How to organize incredibly detailed to-do lists?
October 23, 2019 9:28 AM   Subscribe

Looking for to-do list methodology (maybe in the bullet journal world? or in some disability community?) for keeping incredibly, incredibly, maybe even excessively detailed to-do lists with pen and paper.

I've been using what I call Insultingly Detailed To-Do Lists to handle autism-related executive function problems at work. When I sit down to do a task, I take out a pen and paper and write out every step, no really, every step, even the obvious ones. If I realize a step has substeps, I write them down too.

For example: recently I had to log that I'd taken some personal time. For some people that would be a single list item, or even part of a broader "do admin stuff" item; for me, the list looked like
  • Open VPN connection
  • Open up time tracker
  • Log time
    • 2 hours
    • Write rationale
Crucially, these aren't things I intend to do in the future and need to remember. They're things I'm doing right now, and I'm just writing them down so when I get distracted I can recover quickly.

I want A Methodology for this because there are lots of weird situations that come up that I don't have a good way of handling. Most of my tasks have a lot more steps than that. I don't have a convention for putting tasks on pause and then unpausing them again. When tasks branch or have unexpected subtasks, I end up with lots of messy arrows and scribbles. I'm never sure what to do when I know a task will have subtasks but I don't know what they are yet.

These seem like the sorts of things that systems like Bullet Journal and Autofocus handle. But I've yet to find a system like that that's designed to work at this level of detail. (Bullet Journal folks seem to actively prefer very short lists of brief items.) Has someone come up with tips or a methodology for making this sort of incredibly detailed list work better?
posted by nebulawindphone to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Since it's something you're actively doing and it doesn't sound like you need a record of it all, scratch paper? You can do whatever tracking you need to see "yep, time logged" in a different place.

I like cutting printed-on-one-side paper into fourths and stapling a corner. The fact that it's not nice makes me more likely to actually scribble stuff out and add stupid arrows and leave space for inevitable subtasks. You can use a piece of paper for each task if you want. (I should be doing more of this, thank you for the reminder.)
posted by momus_window at 9:35 AM on October 23, 2019

Best answer: I don't use to-do lists in quite the way that you do, but I have some experience with to-do lists of high complexity, and when I used to keep them with pen and paper, I relied heavily on post it notes. The main list would be in my diary, but if I came up with sub-tasks or extra tasks that needed to be inserted after the fact, I would write them on post-it notes, and attach them to the page with the main list. When I was done with all the sub-tasks on a post-it note, I would throw the post-it away, and just tick off the main task they fed into.

I keep my to-do lists in One Note now and use levels of indentation to handle subtasks and branching, but that's not a pen-and-paper solution.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:39 AM on October 23, 2019

Response by poster: Since it's something you're actively doing and it doesn't sound like you need a record of it all, scratch paper? You can do whatever tracking you need to see "yep, time logged" in a different place.

Oh shit, I see now that I picked a confusing example. Okay, pretend that the example was about the steps in sending an email, or the steps in doing a code review, and not the steps in logging my hours.

So yeah, just to be clear, I am already keeping my lists on scratch paper. I throw them away when I'm done. I do not need them to help with time tracking. I just want to make them awesome and helpful and un-confusing for myself.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:39 AM on October 23, 2019

Best answer: Look in to GTD. I don't know if it's formally part of their system but they're the ones who taught me to do what you're doing. Their concept was something like, to avoid getting stuck or lost on a task, write down the *very next step*, rather than the high level goal.
posted by Lady Li at 9:40 AM on October 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

Does it have to be pen and paper? Workflowy allows this sort of sub-bullet pointing, and has the advantage that you can easily add more sub-points in if you forgot something. You also have the ability to strike through or delete items as you go.

Since it easily and automatically syncs between multiple devices, I use it for nearly everything now: personal tasks, projects, work items, menu planning, grocery lists, etc. I think I threw out a hundred half-used and abandoned notebooks when I moved last month.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 9:44 AM on October 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I have a work diary in a ruled moleskine. As I'm getting ready to embark on a task, I write the name of the task with a dash next to it and then to the right break it down into its components, each with a little dash next to it, and then I put checkmarks in all the dashes as I complete the subtasks, and one next to the whole task when I'm done with it. A lot of the stuff I do has boatloads of little ticky chores associated, and if I don't write them all out, I'll forget one or two of them, particularly if somebody comes in and asks a question or the phone rings or I have e-mail open and see something interesting come in. Or if some essential bit of software hangs up and I can't do some part of the process and need to remember to do it when the software comes back online. It's excellent to have it written out.

