My to-do list

I’m a bit of a to-do list nut, always looking for new and better ways to manage the list. It sounds trivial, and in some ways it is, but I think it’s also very important for a manager.  One of the distinguishing features of management work compared to engineering is that you have so many more things in flight at once, and being well-organised about them is important to success. Unlike some of the other keys to success, this one seems fairly easy – there shouldn’t really be any excuses for being bad at it.

I’ve been through a number of different systems.  I’m not sure whether that’s because my job changes, because I find better systems, or because I just get bored of one system after a while.  My current systems do not involve a computer, which feels somehow both obvious and impossible to explain.  Last week, I added a new element, which I find oddly exciting.  But let’s start at the beginning.

Everything starts with the notepad: my portable recording device.  It’s a bit sad, but I can hardly go anywhere without it any more.  I imagine myself stuck with the habit when I retire, unable to leave the house without it, doddering round town clutching a notepad.

For a while, I used to keep the to-do list itself on the notepad. There’s a convenience to that, but I got fed up of it. After I’d crossed out two-thirds of the list, it would start to look messy and I’d feel compelled to copy the remaining items onto a new page. Over the years, the rate of turnover on my list increased to the point where this happened every day or two, and just got annoying.  So now, the notepad is temporary, and when I get back to my desk, it all gets uploaded to the wall:


Although I’ve been using this system for a while, it still feels new enough for me to be in love with it. I love that each item can be moved around independently, so I can keep the list visually prioritised, with urgent items at the top.  I also like the stack of ‘done’ items (which sits on my desk) – it can be satisfying to flick back through them sometimes.

For a while, I used a few different colours to categorise items – but that’s been less useful recently so I’ve stopped (but I still have the multicoloured pack of post-its).


The post-its are all about ticking things off.  The goal is to get items off the wall, onto the ‘done’ stack.  But not everything works this way.  It’s not how you get fit.  It’s not how you improve your people skills.  The stickies are tactical and one-off, and I’ve been realising for a while that I need something for strategic and recurring items.  So here’s the newest part of my system:


It’s taken straight from here, and I’m rather excited about it 🙂

For now it’s on the whiteboard by my desk, which is nice for visibility, but I’m almost certainly going to move it to paper so I can look back at previous weeks.

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5 Responses to My to-do list

  1. Weeble says:

    Why yes, I do suffer from meaty trickles. And I haven’t manufactured many parking lots recently. Let’s scrub some potential.

    I feel like I walked into the middle of Magic the Gathering tournament. He is speaking some alien language. I guess you need to go back a bit for context?

    Is one of your stickies a self-portrait? I’m trying to guess what your “trickles” might be:

    Stick-figure: talk to somebody? have a one-to-one meeting? jump up and down? something “Luke-related”?
    Gun: play the game?
    Hex: write some code?
    Radiating arrows: talk to groups of people/many people?
    Pentagram: something to do with geometry? favourites?
    Moon: get home before dark?

    • lukehalliwell says:

      One of my stickies is a portrait of me, yes – although I didn’t do it, and I still don’t know who did! It was just there one day when I got back to my desk 🙂

      As for the icons, I need better ones … it’s embarrassing to admit, but the “moon” is actually supposed to be a banana, which is supposed to be about doing something healthy!! Anyhow, doesn’t matter too much as long as I know what they are 🙂

  2. Weeble says:

    I need to get back into some organisation tools. I tried post-it notes, but they were a disaster for me. They ended up all over the place and kept falling off whatever I was sticking them to. I had more luck with a small note-book. I would write down all my tasks on a page, and when I ran out of room or at the end of the day, I’d copy what was left to a new page. I think the main problem is that sometimes I’m doing long solo tasks and sometimes I’m doing lots of short tasks that involve lots of communication. When I’m doing the latter I’m quite motivated to keep a todo list because I need it to remind me what I’m supposed to be doing, and it feels good to keep ticking stuff off. But when I’m doing the former I tend to feel depressed because I’m not ticking stuff off much and I just start avoiding the todo list altogether.

  3. ismailkhalid says:

    Dear sir,

    I have been reading your blog from some time now and I really enjoy it. In one of your posts you gave very valuable advice about how to become a better software engineer. That post was about ‘How to get a job at Realtime Worlds’, and in that you gave some tips in the end. Recently I applied for the position of Graduate Software Engineer at RTW, and you took my telephonic interview, and I also got to the stage of face-to-face interview but couldn’t clear it. When I was told that you will be taking my telephonic interview I found your web blog on WordPress, and from then I made a habit of reading software related blogs.

