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Productivity

How Productive Creatives Manage Their To-Do Lists

The mess of to do apps, post-it notes, and push notifications we use to make sure that nothing falls through the cracks are unique portraits of our own personal productivity (or lack of it). Whether you’re a multitasking maven or scrambling to stay on top of it, here’s a gallery of creatives and the systems they use to help you own the art of multitasking.


There are a handful of things I’m constantly striving to perfect that I know I’ll never fully master: my ice-breakers at parties, my banana bread recipe, and my to-do list. I have a fairly good memory for the minutia of work and life tasks, but I’ve long been on the hunt for the perfect system—one that’s easy and maybe … even … enjoyable to use. This dream system endows me with Big To-Do Energy: the superpower of knowing that I’ll never, ever forget to file my expense report, schedule my dentist appointment, get artwork to the printer on time, and buy a birthday present for my niece.

I’ve tried apps on apps (Basecamp, Trello, TeuxDeux, iOS Notes), spreadsheets in a range of configurations, and have recently landed on an analog system that combines a bullet journal-like usage of a lovely little Snow & Graham grid pad and—for mustn’t-forget items—yellow Post-its rimming the edge of my monitor (a method endorsed by productivity expert and 99U speaker Dr. Sahar Yousef.)

Like managing our finances, tracking tasks is something that we all must do, but  seem to keep rather private. The privileged have assistants, but for the rest of us, we wondered: Is digital better than analog? How much dedication is required? Is there a perfect system? I spoke with some of the most productive creatives we know to find out.

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Keeping up a bullet journal and Google Calendar system
Simone Noronha, Illustrator and Art Director

“I use a mix between a bullet journal and my Google Calendar. The bullet journal is a central place for all my to-do lists, so that things don’t get lost. And the Google Calendar is useful in setting up my priorities during the day. I can allot blocks of time to specific tasks on my list. A bullet journal needs daily upkeep so unless I’m regular with it it can easily get out of hand. Dependency on these tools and practices is also another downside, I sometimes feel lost without it.”

Loving the Notion app, even for the features it doesn’t have
Jared Erondu, Head of Design, Lattice

“I’ve been a die-hard Notion user for the past year. I love it because its flexibility allows me to map out my plans the way they’re actually organized in my head. It’s the closest thing to pen and paper. Notion is just as powerful for teams, so I’m able to keep my to-do list and my team documents in the same tool. Although I’m a fan, I’ll be the first to admit that [the app] is not a list-first product. I can’t set reminders on a task level or even assign due dates to them. However, I can also argue that as result of these missing features, I review my tasks often and nothing ever creeps up on me.”

Tracking daily tasks in an email draft
Josh Gondelman, Writer & Producer, Desus & Mero

“I use a paper calendar for the macro organization of my life, one with each page spread having enough empty squares to fill in a whole month. I write down appointments, trips, assignment due dates on the calendar. I feel like there’s something trustworthy about writing things down on paper. For the day-to-day, I open an email to myself in Gmail, and I keep a running list of daily tasks (chores, errands, correspondence to which I have to respond). An email draft is good because it will open on any of my devices (personal laptop, work laptop, phone) and I can update it from anywhere as I complete my obligations. The downside is that it keeps me tethered to screens and internet to navigate my day.”

Keeping different notebooks for different tasks
Nicole Katz, CEO, Paper Chase Press

“I keep two notebooks and a pad of Post-its in heavy rotation. One notebook is for larger to-dos like updates to our deck, partnership proposals, and campaign and product ideas. The other notebook is for more deadline-oriented tasks like pending quote requests, project management details, and scheduling sales meetings. The sticky notes are for the urgent items that I literally need to see in front of me at all times until they get done. I try to tackle items from each every day. I’m certain my system would work better if I had nicer penmanship.”

Serious dedication to the Todoist app
Khoi Vinh, Principal Designer, Adobe XD

“I’m a longtime, diehard user of Todoist. The app has projects, contexts, tags, views, but mostly I just use it to pin tasks to dates. So every day I have a list of things to do and I check them off. Some things I need to postpone further out. And whatever I don’t finish today, I’ll move forward to tomorrow. Incredibly simple, incredibly effective. I’m not a big believer in complex productivity methodologies—in essence, what I do is just write down tasks and move forward the ones I don’t complete. But sometimes I’m so busy crossing off items from my list that I’m not addressing the bigger picture. Or sometimes I find I’ve whiled away two hours on penny ante tasks like paying bills or setting up returns or whatever, when I could’ve been using those two uninterrupted hours for much deeper, more creative work. So I have to be vigilant about balancing the micro and the macro.”

Approaching handwritten lists as a form of meditation
Stephanie Pereira, Director of NEW INC, New Museum

“I try and start a new list every morning, but sometimes that slips to once per week. I currently have one of those very thin Muji notebooks, but really any paper will do—the less-fancy, the better. I’ve found it to be incredibly soothing just to simply write a list. I don’t get distracted by other things when I am writing my list, and—this is weird or maybe totally on point—but I feel like the cognitive and emotional load I associate with my computer and my phone is just so heavy, so interfacing with a simple paper list is just really nice. [Though] if I forget my list at work, I don’t know what is on it.”


Our takeaways:

  • One catch-all to-do system is rare: feel free to use different systems for different types of tasks
  • Paper is still essential: almost everyone we spoke with still finds the practice of handwriting tasks helpful, and the kind of paper or notebook they select is important
  • For apps, Notion, Todoist, and Google Calendar were cited
  • Most important in achieving to-do mastery is finding something you’ll actually commit to, and can access easily: overthinking or overcomplicating your to-do system might make you less likely to keep up with it

Andrea Rosen

Andrea is Head of 99U. 


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Illustration of a woman with checkmarks, cross-outs, and scribbles coming out of her head