24 Hour Library

A Library Blog by Abby Hargreaves

Up Your Productivity: The 5 Lists that Will Rock Your World

One of the things I get asked most often is, “When do you sleep?”

Answer: At night.

But let’s back up a little bit. This question is typically prompted by some realization that I currently have three jobs (one full time, two part-time — though, to be fair, “part-time” is loosely defined here) and am enrolled in graduate school full time. I don’t say this because I want people to think that I’m some kind of amazing person who sacrifices everything for some vaguely-defined sense of success. Actually, I say it because I know you (yes, you) are perfectly capable of this, too. And not only that, but you can do it and still have free time. Yeah, I still have time for things I do for fun — though I can’t say that I spend that time as wisely as I do my “not free” time (read: Abby mostly scrolls through Tumblr aimlessly while watching Jane the Virgin in her free time, which is to say she is imprisoned by mindless entertainment that fulfills some desire to mentally engage with concepts regarding social justice, relationships, and funny memes).

Right. As I was saying. You, too, can achieve crazy amounts of productivity in whatever arena you like. You just have to follow me down the rabbit hole that is organization.

Now, to be fair, if you search “organization” on Tumblr or Pinterest, you’re going to find pictures of immaculate to-do lists, notes that have probably been rewritten about a dozen times to ensure a lack of mistakes and perfect handwriting (seriously, it will make you cry), and beautiful, expensive stationery. That’s not how I roll (although I wish I did). I do messy and relatively improvised — at least for my standards. Asides aside, let’s get started on my list about lists (are you surprised?).

1. Blackout

I first started using what I call the Blackout List in summer of 2013 during my internship at the National Science Foundation. It was my first experience working full time in an office and I felt like I needed a fresh organization method that would propel me through each day. As a Resident Assistant, I’d seen my supervisor with  her legal pad every day, crossing out  tasks she’d completed with a black Sharpie. It seemed to work really well for her, so I adopted it. I still use it today in my daily work.


Blackout List

The Blackout List is for anything and everything I intend to do at work. I write up the following day’s tasks every day before I leave. My list currently works in three columns, mainly to save space. Each list has tasks I’m supposed to complete on a daily cycle, plus other tasks that are either completed on a less frequent basis, or are “fresh” tasks that are one-time things. Every day, you’ll see “newspapers” listed first on my list because I deliver newspapers every day. It’s not that I’ll forget to do that task, necessarily, but putting it on there helps me start the workflow for the day. I include bi-weekly meetings, reference requests, and long-term projects, too. Typically, I try to list the items in order that they should be completed, but as things get added throughout the day, I don’t worry too much about it. When composing the list, I always check my calendar for the next day to see what meetings and other unusual tasks need to be added. At the top of every list is “To Do” and the date in MM/DD format. This piece is highlighted in pink to offset it from the actual tasks.

Then the “blackout” part comes in. As each task is completed, I black it out — that is, I cross it out fully with a green highlighter (I find the permanent markers bleed through too much on legal pads). Whatever isn’t finished at the end of the day — long term projects, reference requests I didn’t finish for whatever reason, etc. — gets transferred to the next day unless it’s no longer relevant, in which case I either cross it out with a pen or leave it alone.

I love this method because it’s great for looking back to see what you’ve accomplished. You can see how long long-term projects took to complete, you can see what you worked on on what days, and you’ve got a record of tasks you did on a daily basis. This can be especially helpful for job searching later; filling out applications that detail your previous experience immediately becomes easier when you have a concrete list to pull from.

2. Priorities

The Priorities List was developed when I started getting more responsibilities at my full time job. Just before lunch time, I started lists that I called “Afternoon Priorities” so I’d be able to take off running when I got back from my break. When things get tough in school, I sometimes break out the Priorities List to help me get through.

The Priorities List lists only the most important tasks to be completed by the end of a given set of time (often close of business) in a single column. These tasks are all pending. Typically, I determine the level of priority for each task and do so by figuring out each task’s due “date” (or, how soon the item needs to be completed), if other people are waiting on the task to be completed, how long it’s been on the list, and other factors. Then, I design a key at the top of the list with three or four highlighter colors. The colors are listed in order of priority: first, second, third, fourth. What color I assign to each level depends on the day. I don’t currently have a standing color for each level. For the sake of explanation, let’s say I assign pink to first, yellow to second, and green to third. I then go through my list and highlight all of the first priorities in pink, again weighing the factors I described previously. Second priorities are highlighted in yellow and so on. Each task also gets a check box next to it to be checked when completed.