    I just finished my MSc in Software Engineering from the University of Glasgow, and it was a great learning experience. I believe that one of the biggest benefits I got from my MSc is that now I feel myself on the right track. I got to know about people such as Joel Spolsky and his blog, Jeff Atwood and his blog ‘codinghorror’. I think that every aspiring software engineer should read these blogs to get good advices, and inspirations. The first person that I took inspiration from in the world of game programming was ‘John Carmack’, of ID Software. Therefore I set out to work on a small 3D game in my Final Year Project of BSc, and I am very proud of that project. This is because many beginners in game developers give up at a certain point because either they are not given the right guidance or they start assuming that they will have to implement all the engine features/routines by themselves. They find themselves reinventing the wheel. There was a time when I was searching for free or opensource game engines, such as Ogre, and crystal space, but I found myself in the same situation, because Ogre is just a wrapper for opengl and directx libraries. So one would have to first develop tools for world building, hidden surface removals, collision detection, particle systems, physics etc to start working on a game. However if one starts to work on these engines and accomplishes some substantial work, then his understanding will enhance greatly. On the other hand Torque Game Engine allows a beginner to kick start in game development by using its tools (world editor, GUI editor, Particle Effects etc), and a C++ like scripting language called Torque Script. But I believe that just using a scripting language does not give you enough control of the game. To get full control, one has to program in C++. It depends upon the engine as well obviously. Is it so that when you are using an engine such as Unreal Engine for APB, all the game code is written in the scripting language? What is C++ used for then?

    My MSc project was about developing a simulation for the Scrum Software Development process. Working on this project build my interest about based project management tools. This project does not simulates the manual tasks of Scrum such as meetings, but it allows its users to manage Projects, Product Backlogs, and Sprint Backlogs.

    Recently I read a book called ‘The Big Switch’ from Nicholas Carr. It is a very thought provoking book about Cloud Computing, and it gave me a feeling that web based project management tools are also a part of cloud computing.

    Thank you and kind regards,


  4. RTW Niklas says:

    TBH at first it looked a bit gimmiky to me, for example the “vitamin”-trickle that the source article mentioned is so easy to complete that putting it onto a big list sounded mostly like mental masturbation to give yourself an illusion of productivity for something that could have been done without even thinking about it…

    However it was only a couple of days after reading it that it sinked in for me,
    Here’s a qoute from the source article which I think is the key sentence for where the trickle-system can work:
    “Didn’t check anything? Haven’t checked off one item for a week? Okay, why isn’t it happening? What larger thing do I need to change?”

    I believe the purpose behind a trickle-system is mainly for keeping records, for example I believe daily-exercise shouldn’t be 100% every day, but rather 5-6 days a week (to give the body some rest once or twice a week) so once in my life I simply had it part of my morning to “excercise daily except if something comes up that particular morning” believing that the days where “something came up” would naturally give me that 1-2 days of rest per week,
    but then one month I decided to keep a daily weight-log, and just for the purpose of accurate measurement I made a little star next to the measure if I had excercised that particular day (so as to explain any fluctuation), after 1 month I was absolutely stunned to notice that my 5-6 days of exercise a week was more like 1-3 days (max), my mind must have been so reluctant to exercise that it kept me from realizing this information naturally, only by this accidental trickle-system (never heard of that word before reading your blog-post) was I able to realize it and think “ok apparently something is fundamentally wrong here and I need to rethink this”.

    So to get back to the vitamin example; even tho taking suppliments is child-play easy a lot of people probably do miss it often or occationally, so the point in measuring it by the trickle system is not to brag to yourself abou having a record of 400 days in a row of something so trivial as taking a vitamin, but rather to check if it really is something that happens daily, and if it happens 30 days in a row no problem you’d probably take it out of the trickle-list but if it only happens every other day then you can realize “I obviously need to rethink how to take a vitamin, maybe I need a better reminder”.

    I’m doing a hobby game on the side of work where I need to do some serious coding, however it’s way sexier to discuss the project, research it, think of cool ideas for post-launch etc than it is to program the necessary meat of the project,
    I’m going to try this trickle-system myself to get a clearer perspective of how often to I really code on this project (I’m currently aware that I’m not doing it enough, tho I really have no idea how often since my usual todo-list is so hectic sometimes that I lose track of the days that flies by),

    Anyway, cool blog 🙂

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