Should a task metastasize, I just start a new line for the offshoot task and its subtasks.

I would never throw out one of these diaries because I flip the moleskine upside down and make notes of meetings on the other side of it. If I need to know what happened on X day or in Y meeting, or if I need to confirm that I did, in fact, do Z, it's usually discoverable.
posted by Don Pepino at 9:58 AM on October 23, 2019 [5 favorites]

At work, I use Quire which lets you create deep layers of subtasks. I can collapse them so I only need to see it when it's time for me to return to the task.

There's two views. One is a straight list view that lets you see subtasks really well. The other is a Kanban View that's similar to Trello. I sometimes use that second view and have it set up with "To do," "In Progress," and "Done." My goal is to only every have one of the larger tasks in the "in progress" column. I'll start to work on another thing and be reminded that instead of hopping between five things I should really just finish this one.
posted by tofu_crouton at 10:07 AM on October 23, 2019

Best answer: I'm never sure what to do when I know a task will have subtasks but I don't know what they are yet.

I write down “list steps” as the only sub task. Because right then, it is.

I used to do this with a medium-sized cheap notebook and crossing out done tasks, so I could take the notebook to meetings and labs and fan through for anything uncrossed. Also I dated the page every morning so it was another log of work. If you can stay in one place and need to see a task to remember it, big Post-It’s? When your desk is clean, it’s clean.
posted by clew at 10:08 AM on October 23, 2019 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: (Yeah, sorry, it really has to be pen and paper. Probably this is just my brain being weird, but it needs to be a physical object that always sits in the same place in the world, away from my devices.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:12 AM on October 23, 2019 [5 favorites]

Indents and numbering subtasks with ever increasing decimals:
1. Step One
2. Step Two
_2.1 The first substep
_2.2 The second substep
_2.3 The third one
__2.2.1 another substep you remembered after you wrote down 2.3 but that needs to happen before it
_2.4 Fourth substep
__2.2.2 another step between 2.2.1 and 2.3
__2.2.0 wait, this needs to be done before 2.2.1!
3. Step the third

If things get too messy, you can always recopy the steps on a new piece of paper in the correct order.
posted by soelo at 11:12 AM on October 23, 2019

would it help any to have a low limit of edits and arrows you can add to a particular list before you rewrite the whole thing cleanly on a new paper with all the new information and steps added in?

i do this in a notebook on whatever the first free space is, and there's lots of abandoned lists that i rewrote better on a new page. i don't look at anything but the last couple of pages i've used, so it usually doesn't cause any problems.

and you don't mention this as a problem, but a bullet journal might could help if there's processes you tend to repeat. you could write down the whole list on an index numbered page so you can just refer back to it and put the page number in any to do list that includes that process (but the jumping back and forth could be disruptive), or use it as a reference for rewriting the steps and making sure you aren't leaving anything out.
posted by gaybobbie at 11:12 AM on October 23, 2019

This may be overkill but if I were you I would get the cheapest possible tablet and use a stylus. The advantage is that you can move stuff around so of your workflow suddenly expands into sub tasks you can grab the next steps and move them down so you have more room to write, or you can reorder things as needed.
posted by ananci at 11:26 AM on October 23, 2019

So yeah, just to be clear, I am already keeping my lists on scratch paper. I throw them away when I'm done. I do not need them to help with time tracking. I just want to make them awesome and helpful and un-confusing for myself.

Are the tasks unique each time, or are some steps always the same? I made myself dry-erase checklists for things like email, time off requests, etc. I use card stock in no-heat laminating pouches like these. I print the standard steps on the card stock, with blanks/checkboxes for the variables that I fill in with a dry-erase pen and then erase.

For the example in your question, I would probably print that whole list on the card stock, with blanks for the date and after "write rationale."

If that sounds useful and you want some pictures of mine, memail me!
posted by Snarl Furillo at 11:35 AM on October 23, 2019

pen and paper [...] that always sits in the same place in the world

That’s a good clear rule, and there are only a few ways paper adapts to lists growing while you use them, so you have a short list to choose from. Turn page; add to stack; spread out; unfold. So, choice of notebook, notecards (hipster PDA), scraps or post-its spread out; newsprint sheets folded up? All are fine.
posted by clew at 11:43 AM on October 23, 2019

Do you have a dedicated notebook for this? And paper with an amount of visual structure that you like? (Ledger, graph paper, teacher's plan book, etc.; or maybe you prefer the paper to be totally blank.) Are you leaving yourself enough space for the items you need to expand?