Priorities List

And so I go through, hitting the pink tasks first, then the yellow, then the green. In some cases, I may skip to what I originally determined was a lower-level task because I need a break from one of the more intense higher-priority tasks or because it’s quick and can be easily checked off. I find that checking something off a list as being achieved boosts my motivation, so checking off a quick, lower-priority task can make accomplishing higher-priority tasks easier.

I find Priority Lists most helpful in two scenarios. The first of these scenarios are times in which I feel so overwhelmed with things to do that I don’t know where to get started. Writing them out allows me to visually assess what needs to get done and compare tasks to each other to find the most important things to finish. The second scenario is just the opposite — when I feel I have so little to do and can’t decide what to do with myself. By mapping out possible things to work on, I’m often able to find at least a few tasks that really need doing and, as a result, I’m no longer at a loss as to what to do next.

One final perk of the Priority List is that the order tasks are added to the list doesn’t matter. Because priority is designated by highlight color rather than physical location relative to other tasks on the paper, you can easily tack on more tasks to the “bottom” of the list and still highlight them as pink, or a top priority.

3. Bullet

You might’ve seen articles about the Bullet Journal circulating around the web. One of the great things about the Bullet Journal is its adaptability. For those of us who like to follow rules to a T, the creators of the Bullet Journal make it easy to move away from the original design by encouraging the adaptation of the Bullet Journal method as you see fit. I started out using the Bullet Journal method as it’s prescribed, but quickly found that it wasn’t entirely helpful for me. I then made a few adjustments and relied on it to keep track of my school assignments throughout the semester.


Bullet List

For my version of the Bullet Journal, which I just refer to as the Bullet List, I make weekly lists rather than daily. My class schedule at San José State University runs on a weekly cycle, so each page is a new week. For this past semester, I had a class that “started” on Mondays, one on Wednesdays, and one on Thursdays. At the very top of the page was the week’s number for that semester. Fortunately, a lot of the course content is listed by week number, so it was easy enough to group classwork by week. My Monday class, Reference and Information Services, started each weekly list. I wrote the course information and the date range (INFO 210-10: 12/21/15 – 12/27/15, for example) as a header. Then I listed all of the assignments for that week in two columns. If there was a paper or some other kind of assignment with a deliverable, I added the due date for that assignment in parentheses after the description. Other assignments might be readings, discussion board post obligations, and research I needed to complete. Below that course would be the other two courses with similar headings. The next week started on the following page.

Throughout the week, as tasks were completed, they were checked off the list. Unfinished long-term projects got moved to the next week.

The Bullet List is pretty straight-forward as to-do lists go. It’s a slightly more-organized and time-sensitive iteration of the ordinary to-do list, but has the benefit of adaptations floating around the Internet that you can take and make your own.

4. To Do

Speaking of standard to do lists, I make about a million of them. Often, I take tasks from any of the lists listed (ha) above and dash them onto a piece of scrap paper. I use To Do lists whenever I need them. Some are long-term and some are short-term. I do have a little notebook where I keep two running To Do lists: one is a list of blog topics I want to get to, the other is a list of funny things I want to write about in the memoir that will probably be on another To Do list perpetually.

My standard To Do list is usually listed by bullets or dashes, and occasionally both if I have mini tasks within larger tasks. I try to keep the tasks in these lists boiled down to easy phrases like “laundry” or “homework.” Once something is completed, it’s crossed off — easy peasy.


To Do List

While I use To Do lists more than any other list (probably), I actually take them less seriously. As I mentioned, I usually do them on scrap paper, so they have a more temporary feel to them. They should probably be called Should Do lists rather than To Do lists, but we’re all imperfect people and I’m too lazy to write out “Should” when I could write “To.” Anyway, I find the temporary “aura” of the To Do list makes it lower-pressure to complete. If I get to it, I get to it; if I lose the list, I lose it — I can always make another. It’s fast, it’s easy, and it’s an old standby. I approve.

5. Wunderlist

The Wunderlist is not actually something that I created. Wunderlist is an app that is accessible through Smart Phones, tablets, and computers. Unlike the other lists, I use Wunderlist for items rather than tasks. Right now, I have a lists for groceries, things I want (ie, a wish list), and gift ideas. Admittedly, I use Wunderlist on a superficial basis. I’m sure there are lots of great features that I don’t use, simply because I haven’t felt a need for anything beyond what I currently use it for.

