How to Reclaim Your Best Life With a Powerful To Do List Journal

Do you feel like if you don’t write something down it seems like it never existed? If so, you likely have a lot of items to keep track of on your to do list. In this post I’ll share how to create a to do list journal that helps you reach your personal goals without overwhelming yourself.

Person writing in journal. Start a to do list journal

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To do lists are an amazing tool when you have to accomplish a lot of things, but not when they become so large that it feels like a chore to even look at them. 

If you have to write “look through to do list” on your to do list before you can get anything done, that’s not going to work. 

Instead, a great way to keep track of all of the things you have to do in one place and to make your to do lists useful is to create a to do list bullet journal. This involves organizing your lists in ways that not only ensures you pay attention to the most important things, but also that those things are actionable.

What Is a To Do List Journal?

A few years ago I started to use a bullet journal as my primary planner because I like the flexibility it offers. I tend to use my planner as a place to keep track of tasks I need to complete rather than to keep track of my schedule. 

My use of the bullet journal relies on a lot of concepts from The Bullet Journal Method book by Ryder Carroll.

My days don’t change very much from week to week so it never made sense to me to use a planner with a focus on time slots

Using the bullet journal method allows you to create a lot of different types of lists and to organize your lists in ways that make them more manageable. In this post, I’m going to talk specifically about lists you can use to manage your to do lists in your journal, including: 

  • Master Task List
  • Project/Goal lists
  • Priority Lists
  • Context Lists
  • Running task lists
  • Weekly spreads
  • Daily pages 

Related post: 145+ Collections and Lists To Add to Your Bullet Journal

Supplies Needed to Start a Bullet Journal For Your To Do Lists

To start a to do list bullet journal, all you’re going to need is a notebook or a journal to start with. Essentially, what you want is to have a journal that you can organize.

Paper Methods

If you like using a paper to do list, I recommend the Scribbles That Matter dot grid notebooks. Since the pages are numbered in these journals, you can easily create an organization system by using the index in the front of the book. 

This is a great option if you want to use a single notebook.

You could even use a spiral bound notebook if you’d like. Any spiral notebook will meet your needs for creating a journal where you keep track of your tasks. 

You know, the ones you can get at Walmart during back to school season!

You could organize the journal by creating your own index page or by using tabs such as these super cute pastel ones.

Another option (and the one I use when working on paper) is to use a traveler’s notebook since you can have separate books for separate areas. Here is a great example of a traveler’s notebook on Amazon that you could use. 

Index page in my bullet journal
Index Page Example

Currently in my traveler’s notebook I have 4 different notebooks. One is my work journal/planner, one is my blog journal/planner, one is my goal planner, and one is my reference and list notebook. The methods I use in creating a to do list journal will apply to any of these notebooks (other than the reference and list book, which is where I keep other collections and lists as well as things I have to look up frequently like paper sizes).

Digital Methods

If choosing to use a digital planner, you will need an iPad (or other tablet) along with an app such as GoodNotes or Notability. Then you will need to have a digital planner, which is a PDF with hyperlinked pages. The hyperlinks usually lead to different parts of the notebook so are great for creating a to do list journal. A simple notebook like this one in my Etsy shop is all you need, unless you want something with more structure.

How Do You Organize a To Do List Journal?

There are a lot of different ideas for what to put in your bullet journal to manage your tasks. I’m going to go over the ways I use my journal to give you some ideas of where to start.

The first thing I like to do is to create a brain dump type page where I list out every task I can think of that’s on my mind. I’ll call that “The Master List.” 

The Master List

As a first step when creating your journal, I recommend starting a master task list. This is a list of all of the things you have to do. The way I do this is to brainstorm all of the things I want to do on one page. I try to get these things out of my head and onto paper. 

This is often called a brain dump and you can read more about how to do this here.

Don’t worry so much about how this looks. You’re just trying to get everything down. You might even do this on a piece of scrap paper or on some sticky notes prior to adding them into your journal. 

This is helpful because over time your brain gets a little cluttered with all of the things it has to keep track of. 

If you’ve ever had trouble falling asleep because you keep thinking about your to do list, you know what I mean!

When you start putting these things down on paper you may experience a sigh of relief because your brain now knows that you aren’t going to forget to do those things. So you no longer need to keep going over this list again and again in your head. 

Make sure you capture everything you have to do and everything you want to do

It’s especially important to put your creative projects on the list – things you want to do for fun. It’s so easy to get stuck doing only the things that you “should” do and leave out the things you want to do just for the fun of it. 

Having fun is important for your mental health, so please don’t forget this part.

