How to Feel Organized with To Do Lists: A Software Engineer’s Guide

Jonathan Watson
4 min readJan 30, 2023

I am not, by nature, an organized person. I was the kid whose bedroom looked like a tornado had gone through, but could pull anything you needed out at a moments notice. Until one day, I couldn’t. Life had become too complex to find the things I needed. Add in a digital world and it became downright uncontrollable.

Then I found David Allen, author of Getting Things Done. He taught me some simple tips (that I hope to expand and surpass here).

Write Everything Down

Are you feeling overwhelmed? Try this.

Take out a notepad (it can be a notes app on your phone). Take the next 2 minutes and write down everything on your mind that needs to be done. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

This simple exercise from one of his best TED talks has served me extremely well. Anytime I feel stressed or overwhelmed, I grab a legal pad and just start writing.

I can hear you say, “So that’s it? Write everything down?” Not quite.

The problem is: If you don’t do anything with that list? The feelings will return.

My Strategy for To Do Lists

So how do you make sure you consistently review your task items and avoid feeling overwhelmed?

Every night before bed, I make a new To Do list in my notes app. In it, I list out all the things I want to do tomorrow.

  • Unload dishwasher
  • Load and run dishwasher
  • Clean out the oven
  • Hang up dress shirts (currently in dryer)
  • Deposit the check

Making this list allows me to stop worrying about tasks so I can go to sleep with a clear mind.

Then, the next day, I wake up and review the list. Now, my mind is ready for the day. Maybe i add a few things I forgot:

  • Post that item on Craigslist (so I can get it out of the garage!)

Then, as I go through my day, I find openings to accomplish these things.

On my lunch break, while I’m waiting for my meal to heat up, I unload the dishwasher. Finished with lunch early? I’m going to hang up the dress shirts in the dryer.

If things come up throughout the day, add them to that day’s list.

Then, that night, anything that didn’t get checked off, goes on tomorrow’s list.

Things that don’t get done

If there’s something that keeps getting carried over, but not accomplished, move it to a Leftovers list you can tackle when you have energy.

Things that have a due date

Is there something important that’s several weeks out? Put it on your calendar a day before it’s due.

February 27: LAST DAY TO CANCEL HULU SUBSCRIPTION

That way, it doesn’t clutter up your daily To Do list, and you still get it accomplished, rather than getting stuck with another month of service you didn’t want.

To Do lists aren’t about getting everything done. They’re about knowing, at any moment, what needs to be done.

And, they’re about knowing that you’re doing the right thing in that moment.

What about big projects?

Sometimes, something needs to be done that I avoid. Usually because it feels insurmountable, or I don’t feel like I have a handle on all the moving pieces.

Solution? Break it down tasks into smaller tasks. For example,

Cleaning up after Christmas can be broken down into the following To Do items.

  • Remove ornaments from Christmas tree
  • Pack the ornaments in the box
  • Remove lights from Christmas tree
  • Take Christmas tree out to road

Now, each of these are bite sized chunks that are completely separate. You can do one in 5 minutes of spare time. You don’t have to devote an entire afternoon to the monumental task of taking down your Christmas tree.

Situations to avoid

  1. I have time and I don’t know what to do.
  2. I forgot to do that thing I wanted!
  3. I’m staying busy doing things, but they aren’t the right things.

That’s the beauty of a daily To Do list. When I follow it, I know what to do anytime I have a spare moment. I don’t forget to do things. And I know, by looking at my list, that these are the tasks that I prioritized.

To Do lists help you to feel organized

This is just part of my setup. I track larger projects in Notion. I received daily calendar updates at 5:00AM everyday. I recycle emails as notification reminders.

But hopefully this helps you start toward feeling organized.

If you enjoyed this post or found it helpful, would you do me a favor and by follow me here, on Medium?

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Jonathan Watson

Jonathan is a Senior Software Engineer in the Atlanta area. When not cranking out React, he enjoys teaching and traveling.