Building a Better To-Do List

By Katie, 6:16 am

As most of you know, I recently went through a major life transition. In May I was wrapping up my graduate school classes and spending a lot of time job-hunting in my pajamas – I had the luxury of time on my hands and the freedom to schedule my days as I saw fit.

In June those luxuries and freedoms came to a screeching halt. I began working 8:30-5:00, with a 30 minute commute each way. I began squeezing in workouts at 5:30 a.m., whipping up dinner as quickly as possible, and spending my evening hours cleaning, preparing for the next day, and blogging. It wasn’t long before my always-overflowing to-do list became unmanageable – I simply didn’t have time to get it all done.

In light of this, I turned to a tool I’ve used successfully in past times of stress and general busyness. I call it the Roman To-Do List.

It’s Roman because there are columns, get it? :roll: (Nerd Alert!)

You see, because I’m one of those way-too-productive people, the mere idea of not finishing my daily to-do list produces anxiety. And the thrill of crossing off the last item? It can’t be beat! But when there’s simply no way that’s going to happen, steps must be taken to wash those anxious feelings away.

The Roman To-Do List is all about prioritizing. First I have Column A, which represents the mandatory. The world will, quite simply, stop spinning if these items are not taken care of. (OK, maybe not, but my life just might become unmanageable.) There’s no compromising here – I’m not hitting the hay until Column A is complete.

Then there’s Column B. The activities in Column B should get done, but if they don’t, life will indeed continue. I strive to accomplish as much of this column as possible, but if my eyes start drooping before the last item is crossed off, I won’t lose sleep over it.

And finally, Column C. Good ol’ Column C. Here we have the activities that I hope to do…someday. Preferably within the next week, but they’re not really pressing matters. They’re mostly little things that I’d like to do – leisurely, spare-time activities. If I don’t get to them, no sweat. 8-)

But wait, there’s more to Column C. I use Column C as a “balance barometer,” if you will. Because if I go for a full week or two and notice that not one Column C item has been completed, it’s a sign that I need to slow it down. It’s a visual reminder that while of course I need to be taking care of the mandatory items and paying mind to the should-get-dones, the little things – the things that are just for my amusement or relaxation or personal interest – deserve some attention as well.

When I take my usual, bubbling-over-the-edge-of-the-page to-do list and turn it into a Roman To-Do List, I feel an instant sense of calm. Because I’m reminded that even though my plate is full, I can handle it simply by shuffling some columns around. :-)

Are you a list-maker? How do you manage your overflowing (I’m sure) to-do list? Any other tips for prioritizing?

34 Responses to “Building a Better To-Do List”

  1. Sarah says:

    I am a HUGE list maker. I love your Roman list idea! I think that is a fantastic tool for prioritizing. I tend to just write everything in one or two lists and try to make the best choices I can about what gets done. When I get tired, though…I think priorities tend to slide a bit. I like visual that the 3 columns offer.

  2. Candice says:

    I love this idea! I always make lists, but I don’t think I’ve ever added a leisure activity to a list. It’s a good idea to make sure we include leisure with the chores.

  3. Simply Life says:

    I love how organized you are! Yup, I also keep lists but they’re usually on random pieces of paper that I need to figure out a better system for! :)

  4. Meg says:

    I thrive off of organization, so I love this, never heard of it – but it’s an amazing idea!

    I usually mark everything on a calendar rather than a list.

  5. I love making lists, so I like your way of prioritizing the stuff on there….I think I’ll use this in the near future! Getting a haircut would be in my C column as well…lol. It always seems to be on the backburner.

  6. Lauren says:

    I feel like I have a list for every facet of my life. Some are electronic, others are the old fashion paper and pencil, but I find that writing it all down really seems to really put everything in prospective for me.

    Have a great weekend!

  7. i love making lists, but i just throw it all on one and cross off the important stuff first :) i think i would go crazy without it!

  8. I love this idea! I know I’m gonna need it when I start school again in August. Working full time and 10 hours of school. Bleh. Roman to do lists are in my future :)

  9. Tamara says:

    I don’t usually make lists of tasks because my concerns are pretty basic: read for class, go grocery shopping etc. My boyfriend does something similar to your “Roman list,” but he’s actually a step nerdier. He assigns his tasks points based on complexity and necessity, and then he gets a /rank/ at the end of the day based on how much he accomplished. His ranks range from C to S, which is one step above A. If you’re a video game player, this makes total sense. If you’re not, it’s very confusing.

  10. Cate says:

    Love it! Especially your thoughts about Column C. Thanks for sharing this great idea.

