To Do Journaling


A co-worker noticed me taking some notes in my notebook the other day, and asked about my To Do journaling (yes I’m making that word up). There was genuine interest from a few other people, so I decided to make a blog post about it.

To Do journaling, to me, is writing down a list of things to accomplish for the day. This is a pretty common practice, and there is nothing really revelatory about the process, simply write the things you want to do down. I started doing this when I couldn’t keep track of the things I needed to do in my head any more, and I was letting things fall through the crack. There are many ways in which one could enumerate a to do list; there is a whole industry around tools to help one accomplish this. However, given how much of my life is ruled by electronic means and apps and tools, I have eschewed the “smart” tools, and instead have adopted a more traditional model. I find it helps keep me grounded.

For my journaling, I prefer to use pen and paper. A physical notebook I carry with me in which I can document my to dos for the day, and any sort of notes I need to write down. Writing things down by hand seems to trigger some bit of memory goo in my brain and helps me to remember it. If I type it out, it seems to slip through the synapses and fall out the other side, but writing it down gives it a bit of “stickiness”. Because I will spend a fair amount of time touching and feeling and writing in my notebook, I splurge on a high quality notebook. One that’s the right size, the right paper feel, and a nice cover. My current favorite is the Rhodia Webnotebook, in black. This notebook is hardcover, which helps me write on a variety of surfaces, but it covered in a very comfortable leatherette. The paper is very nice as well. A good notebook deserves a good pen too. I’ve gone through a multitude of pens in the past, with various favorites along the way. My current favorite is the Sharpie Grip Pen with a fine black point. These aren’t super fancy, but they write nicely (particularly on the Rhodia paper) and feel good in the hand. Additionally they’re so cheap that I don’t fret if I lose one. To keep my pen and my note pad together, I got a Quiver pen holder. This actually cost more than the notebook and pens combined, but unlike the notebook and pen which are consumables, the Quiver will transfer from note book to note book. This keeps my pen always with my notebook, and adds a nice touch of style to the setup.

Enough about the gear, lets talk about the process. Every day I create a new to do list. Every day is a fresh list, so that I don’t have to keep paging back through history to find the list of things to do. I make a To Do XX/XX header to indicate the date, and then start listing things prefixed with a dash.


This is just a simple, unordered list. I typically leave room to the right of the list so that later, after taking various notes below it, if I need to add another item I have room. Having the items unordered also means I don’t stress if I have to add an item later, it can go wherever and not upset any ordering. As I start working on something, I’ll make a tilde mark next to the list item.


Later, as I finish an item, I’ll check it off with a check mark. I do not cross the item out, because I want to be able to go back through my history to remember the things I’ve done. Crossing an item out makes it that much harder to read (my handwriting is challenging enough).


If at the end of the day I haven’t accomplished everything on my list, I draw a square around the incomplete items. This square is a visual cue that lets me know I need to carry the item over into the next day’s list. In this way I don’t lost track of the things I want to accomplish, but I don’t have to flip back to previous days. I just carry over the unfinished items to the next day.


This very simple process has kept me on top of the things I need to accomplish for the past few years. I’ve filled a number of notebooks this way, and that feels like a great accomplishment. Every time I feel like nothing is happening and my wheels are spinning I can page through them and realize that yes, I am actually getting things done. This process also helps come review time, looking back at past accomplishments. I haven’t done this yet, but I could star the items that would be good to highlight in any future self review scenario.

Thanks for reading, and feel free to share your own to do process in the comments, or on twitter.

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