When I've done some similar sorts of projects--where one item might unpredictably spawn a number of sub-items--I've had good results by being rigorous about only using one side of the page for my primary list. So I open my Muji A5 lined notebook to page 3 or 5 or 7 (or whatever, but not 1!) and start my list on the recto page, indenting a consistent amount for sub-items. I myself don't like graph paper or other printed vertical lines, but I do use outline-style indentation, which helps me organize it visually. If it turns out I need to explode one of those items or sub-items, I use a little star or arrow pointing left, and write the additional bits on the facing verso page (not flipping the page over, just using the blank space to the left). Placing the asterisks in the left-hand margin of the main list, rather than at the bottom right of a block of text where a footnote might go, minimizes the clutter of looping arrows, cramped vertical writing, etc.

If you prefer to use scratch paper & then recycle it after you're done, you could accomplish the same thing by folding the sheet in half and only using the right-hand side until you need the left.

I've done something similar with steno notebooks--using the right-hand column almost exclusively, and only using the left column as overflow/expansion space--but those columns are pretty skinny, and wouldn't work well for wordy/indented list items.
posted by miles per flower at 11:53 AM on October 23, 2019 [3 favorites]

For repetitive multi-step tasks I have some acronyms I use, and I cross off individual letters as I go. So if writing an email had a standard process like “click reply, answer their questions, write up my questions, signature, spellcheck, send” then I’d write something like “Robin email CAWSSS” and cross off each letter as I get to it and the whole thing when I completes everything. It saves space, and I’ve found that making and having a little mnemonic helps my weird brain.
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:11 PM on October 23, 2019

I keep a composition notebook (pages bound along the long edge, like a book) for work and I turn to a new page every day, or whenever I tackle a large new task. It's my scratch paper / meeting notes / to do lists, all combined. I write dates and project names in large text and try to always use a different color of writing implements than the day before. There are lots of arrows and brackets and squiggly lines when I'm organizing my thoughts. It sits on my desk by my phone and there's always a pen on top of it so I can start writing instantly whenever I need to. I start a new notebook every year, or whenever the current one is full. By the end of the year, it's pretty ratty, but it saves me from having a flurry of post-it notes and loose sheets of scratch paper everywhere. And if I need to look up a certain thing I did or that someone said to me six months ago, just flip through the notebook!
posted by beandip at 12:12 PM on October 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

A dedicated bullet journal seems like the perfect place for this. You can get as detailed as you need and keep track of everything all in one place.

You don't need an official bullet journal, any notebook will do, just do some reading up on the "how to create a bullet journal" stuff and create your 'system' in a way that works for you.
posted by zug at 12:58 PM on October 23, 2019

Hey you're literally me! It turned out to work better for me to do this on my phone, but for a while I would write out steps on these sticky flags and stick them on the front of my notebook in the order I needed do them (descending down the cover of the notebook). This meant I could quickly rearrange steps or stick in a new step. If something had subtasks and they were all sequential, I would stack them on top of each other so I could do a task, peel off the sticky flag to see the next task underneath, repeat as needed. I could always add new subtasks that way. If I had to "pause" something I'd pull it out and stick it inside my notebook and bring it back when I could actually do it. Finished steps would go in the back of my notebook and get cleared out once a day or whenever I remembered too.

Mostly this didn't work because I have to run around a lot in my work, and I didn't remember to bring the notebook with me e.g. when going to do something across the clinic, and having to keep sticking it in and out of a purse meant flags fell off... but if you sit at a desk and don't move a lot, it might work for you. I was quite proud of the system, so it'd be great if someone got some use out of it.
posted by brook horse at 1:19 PM on October 23, 2019

I use a mix of 11x17 “conspiracy maps” and loose 8.5x5.5 that are kept in a wrap-up journal cover.

The 11x17 pages are flowcharts of high level stuff that maps out how tasks are dependent on each other (ie: if I have to clean up part of my room before I can have the workspace for XYZ project)

The 8.5x5.5 (basically scratch paper that is cut in half) is my notebook for more detailed step by step lists. I like that the pages are unbound, so I can separate and reorder them in a way that makes sense on an as-needed basis. I use card stock for longer-term lists, and include whatever colored paper I have on hand to highlight other lists I want to be easy to find.

I could use regular paper for the mind maps, but somehow it feels better to work on really big paper and see things large-scale
posted by itesser at 1:22 PM on October 23, 2019

This is what I do in my notebook. Theoretically there is some bullet journal influence, but mostly it is just a stream of consciousness where I am keeping track of things. It lives in whatever bag I have with me, along with fancy pens I like using to write with.
posted by ChuraChura at 3:38 PM on October 23, 2019

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