  11. Melodie says:

    This is just an awesome idea! I usually work 9-5 with a 30 minute commute and I have 2 boys. I usually handle that schedule fairly well, but this summer I am working 7-3 so I can come home and spend some extra time in the summer with my boys… needless to say my schedule and to do lists are all kinds of thrown off! The first week I was waking up at 4am to get in my workout because morning workouts have always worked for me…. well, the 4 am thing was NOT working! So, now, I work out after dinner, which was hard at first, but when I ate less dinner and waited an hour or so I realized I actually enjoy evening workouts now! The house cleaning schedule is still kind of thrown off… but, hey, it’s summer… why spend time doing extra cleaning when you can be swimming, right?!

    Thanks for the great idea, I am starting this idea tomorrow!

    • Katie says:

      I couldn’t handle 4 a.m. workouts either! Right now I’m doing 5:30 a.m. and that is about as early as I can go.

      And you’re right, summer is definitely about swimming…not cleaning! ;)

  12. I’m usually just like you, Katie: very productive, but I find that my lists go right out the window lately. Baby trumps all, which is VERY hard to get used to. Work days are pretty OK since we are on a schedule, but on days off, it can be 8pm and I haven’t even showered, and the things that would be in Column A are still lightyears away. I guess it’s teaching me how to go with the flow and reprioritize as needed, but there are days when it totally stresses me out! I just try not to let that show so the baby doesn’t feel it.

    I thought I’d be better at it almost 8 months in, but I’m still learning. At least I usually manage to brush my teeth now!

  13. I love the idea of columns. I’m definitely a list maker but usually just remember which things on the list must get done versus should – I love the idea of having a separate column so you can see the visual progress as a ‘must do’ getting marked off instead of marking things off and seeing that there are still all these other things on the list (even if what you marked off was the most important).
    Great idea :-)

  14. I love this! I am the biggest list maker, but also get frustrated when I don’t hit everything on my list for the day. I think stealing your column idea would help me find a lot more balance. Thanks for sharing! And congrats on the job! :)

  15. Tina says:

    I really like that setup of a to-do list. It really does help put things in perspective for what you are focusing your time on. Great idea! I am certainly a list maker so I won’t be surprised if my next list is set up someway similar.

  16. Jennifer says:

    I absolutely love the idea of a Roman to do list. I always make to do lists and if I can’t get it all done I feel defeated and overwhelmed. So I love your idea of prioritizing from most important to least.

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  18. Jill says:

    What a great concept! And I love the idea of using column C as a balance barometer. Very nice! :)

  19. Mo says:

    I love the idea, but I’m horrible at making lists. It’s probably the procrastinator in me. :P

  20. I’m definitely a list maker but mine are always simple, one-columned lists. I love your Roman To-Do List idea! And don’t worry, I laughed when I read your explanation for the name. ;)

  21. sophia says:

    Great tips, Katie! Sometimes I’m too lazy to make a list, but I regret it because I get so disorganized.

  22. I don’t know why I’ve never thought of putting my to-dos into columns before!! I usually leave the stuff I HOPE to do off the list altogether…and as a result often run out of time before I ever get to them. I like that you use that list to remind yourself that life does need balance. This is a great tool to keep things more manageable. I’m going to have to try it!!

  23. u had me at baking cookies :)


    im a to-do lister in my head. sometimes i need to write specifics down if i know theres something i dont wanna forget that i probably will. but usually i can keep a good memory of it. to-do lists are great tho! <3 <3


  24. This is suuuch a great idea. I never make myself lists because I can never complete them… or I just keep adding items and it just never ends. Or I end up with 18 stickies open on my mac… and conveniently hide them. This is a great way to prioritize what needs done in a week. I’m definitely going to have to try this out for myself.

  25. I really love this idea! Thank you for the prioritizing tip!

  26. Katie says:

    I am a MAJOR list-maker, it keeps me organized but I also like checking things off. :) I really like your idea, especially the part about column C being for balance. Going to employ this this week!

  27. Kelly says:

    Love your ‘geekiness’ Katie :)
    I’m definitely a list-maker. I get (probably way too much) satisfaction out of crossing things off my list. LOL

  28. What a great idea, Katie! I’m a big list maker too but I always overdo it and put wayyyyy more than I can actually accomplish. This is a great way to manage my expectations! Thanks!

  29. I am addicted to to-do lists! I use them at work and at home, and I find myself much more productive with them. I’ve never thought of doing a Roman list, though… what a great way to prioritize! Thanks!

  30. Came by from Love2EatInPA’s blog and love this list idea. I have not seen it before and I am indeed a list maker, sometimes.

  31. I love the idea of a Roman List! So funny, I was in a meeting with my boss yesterday and she did an ABC list just like that…but they were categorized differently. I am going to bring this up as an alternative next time :)

    I am a list freak in general, but usually just do a good ole’ bullet point method. I like the idea of being more organized WITHIN a list! :)

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