You can create different master lists for different areas of your life if this makes things easier for you. 

When I create my journals, I typically place my master task list in the back of my journal. In order to make it easy to get to that page in my journal, I use little sticky tabs. Although I can put the page number in my index, I find it helpful to use these tabs for pages I visit frequently.

Since your master task list is most likely humongous, I’d like to make some suggestions for ideas to make it usable:

  • Keep it as simple as possible – add projects to this list instead of the individual tasks for each project. For example, “teach a Skillshare class” is a project, while “decide on a topic for my Skillshare class” is a task. 
  • Create different master task lists for different areas of your life. I have a master task list for work and one for my blog. 

Another type of master task list that I like to use is the project list. I believe I learned about this in the book Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life. 

Project Lists

Project lists are lists where you keep track of all of the projects you’d like to accomplish. 

If you want to accomplish anything, you know you can’t work on all the things at once. Your project list is where you store all the long-term goals and ideas you have that sometimes derail you from what you’re working on at the moment. (shiny object syndrome anyone?)

While writing this blog post I had an idea to create a new digital planner around goal planning. If I stopped writing this post in order to start working on that planner I would not complete this post. 

Instead I can write the “goal planner idea” on my project list for later. That way I still have it and can schedule time to work on it when it becomes a priority. After all, just because I thought of it today, doesn’t mean it is more important than some of my other projects.

Once I decide to start one of the projects, I usually create a page specific to that project so that I can start brainstorming the tasks I’ll need to do to complete the project. Having smaller, actionable tasks makes any project easier to do so I like to have these on a project page.

Example of Steps on a Project Page

Next, I like to take my master tasks and project lists and start to plan for when these tasks can be completed. 

How to Plan Using Your Master Lists

Having a master task list is important. At the same time, I don’t like working from a master task list so I like to break my task lists down into more organized lists. 

These lists should only include tasks you’ve decided you will be working on next. 

I’ve created a printable version of these task list pages which you can get in my shop.

There are a few ways that I like to organize my task lists:

Priority Based To Do Lists

The best thing you can do with your master do to list is to prioritize your important tasks. Since my master list tends to be pretty long, I tend to start this off by putting a little colored dot in front of the things that need to get done in the next few weeks. Then I am only going to worry about those things when doing my priority list.

The way I organize my task lists according to priority typically looks something like this:

  • Urgent – just as it sounds. These are my top priorities and they need to get done now.
  • Next – As soon as my urgent tasks are done, I need to focus on these
  • Waiting – I move tasks to my waiting list when I am waiting for a response from someone else.
  • Someday – I’ve decided these are a priority but they are not as urgent as the ones on my “urgent” or “next” list.

Call these lists whatever makes most sense to you. I find it helpful to have this laid out when planning my weeks.

Context Based Task Lists

The second way I like to organize my tasks is by context. What this means is that you organize your tasks according to where you will complete them.

The simplest way to think about this is separating the things you do at work versus the things you do at home.

To make this more useful, I recommend thinking about other ways to organize your tasks so that you know what tasks you’re doing when you are in the context in which you would do those things. Here are some examples:

  • On the Computer
  • Out on errands
  • People to Call
  • In the kitchen
  • At home
  • At work
  • In my car

As you can see, the context is usually either somewhere you are or something you’re doing. If you’re doing email, it makes sense to write all the emails you have to write because you’re already in your email program. If you’re already in town picking up something, maybe it makes sense to pick up other things you need since you’re already there.

Using a Planner To Complete Your Tasks

Once you have a good idea of what tasks and projects you’d like to complete, the next thing to do is to figure out how best to accomplish these using your planner. Again, I break things up into different sections in my planner. Ideas of how to break things down include:

  • 90 Day Goal Planning
  • Monthly Planning
  • Weekly Planning
  • Daily Planning

When working with projects, I like to work with 90 day planning. Thinking ahead 3 months allows you to schedule things in advance with a future log. Then, anything beyond that you can write on sticky notes and transfer them to the new 90 days when you start to develop that.

I learned how to do this in this book on creating a 12 week year. It’s a great book and I highly recommend it. I created a digital planner to help me use the 12 week year model, which you can purchase in my Etsy shop.

Monthly Pages

If you use a monthly spread in your journal you may wish to have a section on there where you create a simple list of your goals for the month. When doing 90 day planning, I like to plan out what I have to accomplish each month to reach my 90 day goal. 

You could even schedule your monthly goals right in your monthly spreads. That way you can see exactly what you need to accomplish each week to reach your goals. 

Otherwise it is way too easy to think you can get more accomplished than is actually possible.

