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Seeing is Doing: 8 Creative Ways to Visualize Your To-Do List

Belle Cooper
Belle Cooper / September 11, 2014

Sometimes my task list is too overwhelming. I want to take a big step back and look at my week or month ahead and really visualize what's coming up, rather than plowing through a list of to-do items.

It can be tricky to "zoom out" and understand how your task list fits into your overall schedule, but I've found visual representations can really help. I have a couple of favorites, but in case they don't work for you I've rounded up a whole bunch of methods you can try to visualize what you have to get through.

Put It On the Wall

If you can get away with sticking things to the wall (cheap rental paint tends to come off easily, so I can't always use these methods), you can keep your tasks visible all the time. This is really handy if you're prone to getting distracted (that's me!) or if you need reminders to keep your schedule clear in your head.

Butcher Paper

A cheap, simple option is to just get some butcher paper and markers. I also found office supply stores sell big pads of paper to be used for presentations, which are a great size for drawing up a calendar or big task list. You can easily attach sheets of paper to the wall with Blu Tack, or something like these removable sticky pads if you're worried about ruining the paint (they don't always come off the wall perfectly, so use with care).

I like using colorful markers to give my paper a bit of character. Good old Sharpies come in a bunch of colors these days, but I prefer these erasable Pilot Frixion markers, which don't bleed through the paper.

Whiteboard

my whiteboard

If you're lucky enough to have the room and the funds, you could get a full standing whiteboard, or even some whiteboard paint for your office walls. If you want something more low-key, or just cheaper, there are lots of small whiteboards available that are a great size for writing up your schedule, reminders or your task list.

Most small whiteboards come with some sort of mounting equipment to put them on the wall, but I just keep mine on my desk, leaning against the wall (above), and it works fine. This also means I can rearrange my workspace as often as I like, and take the whiteboard with me.

Covey Priority Matrix

covey matrix

I mentioned the Covey priority matrix in my recent post about prioritizing your tasks. The matrix is a visual exercise in itself—you allocate your tasks to one of four boxes depending on whether they're urgent and important, urgent but not important, important but not urgent, or not urgent or important.

I've always found that doing this exercise on a sheet of paper and then sticking it to the wall near my desk is really helpful during busy times. It's easy to get overwhelmed by everything on your task list, so having your priority matrix on the wall can help remind you what to focus on and what to ignore or put off until later.

Place It On a Kanban Board

Kanban board example from Trello Development board
Digital Kanban board maker Trello uses its own product to publicly display team tasks.

Kanban boards are a very visual way to track your progress with projects or single tasks. The idea is to move a task through the different stages, keeping a visual representation of what stage it's in at all times. Kanban was created to improve efficiency in Toyota's manufacturing line, but has recently become popular for use in software development and all kinds of other work.

Trello is a popular Kanban-style task management app: each task is created as a "card" that gets moved between lists to show what stage of the process it's at. These lists can simply be "to-do", "doing" and "done", or they can be more relevant to your work. For instance, at Buffer, we used to have a list in Trello for each week, and content to be written up would be added to that week's list as a new card.

Other Kanban apps include Kanban Tool, LeanKit, Kanbanery and kanban2go.

Get It On Sticky Notes

sticky notes

Using sticky notes can be a really fun way to organize your schedule visually. You can stick these on your desk, your whiteboard or the wall and there are lots of bright colors available to help you color-code what you need to get done.

For things I need to do every day, I've used sticky notes in the past. I had one column for things to be done and one for the things I'd already completed. Each daily task had its own sticky note and I simply moved them between the columns as I got them done.

You can do a similar thing for tasks that need to be done just once, if you need to track them through various stages of completion. Set up a column for each stage of the process, and make a sticky note for each task or project. Moving them into the right columns is quick, and you have the advantage of always being able to see at a glance where each task is at.

Lay It Out On a Calendar

teuxdeux example

For tasks with hard deadlines or even planned start dates, I like to see them in the context of a calendar. Somehow, it's much easier to plot out the work needed in my head when I can see the boxes on a calendar with each task included.

I use Post-It notes or a whiteboard for this sometimes, but if you prefer to stay digital, TeuxDeux (above) is a web and iOS app that lists your tasks on a calendar.

Of course, you could just use a paper diary or calendar for this purpose, too. The big, flat desk calendars are great if you have enough room to keep them visible all the time.

Doodle It In a Notebook

doodled to-do list

Lastly, if you're partial to doodling or you just want to try something a bit different, there are plenty of ways to add visual elements to your task list.

Drawing what you need to get done can be fun and take away some of the stress associated with a task list. If you're a fan of hand lettering, you could spend a little extra time writing out your tasks.

hand lettered to-do list

Even just adding a little visual flair as you cross off items on your list can be fun.

scribbled to do list

You could also try an idea by business coach Tatyana Sussex of using a "pie" drawing to show your tasks. Each section corresponds to an area of your life or work, and tasks go inside the pie slice. This can be handy for cutting down how much you're trying to get done and visualizing how balanced your task list is.

Turn It Into Physical Objects

Daily Stack prototype

The Daily Stack is just a concept at this stage, but I'm sure you could create something similar at home (especially if you have kids' toys lying around).

The method uses three types of wooden blocks, each representing a different activity: breaks, productive work and procrastination. The different sized blocks correspond to different amounts of time: 15 minutes, 30 minutes and an hour. As you add each block, a timer on the computer adds the corresponding task and time, and counts down for you.

If you have some wooden blocks lying around, you could try something similar—you'd have to time yourself manually, but the physical objects could still be useful as a reminder to stay on-task.

Or, you could try using candy or chocolates. Allocate different flavors to different tasks, and the bigger the treat, the longer the working period. As you finish each section, reward yourself by eating the corresponding treat!

Yep, I actually tried that.

candy

In fact, just this week I've used my whiteboard, some sticky notes, colored labels and even index cards. I've learned that having my task list represented visually where I can see it all the time actually reduces the pressure I feel, because I know I'm not forgetting something. Out of sight, out of mind, after all.

Credits: Header photo courtesy Jenn Vargas. Whiteboard and keyboard and candy photo by Belle Beth Cooper. Sticky notes photo courtesy Office Supplies Talk. Covey priority matrix courtesy US Geological Survey. Doodled to-do list courtesy Elvie Studio. Hand lettering to-do list courtesy Well It's Okay blog. Scribbled to-do list courtesy Mrs Easton. The Daily Stack courtesy Anders Højmose.

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