Updated on 09.29.14

How to Organize Ideas Using Online Checklists

Trent Hamm

Last Sunday, I posted a detailed review of Mark Forster’s excellent time management book Do It Tomorrow. During the review, I mentioned that I had actually started using several of the ideas from that book, mixed them together with ideas from Getting Things Done, and started using my own task and idea management system based on TaDaList. I’ve been using this system for a few months now and it works really well for helping me keep track of my ideas, moving forward on larger projects, and also keeping focus on what I need to be doing each day.

Quite a few people wrote in and asked me to walk through what I’m doing. It’s actually pretty simple, but hopefully it’ll make sense to you and you can find something useful from what I’m doing.

What’s TaDaList?

TaDaList is a free checklist manager without many bells and whistles at all. Instead, it just strives to be as clean and as simple as possible. Over the last year, I’ve migrated to using it for my checklists from my old favorite, Remember the Milk, which was suffering from a bit of feature creep and unnecessary clutter (though, lately, it seems that they’ve gone in a more simplified direction, so I may move back to using Remember the Milk because there are some bells and whistles there I like).

Basically, both TaDaList and Remember the Milk (you can do everything I describe here using either one, and they’re both good) allow you to easily create checklists, add items to checklists, reorder those items, and check them off as you go along. Given that they’re both web-based and both have good mobile support, you can easily use either one from pretty much any device that has net access.

Daily To-Do List

One thing I do each evening, as my last work task of the day, is prepare my to-do list for the next day. Here’s a peek at my to-do list for October 2 (a screenshot from TaDaList).

to do list

As you can see, my big focus for October 2 is getting four posts written, which I consider to be a good (but not necessarily great) day for article writing.

Rocks and Sand

Another thing worth noticing is the ordering of the tasks. Let’s look at that list again.

rocks and sand

You’ll noticed I’ve highlighted two different groups of tasks. The first grouping, noted in red, are what I like to call “rocks.” They’re items that require me to close my email program, get rid of distractions, and focus intensely for an hour or two. These tasks are the big things I want to get done today.

What about the other tasks, the ones marked in green? Those tasks are “sand.” They can be done without intense focused concentration. They can be done in five minutes, or done with regular interruption. They are the things I do in between the “rock” tasks. Many days, I have other tasks like “Call Mom” or “Send niece an email” and so on.

I learned about the whole “rocks” and “sand” distinction from Stephen Covey’s First Things First, which I consider to be by far his best work.

So, during a normal day, I alternate between the tasks at the top of the list (where I buckle down and focus) and the tasks at the bottom (which I can do with great flexibility and interruption).

The advantage of doing things this way is that I can deal with any urgent task within a couple of hours no matter what’s going on, plus I get the focus and concentration I need to write good, detailed posts that actually contain useful and worthwhile thoughts and information.

Focus on an Ongoing Project

You’ll also notice the first item on that list, “One hour on book marketing project,” is also a bit different. My “book marketing project,” something I’m working on to support the release of my book in December, is something that is a good-sized project, not really one I can complete in a single day.

I have a lot of these projects that I want to work on – things from a proposal for a second book to a video experiment. But each of these projects are much bigger than I can get done in a single day, and I have tasks that I need to get done each day – writing articles and so forth.

So I devote an hour each day – usually the first hour of the day – to one of my ongoing projects. In Do It Tomorrow, Forster refers to this idea as the “current initiative” – and it’s helped me get through several very big projects recently.

I also usually start a separate checklist for whatever my “current initiative” is, especially if it has lots of short sub-steps along the way. Then, I just spend an hour each day working through this checklist.

Random Thoughts, Ideas, and Appointments

When I’m out and about, I tend to record my random thoughts and ideas in my pocket notebook, but when I’m at the computer, I tend to simply use a separate checklist for recording random thoughts and tasks. I usually open up a new browser window with an empty checklist that I call “GTD Inbox” and whenever I have a thought of some sort, I just type it quickly there, adding a new item to the list, and then get back to the task I’m focused on. Then, later, I process everything in that “inbox” list, dealing with it right then or adding it to a later to-do list.

I also “schedule” appointments with to-do lists. I start lists up to a month or two in advance and add items to it that need to be handled on that day, like making certain phone calls or sending invoices. If it’s at a certain time, I put the time right at the start of the item – like “9 AM – Take daughter to doctor’s appointment.” Since I look at the list quite often during the day, I’m continually reminded of that appointment. It doesn’t entirely replace my calender, but it’s certainly a powerful complement.

Good Luck!
This is exactly how I deal with my blocks of work time during my days. I’ve been using this pattern for about two months and even though several personal matters have distracted me during this period, sapping away my work time, I’ve felt very productive since adopting it. It keeps me on appropriate tasks throughout the day and also lets me deal effectively with my random thoughts, too.

I hope it points you towards something useful, too.

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. Your Friendly Neighborhood Computer Guy says:

    Wow, VERY timely post! I was just looking at strategies for online task-keeping, but wasn’t finidng anything that perfectly matched what I was looking for. Yesterday I finally settled on RememberTheMilk.com, wich I liked because it integrates with google aps like gmail and gcal, and can synchronize with my windows mobile phone easily. I’ll have to check this one out as well.

    The one feature I notice is lacking in both apps is a way to tie smaller tasks into larger goals, or in this artilce what you call “initiatives”. I’d like a way to set a larger goal, and then break the goal up into tasks. As each task is completed, it accounts for it counts that toward the larger goal and at any given time I can see how close I am to acheiving that goal…all in one app. Does anyone know of anything that can do that?

  2. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Remember the Milk is more feature robust, but I really don’t need all the bells and whistles that it provides for what I’m doing.

    I don’t know of any tools that do things like that. I just use a checklist – the more crossed-off items, the closer I am.

