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The Tools I Use: To-Do Lists

efficiency goals organization productivity Jul 30, 2023
Close up image of fingers holding a compass.

Over the next few weeks, I am going to share some of my favorite productivity tools. Because they’re so foundational, I decided to start by tackling to-do lists.

When looking for tools to help you out, the first question is, “What’s your natural way of thinking about the information you want to store?

I think of my to-do list as a compass.


Imagine I want to travel overland to an ocean in the West, but I don't have a map or modern technology. I would not simply start walking in a direction I thought was West. I’d use a compass, orient myself, pick a landmark in that direction, and then walk toward it.

Once I reached that landmark, I’d check out my surroundings and reorient, given my new location.


Let’s say that one of my landmarks turned out to be a cliff that was impossible to climb. Obviously, I would change direction. But I would continue using my compass to understand where I was headed in relation to my final destination so once I was past the obstacle, I'd have a better chance of getting back on my desired route. 

This capacity to orient myself daily, while keeping the big picture in mind, is how my to-do lists benefit me.


I start my to-do lists by dreaming and recording my aspirations. For dreaming, I use paper or poster board, pens, markers, and even glitter. I don’t have rules for this process. I simply think about where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing and then wonder about what would be inspiring or helpful to do next.

Once I’m done dreaming, I move on to my rolling wave planning. In broad strokes, I imagine what I might need to do in the next year and then the next 6-months. I don’t start planning in detail until I get to the three months before me.                                                  


When I'm done planning, I take photos of what I’ve written and save them to a notes app. Any action items in my three-month window get typed into my Trello app.



My primary to-do list tool is Trello. It's easiest to think of Trello as a digital representation of a corkboard with columns like this:


The columns are labeled and hold index cards. They can be moved around to adjust their order:


And the column titles can be changed:

The index cards can be flipped over to add important information:

Including due dates, links, and checklists:

You can keep things fun by adding stickers:


A confetti, pants, or fireworks emoji added to the column title will create a celebration when you drop a card there.



These are the boards I keep front and center:


  • The Quest Log holds my dreams and aspirations, my Northstar.
  • My Active Missions board has 7 columns I’ll detail below. 
  • Inspired Storm holds my work action items that get pulled over to my Active Missions board at the appropriate time.
  • The Acquisition List is my shopping list and is shared with my family members so anyone can add to it.
  • The Food board holds my healthy meal ideas so I don’t have to think about what I want to eat. I included photos to make it easier to choose:


The Active Missions board is where I keep the things I’m working on this quarter. These are the columns I have there:

  • Upcoming Missions (for the quarter)
  • Current Missions (for the next two weeks)
  • In Progress (the 2-4 things I’m working on today)
  • Completed Missions
  • Incoming Directives (things I need to get done that haven’t been categorized yet, this gets populated from my email and Alexa)
  • Waiting (things I’m waiting on from other people)
  • Delegate (things I can assign to someone)

Here's how I create my In Progress list.

  1. On my quarterly retreat I do rolling wave planning and populate my Upcoming Missions  to-do list.
  2. Every two weeks, I do a quick planning session and drag tasks from Upcoming Missions into Current Missions.
  3. Each night before bed, I decide what to work on the next day and pull 2-4 items from Current Missions into In Progress.

Some may find my system overwhelming. But it doesn’t feel that way to me because I designed it for the way I think and work.


By taking time to plan, I lift a lot of weight from my mental load. I always make sure my quarterly retreats are relaxing and fun as well as productive — it hardly feels like work. And in-between, my planning sessions are short and to the point.



  •  Try to hold everything in my head simultaneously.
  • Sift through a massive to-do list every day.
  • Sort out my priorities in the middle of the day; I already know what they are.
  • Worry about dropping things on the ground. (By the way, I do drop things on the ground… but I don't worry about it because I know what I'm dropping.)

I think it would be hard to work exclusively on paper or digitally. It took me a while to find my sweet spot. I like the freedom to go wild with my markers, but I needed tools that made it easy to enter and retrieve information.


In addition to simply typing into the app, I can add cards to my Trello board via widgets on my phone, emailing to my board, using one of Trello's numerous app integrations, or speaking into the room: “Alexa, add ‘email John’ to my to-do list” or “Alexa, add tomatoes to my shopping list.” (This is achieved using IFTTT)

I chose Trello because I wanted my list available on my computer, smartphone, and web browser. I may or may not have a notebook with me, but I will always have my phone.

Trello is just one of many apps designed for implementing boards with columns of cards. You can look up “Apps for Personal Kanban” if you'd like to explore other options.


If tech isn’t your thing, no problem, you can use an actual cork board or a dry erase board with sticky notes. The best option for you is whatever you'll enjoy and use!


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