I will say there are a lot of helpful things about Wunderlist that I do use. One of the best features is that Wunderlist allows collaboration. This has been invaluable for the grocery list, which I share with my significant other. Whenever he or I notice we’re low on something, we can easily add it to the list. Wunderlist has an alert feature that will let you know someone has added something to shared lists unless you turn that feature off. So, if you’re using Wunderlist for groceries and you see someone you live with has added “milk” and you happen to be going to the store on the way home from work, it’s easy enough to know with minimal communication that you should pick up some milk. Shared lists are on a list-by-list basis, so sharing a list does not mean you have to share all of your other lists, too. This has been great for me because I’m able to keep sharing groceries with my significant other without letting him in on my gift ideas for him.



In my experience, Wunderlist loads quickly (I have a two-and-a-half-year-old iPhone 4S, which tends to load other things rather slowly compared to newer phones) even on 3G, so it’s easy to access in grocery stores. Once you’ve obtained an item, you can tap it to check it off and the item disappears from your list. The list also notes how many “tasks” you’ve completed from that list. Lists continue to exist even when there are no items on the list. Each item can also holds more than itself. If you open up any given task item, there are slots for a due date, a reminder, subtasks, notes, files, and comments. You can also “star” that task if it’s particularly important. Tasks can be sorted alphabetically and the app organizes conversations initiated by comments on shared lists.

And the best part? All of this is free.

Bonus: Outline

There is one more kind of list that I use fairly frequently. I first learned, really, to do outlines when I was in sixth grade. My Social Studies teacher loved outlines for lecture purposes and had fairly strict guidelines about what an outline should look like. I’ve seen arguments for different formats since, but have stuck to the one that makes the most sense to me with slight alterations depending on the project. Microsoft Word has leveled list format suggestions, but here’s what I prefer (with increasing indents for each level — unfortunately this editor won’t allow that, even with spaces):

I. Dogs

A. Bodies

1. Heads

a. Mouths

i. Teeth

ii. Tongues

b. Ears

2. Legs

B. Personalities

II. Cats

Obviously this is very skeletal as it’s just for example purposes, but you get the idea. Some will argue you can’t have a sub-level if you only have one or two points (so, for every A, if you’re going to have a 1, you also have to have a 2 and 3). I think that’s phooey. Outline in a way that works for you and you’re doing it right. There will be no outline snobs here.


Outline List

I primarily use outlines to write papers for school or, occasionally, get an idea of where I’m going with a particular blog post. (Yes, I did one for this blog post. No, it wasn’t in my standard format.) Like all my other lists, Outlines are helpful for propelling you forward, always giving you a “next.” Personally, I like to mirror my essays to an extent, so the Outline often ends up propelling itself forward. If I mention dogs, cats, and bunnies in the introduction in that order, I already know what my three main body paragraphs will be. Many people will probably argue that’s just solid writing practice, but there are arguments to be made for other effective techniques. I don’t pretend to be an expert on writing, regardless of how much of it I may do or pretend I do.

Lists are absolutely instrumental to me gettin’ stuff done. They provide clarity, direction, and a sense of accomplishment. There’s no way I could do even half of what I do without a good plan ahead of me. In fact, I honestly believe for every five minutes I spend planning and listing, I save another half-hour down the road. (And I’m not the only one who feels this way.) Time management and productivity are my things. It’s what I do well.

Oh, and sleeping? I also do that well — but only because I put it on my list.

What are your favorite methods of organization? Are you into any list trends? Do you have a Pinterest board full of beautiful lists? Do you hate lists? I want to know! Please share in the comments.


  1. I try to organize my to do list in some similar ways. One thing a little different is that I put check marks and notes next to something that’s in process. I don’t just mark as done. I like the datebook I use, but maybe I’ll look for a different style for next year.

  2. Oh, lists about lists! How I love you so.

    I just came across the Bullet List recently and chuckled, because it looked very familiar. About ten years ago, when Getting Things Done (GTD) was the big productivity trend, this guy shared a much simpler method called Getting S–t Done (http://utilware.com/gsd/). GSD uses a master list and daily lists, much like the Bullet method. I used it for years (and have the notebooks to show for it) until I got an iPhone.

    Now I use Wunderlist for all my personal, school and job-search tasks, plus groceries & gift lists, mainly because I always have my phone with me.

    After reading your article I’m thinking of breaking out pen and paper for my schoolwork this semester, especially since I will be doing that while (fingers crossed) working full time, and taking care of my family too.

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