How I Hacked My To-Do List For My Most Productive Year Ever

Melanie Mignucci/Andrew Zaeh for Bustle

I have a confession to make. This is an article about how I hacked my to-do list to make me a productive-ass Capricorn who never (never!) forgets anything, but you won’t find any color coded bullet journals here. I don’t have an intricate system of pens, or a minimalist leather notebook that makes me look like a French architect to passersby. What I do have is a cold, effective to-do list system that helped me keep all (yes, all) my deadlines, take on complicated projects that ended up being major professional accomplishments, and made 2018 my most productive year ever.

I used to be a handwritten-lists-for-days kind of gal, with the Le Pen pens and Moleskines to prove it. (Is it very obvious that I am single-white-female-ing a French architect?) In high school, when my to-do list mainly consisted of homework assignments and collages I wanted to make, I was a devotee of Moleskine’s 12-month weekly planner, which handily provided space to write down what was due each day, with room on the recto to write down other looming tasks. I kept other notebooks and journals filled with scribbled lists, comprising things I had to do, things I wanted to buy for myself, and things I wanted for my future. To do: Write acclaimed novel, move to Buenos Aires, buy non-drugstore mascara.

Needless to say, none of these things (except for the mascara) ever got checked off. The system was all over the place, but also everything on it was highly theoretical, without any concrete goals or timelines or ways to achieve these things. I considered myself to be very organized insofar as I went to the length to write things down, but once they were written down, there wasn’t much of a system to actually do something with them.

As it turns out, this was highly to my detriment. After I graduated college, I got my first grown-up job, which was an administrative role that involved coordinating a lot of moving parts, including other people’s schedules. I was way, way over my head. Despite the fact that I kept records of everything, my system wasn’t helping me actually move those records off the page. I constantly got in trouble for forgetting things, or leaving things to the last minute, or not checking off all the moving parts of a task.

I took my to-do list off the company’s very chic monogrammed notepads and migrated it to my iPhone’s notes app, which I could then sync to my home computer and my work computer. I kept one big, long to-do list in a note that I could access from anywhere, at any time, and was diligent about marking tasks with an “x," to show that I’d done them. But at the end of the day, my to-do list would look like this:

Only a slight exaggeration. Melanie Mignucci/Bustle

After I left that job for my current one, I let my to-do list system relax. Since I was solely in charge of my own schedule and responsibilities, I was able to keep track of things with the help of Google Calendar and my brain. It wasn’t that I didn’t write anything down, but the outside systems that were in place were enough to everything running smoothly.

That was until I wanted to take on more projects and responsibilities. I pitched my boss a longer-term project that I could only accomplish by managing hard deadlines, coordinating efforts with people I didn’t work with every day, and following up, constantly. I needed a system that showed not only what I had to accomplish, but the little steps I needed to take to get there. I also needed to see it at a glance in a way that showed what was high-priority and needed to happen yesterday, and what was a little less urgent, or that I could spend more time on.

So I developed a slightly more involved system, based on my old iPhone note, with sections laid out like this:

  • Today
  • This Week
  • Later This Week
  • Long Term

It is far from scientific, and it is far from perfect, but it lets me see exactly what’s on the tin: what I need to do today, what I need to do in the next two days, what can wait till Friday, and what I want to do in the long-term. Once I complete a task, I just delete it. (If I need to remember it to follow up, I make a new entry to follow up on it.) In the long-term section, I keep notes about future big projects I want to execute, story ideas I want to flesh out further, articles I need to assign at a future date, and other things that aren’t going to get checked off any time soon. When I need to add sections, like if I have a bigger project where I want to see all my tasks for it in one chunk, I add it. And it’s still synced across my work computer, my home computer, and my iPhone, so I can add things to it anytime.

Is it a sexy to-do list system? Only if you, like me, have five different planets in Capricorn in your birth chart. It’s not a bullet journal, it’s not color-coded, and it’s definitely not cool. But it works for me — and, if you’re looking to take your productivity up a notch in 2019, it might just work for you, too.