Management Slicing and dicing

To-Do Lists

Somewhere between individual contributor and middle management, it became essential that I have a to-do list. I resisted this for years, secretly hoping that I could keep track of all the crap I needed to do in my head or an a conveniently located post-it note, but then stuff started spilling all over the floor and I started getting yelled at.

Enter the to-do list.

After trying out many different tools and processes for tracking to-dos, I’ve reluctantly settled on using an Excel spreadsheet. Each to-do contains the following information:


The to-do


0 – Now (must do today), 1 – High (this week), 2 – Medium (Whatever)


Which team is the to-do related to


I’ve recently added this to the spreadsheet because I needed finer grained control that Priority gave me. Currently, I have three states: NEEDS ACTION which means “move on this”, TARGETED which means “action has been taken, next step is NOT mine”, and BLANK which means “Uuuuuh, need to triage this”.


If the to-do has been triaged, what’s the next thing that needs to be done? This also gets used a lot for random notes.


When the to-do was submitted. I used to highlighted issues based on how many days had passed by submission, but other than adding a lot of color to the spreadsheet, I mostly ignored it.


This is a boolean. True means executives care about the issue, False means the opposite. This is basically an acknowledgement that Executives, by definition, care about seriously random stuff and it’s more important to aggressively follow-up on the issue rather than debate why they care about it. Separating this means I can leave priority as a representation of my opinion rather than being artificially inflated by an Executive fire drill.

At the time of this writing, I’ve currently got 73 active to-do items on my spreadsheet… 21 which I’m supposed to handle today. That’s about the norm.

I’m content with my to-do set-up because Excel is flexible tool and as I my process changes, so can it. I heavily use the filtering and sorting features to slice and dice my to-do list throughout the day to make it appropriate for the team/people I’m dealing with, but I’m wondering out loud what other people use to track their to-dos. Surely, someone brighter than me has come up with a more robust solution/tool.

13 Responses

  1. % emacs -e calendar

  2. Eliza 21 years ago


  3. Darien 21 years ago

    Eliza, what do you think those 21 items are?

    ~Darien, I also use excel for my “to do” except, I have a 5 stage priority system.

  4. Mark Gardner 21 years ago

    Have you tried OmniOutliner for this? It has columns like a spreadsheet, and it’s an outliner to boot so you get all the collapsing-expanding hierarchy fun.

  5. Matt Henderson 21 years ago

    Have a look at Life Balance. This application, written by some MIT grads, is in my opinion one of the most useful applications for OS X. You define your todos in an outline. Each todo is assigned a priority (on a sliding scale), a timescale (due date, no due date, repeating, etc.) and a “place”. The definition of places is where the application shines. Places can contain other places (e.g “Work” can contain “Work-Office” and “Work-Home”). Places can also have “opening hours”. Life Balance’s “Todo List” then displays a list of the things, in priority, that you should be doing given the time of day, and where you are. For me, as 5:00 p.m. shifts to 6:00 p.m., my todo list begins to change from work stuff to home stuff. It’s really an amazing application.

  6. excel eh ?

    you are way more organized than i.

    i have a giant sprawling ascii text file i keep open in notepad. it has all the notes etc. since last august when i began my current job. so it serves as sort of a knowledge base for stuff i’ve forgotten and also a todo list.. it’s all divided with lines i cleverly made with —-‘s . when i complete a software feature or solve a problem i seal it off with a — line. there’s a section right at the very bottom of the document that is for things to look at some day but with no urgency. the section above that is a ‘stuff to read’ list and above that is a to do list for work and home with a list of important dates for the next few months. above THAT is the current thing i’m working on. when i finish a to do, i delete the line. when i finish a task/feature, it gets its —. when i go back to something i was working on before, i cut and paste it so it’s right above the to-do list.

    yes, it’s retarded. yes, it works excellently. i have a kyocera palm phone and i never use the palm part of it because no interface will ever beat my giant sprawling fucking ascii file.

  7. sorry for posting twice, i blame the gin. just check out my awesome ‘typo’ of august in the first one if you don’t believe me.

    [ed: fixed!]

  8. John Whitlock 21 years ago

    I’m trying out the Life Balance tool ( that Matt Henderson mentioned. I wanted to add that there is a Windows and a Palm version as well as the Mac version. The Windows version also installs the Palm app and a conduit, and I assume the Mac version does the same.

  9. John Whitlock 21 years ago

    The Life Balance app looks very cool, with many useful features, but the desktop/Palm combo costs $80! And that doesn’t appear to include lifetime upgrades, or multiple computers! At least there’s a 30-day trial to get you nice and addicted, with features turned off at the end of the trial





    Okay, I downloaded Life Balance and it’s pretty sweet. We’ll see if it inspires me to actually use it on a continuous basis.


  13. petegala 21 years ago

    Intuit’s Track-IT (formerly made by Blueocean, works very well for my IT department, but is a tad spendy. What’s nice though is that it can get multiple users involved.