If you have monthly tasks that you do every month, you can create a monthly log or habit tracker to place on your monthly pages. I like to use stickers for things like this so I don’t have to re-write them out every month. 

Weekly Spread

Each weekend I start a weekly spread for the upcoming week that shows my weekly schedule and a list of tasks that are most important to complete that week. I like to highlight important events that are scheduled for the week on this page so that I can see everything at one glance.

Weekly Task List Example

I also usually create a running list of items that I call “open loops,” which are tasks that I did not complete during the previous week. Then I go back to the previous week and put a little arrow in front of those tasks so I know they are taken care of (by being moved forward to be completed in the near future).

Every single task I create in my weekly and daily logs need to be marked with something. They will be marked either with an X or a checkmark if completed, an arrow if moved forward, or a W if I’m waiting for something. If I use a W, I often will also put an arrow and move that task forward.

Another thing I like to add to the weekly page is a habit tracker. Instead of writing my habit goals on each of my to do lists, I like to have a habit tracker. Things I include on my habit tracker are things I want to do every day that I am still working on creating a habit around. For example, things I have put on my habit tracker are: exercising, taking vitamins, and writing in my journal.

If one of your goals is meal planning, a meal planning page may also be useful to add to your weekly pages.

Daily Pages

Daily pages are where bullet journaling shines if you ask me! If you keep up with them, it won’t take much time before you are on top of your most important daily tasks. I know when I don’t do this I tend to feel very scattered and unproductive.

To start a daily spread, write the day of the week at the top of the page. 

Writing the day in is a creative outlet for me because I practice my hand lettering. I also use stickers sometimes. The main goal is to use the bullet journal system to make sure that you’re focused on getting your tasks done. The goal of this planner is productivity.

Under the date, I typically write the daily log of any important meetings that I need to attend during the day. 

Daily Page Example

Next, I place my top three tasks. (Funny I don’t have this in the picture I’m sharing, but I usually include this with circles in front of these tasks). These are the tasks that I need to complete during the day if the day is considered successful.

This is freeing because even if I create a hyper-long annoying to do list during the day, I know I’ve accomplished what I need to do if at the end of the day those top 3 items were completed.

This is important for me to remember because I also write down things that come up during the day that I know I need to take care of sometime in the future. 

This means that my page could have tasks on it that I do not plan to do that day. However, I am the kind of person who needs to write everything down (unless I do it right away) or else it’s gone.

To summarize my routine on this daily page, I add the following to my daily spread:

  • Day of the week
  • Scheduled Meetings
  • Top 3 Priorities
  • Other tasks I’d like to do during the day
  • Tasks that come up during the day that I need to accomplish at some point.

Although I don’t add this to my planner, some people write a daily routine into their planner to ensure they do things that are part of their morning routine for example. I tend to put these types of things on my habit tracker if I need to. I use a habit tracker sticker from my Etsy store for this.

At the end of my workday (or sometimes the next morning), I create the new day in my planner. I move over any tasks that I need to accomplish the next day.

If a to-do list item does not need to be completed the next day, I don’t move it yet.

I tend to put either a dot, a circle, or a square before each of my task items. This gives me a visual cue that the task is still open and has not had anything done to it yet. I try to make it as easy as possible for me to see tasks that are still open so that I can move them. 

Weekly Review

As part of my task management, I do a weekly review. As part of that review I move all of the open tasks in the following ways:

  • If a task needs to be completed in the next week, I will move it to the open loops list that I create as a weekly spread.
  • If a task needs to be completed sometime in the future, but not necessarily in the near future, I put it on my master task list in the back of my notebook.
  • If a task is already complete or if it something I no longer need to do, I mark it complete.

As you probably notice, I am rewriting tasks that need to be complete. I find this to be a very important part of my planning process. Rewriting my tasks is the best way I’ve found to make sure I keep them top of mind. It also helps me manage my lists by removing things that are no longer important.

Another thing I do as part of my weekly review and preparation for the next week is to create a page related to a meeting I hold every week. If a topic comes up that I need to present to my team, I write it on that list. That page is then my meeting agenda. 

Monthly Review

I’m going to be honest that I’m not great at this, but I plan to review my master task list and my project lists at the end of the month to see what can be removed and/or marked complete. I think it’s important to do this at least every 90 days if you do 90 day planning. 

This is also a time to daydream about new projects you want to add to your project list. 

Your Turn

Go ahead and start your own to do list bullet journal. I’d love to hear how it goes. Remember that it takes practice to make something like this work for you.

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colorful bullet journal with accessories

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