  3. Your Friendly Neighborhood Computer Guy says:

    I agree, the simpler, the better, when it comes to checklist apps.

  4. Joe says:

    Great post. Remember the Milk has become indispensable for me. It also helps that it integrates with GMail so I don’t even have to navigate to the RTM site.

  5. I use a similar system. Only I use my Windows Mobile Phone. I use a software called ListPro. You can indent and set todos right within it. The idea of indenting and outlining is very important to me. I also use the built in todo list for some things because it syncs with my work computer.

    Another valuable software is evernote. If I have a random idea I just jot it down on evernote and sync it. I can access my list from my home and work compters and via my phone. It’s a pretty great way to keep track.


  6. Walt says:

    I LOVE tadalist. Couldn’t live without it. And the iPhone site is incredible, allowing me to manage it beautifully on the go.

  7. Mike Nash says:

    My favorite is Toodledo at http://www.toodledo.com The free version does a lot of what i need -but i upgraded to the Pro ($14.95/year) to enable sub tasks.

  8. Chris Schmitz says:

    All the Gmailers out there might want to check out http://www.rememberthemilk.com/

    It’s a great add-on for Gmail and has many more features than tadalist.

  9. I tried a few of these online task managing programs. I find TODOIST and Remember The Milk are the best two. My problem is I use them for a few days and then I return to traditional way – jotting down everything on a piece of paper or in a notebook.
    A Dawn Journal

  10. Kacper says:

    Got question for people who also use tadalist. How many lists on average do you have?

    Quite often I have more that 20 and then it is little uncomfortable because I can’t group them in any way or even sort them. Changing order after adding new item to list is also a little annoying. How do you handle these?

  11. moneyclip says:

    I am not a huge list fan. I just can’t get into making lists, following them, updating them and keeping them in some sort of coherent amalgamation of things to do. I usually try to keep a running tally in my head, and then organize it while I have some down side in my head. It’s worked well for me so far.

    It’s like anytime I have been given any sort of planner, planning software, list makers, I start it, but then I lose interest rather quickly.

    How do you maintain the interest if you are not a list type?

  12. Mark says:

    Are any of the reccomendations pro-active? I’m all for finding some sort of ‘list/notes’ program that stores information online, but my problem is I have to force myself to check the list websites.

    I’d love if there was one that I could add to the google toolbar or an add-on to the web browser so it’s always available with one click.

  13. Mike Dunham says:

    I can’t get into RTM either, but I keep my lists in a different way, which is apparently somewhat unusual – I use Google Calendar. I have four personal calendars, labeled “To-Do” (which is my main calendar), “Work” (for appointments and other things that have an actual time), “Personal”, and “Birthdays and Anniversaries” (which has a different default reminder than the rest). The reason “To-Do” is my main calendar is that I can use the ‘q’ shortcut to quickly add another task (which can only be connected to your “main” calendar, which you can’t change for some stupid reason). When I finish the task, I just delete it, which is analogous to checking it off. If it needs to get pushed to the next day, or week, or whatever, I can just drag it to the appropriate day. GCal can be configured to email you daily agendas, but I don’t bother.

    I supplement this with Jott (www.jott.com) – Trent, you should really take a look at this. You could theoretically do everything you do in TaDaList in Jott instead, with the added bonus that you could add to it with a phone call from anywhere. So if I think of something but I’m not near my computer, I call Jott and leave myself a message. The next time I’m at my computer, I transfer my Jott-ed tasks to GCal.

    Works for me. YMMV.

  14. Itay says:

    I use a notepad. paper one, that is.
    And it works just fine.
    I can access it whenever I need to because I carry it with me, I can arrange the list in wharever way I feel like, and I don’t share tasks, I give them and make sure they are done by using a unique “talk with people” feature given to us on birth.

    I frankly despise the whole “task sharing” virtual features. In my organization I’ve found that it cuts communication to a minimum, and never replaces a conversation with your collegue or employee… Which is why I’ll never leave an online task to my spouse.

  15. SteveJ says:

    @Mark – I just saw this on lifehacker today (if you use outlook):


    Lifehacker has also reviewed tools like samurize which embeds text files on your desktop. I haven’t heard of anything that ties into tadalist, though I’d hope someone’s worked out how to do active desktop better.

    I used to use tadalist but I just couldn’t keep it organized. I tried multiple lists, but it just seemed like I had 100 items I was stalling on and it was hard to find the “actionable” items.

    Currently I’m trying to get gcal going. I love that it can remind me of things (and on my cell), except when my life doesn’t coincide with my schedule. So I try to resched or snooze the reminder, until I’m annoyed. Then I don’t get the task done. For instance, I was at Home Depot when my “do laundry” reminder went off, I snoozed it a few times, eventually dismissed it, got home, and didn’t do the laundry.

    So far post-its and notebooks have been best for me, but they’re not so good at interrupting my blog reading to get that time sensitive task done.

  16. Dawn says:

    Hi there!

    Thanks for the post. I looked at both sites – I found myself partial to RemembertheMilk. My only wish is that there was a better way to mark events, but I am getting it to do what I need.

  17. LC says:

    I still use a legal pad. Every day before I leave work, I write a list in categories, put it on my desk with whatever forms I need, and go through it the next day. I also still use a paper organizing calendar. What are the benefits of doing it electronically, I am curious?

  18. Xtal says:


    Try gubb.net. You can drag-and-drop your lists around, and also color-code them. I find it very intuitive and easy.

  19. Chris says:

    Good information about lists making. I don’t use tadalist since it is so so simple. I will look into the other ones though. I use http://www.anyinput.com for mine for now. But anyinput application has too much setup and may be too complex for many. I make my lists at work, so no problem.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *