, this is the gold standard).
Just like The Daily Index is the one container for everything you need to do each day, The Weekly Scratch Pad is your container for everything you need to get done each week.
Here’s how it works:
- Every Friday afternoon, I take out a legal pad, flip to a fresh page and jot down everything I need to do or would like to do the following week.
- In addition to my own, off-the-top-of-my-head brainstorming, I also look at the current week’s Scratch Pad and transfer over any unfinished items as appropriate.
- Then I pull out my Monthly Bucket List, (see below) briefly scan it, and transfer any projects that I’m ready to start working on to the Scratch Pad.
- I then create my Daily Index for the following Monday using this new Weekly Scratch Pad.
- At the end of every day, when I’m putting together my daily index for the following day, I cross off items from the scratch pad that I accomplished that day.
List #3: The Monthly Bucket List
The Monthly Bucket List is the most unusual of my three lists. Its basic purpose is to be a single container for all the projects in my life that I am either currently involved in or would like to do at some point.
It’s a single sheet of blank paper divided up into discreet categories or “buckets,” each of which represents a major area of my life or work.
For example, I have the bucket called “NickWignall.com.” This bucket contains anything related to my website, writing, newsletter, etc. It includes items like “website re-design next year,” “possible podcast,” “talk to an accountant about bookkeeping,” “revise old posts,” etc.
Some examples of other buckets I currently have on my list are “Personal”, “Home”, and “CBIA” (my work).
How it works:
- Around the first Friday of every month, I take out my Monthly Bucket List and review each bucket, removing or editing projects that I am actively working on.
- After a few rounds of this, the list starts looking pretty messy, so I get out a fresh piece of paper and create a new version.
- As new ideas for projects come up, I immediately add them to The Monthly Bucket List.
A few more notes about The Monthly Bucket List
Importantly, The Monthly Bucket List is NOT a place for specific tasks or to-do list items. It’s primarily a place for general projects or ideas, each of which likely contains multiple to-do tasks.
For example, “Talk to an accountant about bookkeeping” isn’t actually a single task. If I decided I was ready to take action on that project, I would break it down into specific tasks like “research accountants in Albuquerque,” “come up with a list of questions for a potential accountant re: NW.com,” “Schedule an initial consultation with an accountant,” etc.
What this means is that The Monthly Bucket List is for projects or ideas you are not yet ready to take action on but intend to at some point in the future.
I try to be as strict as possible with this distinction because it helps me stay clear about what I actually need to be working on and what I can temporarily “forget about,” confident that it is down on paper and I can get always find it and get to it later.
This sharp distinction between active and inactive projects is the key, I think, to minimizing anxiety and overwhelm with our work and to-dos.
The Importance of Capture
Of course, none of this works without an easy and reliable method for getting items into my lists in the first place.
Many of the items on my Daily Index, for example, come from my Weekly Scratch Pad, which in turn gets many of its items from The Monthly Bucket List.
But obviously, new stuff will come up all the time:
- Your boss asks you to send an email to so-and-so about such-and-such.
- A great idea for a new business pops into your head while you’re changing your daughter’s diaper.
- The car throws a check engine light first thing Monday morning.
Having an easy and reliable for getting these spontaneous things into your lists is essential.
As much as possible, I try to physically add these to my lists immediately. And this is the reason I like index cards so much for the Daily Index: I can carry them around anywhere!
If something new comes up, I can quickly scribble a note onto the card and then it will find its way onto either The Scratch Pad or The Monthly Bucket List the next afternoon when I sit down to create my next Daily Index.
I will also admit that I have a file in my phone’s notes app called “Capture” that I use for the same purpose. So I guess technically it’s a 4-List system 🙂
While a good organizational system supports effectiveness in my work, if I’m honest, the more important reason I try to stay organized is that it helps me feel more calm and less overwhelmed.
I really don’t like feeling stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed. And nothing helps me achieve that more than a simple but reliable system that I can organize my life with.
I know a lot of people who claim to be very organized, but in reality, they’re profoundly stressed and overwhelmed. They have fifteen different to-do lists, multiple productivity apps on their phone, hundreds of spreadsheets, and yet… they’re constantly frantic and overwhelmed.
When you look closely or talk to people like this, the problem is often too much of an organizational system. Their process for staying organized is so complex, haphazard, and difficult to use, that they end up even more disorganized and stressed than they would be otherwise.
Which is why I wrote this article.
My 3 Little Lists may not work perfectly for you and your life. If I’m honest, I don’t even use it perfectly or completely consistently.
But the deeper point is that a good organizational system should probably be simpler than you think it needs to be.
So it’s worth taking time to reflect a bit on the ways in which you do or do not stay organized, and ask, is this working? If not, could it benefit from a simpler, more streamlined approach?