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Getting Motivated with Your To-Do List

posted by Matt Ward on Jul 25, 2010.

Task management is certainly an important consideration for any designer – freelance or otherwise. Sometimes, however our to-do lists can become somewhat overwhelming. In this article, I would like to look at one small change that you can make in your approach to task management to make it less daunting and more of a motivating factor in your work.

As designers, we all need to keep ourselves organized in some manner. For many of us, this involves using some form of task management. It could be a complete software package for your computer, a smaller app for your phone, or even a good old fashioned notebook in which you jot everything down. Regardless, the chances are good that you have some kind of to-do list for tracking the various projects and tasks that you have to complete.

Getting Motivated with Your To-Do List (image from Shutterstock)

Getting Motivated with Your To-Do List (image from Shutterstock)

The chances are also pretty good that sometimes you look at that always growing to-do list and feel a little overwhelmed, or think that things just aren’t getting checked off as quickly as you might like.

Well, in this article I’d like to share a little trick that I’ve found helps approach the to-do list a bit better, and which can also help keep you energized and motivated in your work.

The Importance of the To-Do

Before moving on, however, I really need to stress the overall importance of the to-do list as a productivity tool. If you’re workload is anything like mine (and I would bet that it probably is at least somewhat similar), then you probably don’t have the luxury of working with only one client at any particular moment. I know that some freelancers do their best to focus on working on only one project at a time, but even then I would imagine that there’s still a certain amount of interaction with other clients – general maintenance, trouble shooting, content changes, and the like.

Add onto this the need to be continually working on some of your own personal projects (something I really think every designer should be doing), and suddenly, in addition to being a designer, you also have to become a juggler of sorts, managing all kinds of work at the same time.

This is exactly what happened to me. When I first started freelancing and was working only for my first client, it was pretty easy. But then I started to get a few more clients. I launched my blog and started to get requests for articles. Soon, my workload started to become far more complex, and I was having an increasingly difficult time keeping everything straight with nothing but my memory.

So, I turned to task management software. We’ll talk more about some specific applications towards the end of this article. For now, suffice it to say that the task management software really helped me keep everything organized, which certainly helped with overall productivity.

The Big Problem

Now, there’s probably nothing all that startling or revealing about the importance of keeping yourself organized with some form of task management. Most of you are probably already doing it to some degree, and I touched on its importance mostly for context – and just on the off chance that there’s someone who’s not doing it.

As important as the task management and to-do lists are, however, I always found that there was a certain overwhelming weight to my to-do list when I first started using it. The problem I faced was really a matter of scope. When I started into task management, I would use really general concepts. As a result, my task list would look like this:

  • Design [client] layout in Photoshop
  • Code [client] layout into custom WordPress theme
  • Design [client] logo

The overall list was generally pretty small, but the individual tasks within it were huge. Designing a complete website in Photoshop can take hours and hours of work. The same is true of coding a WordPress theme or designing a logo. As such, I simply found that my to-do list wasn’t really changing all that much from day to day. This in turn made me feel like I wasn’t making any progress, and was somewhat stuck in a bit of a design rut.

And that’s never a good feeling (whether it’s true or not).

The Sub-Division Trick

Fortunately, we humans are silly creatures, who are perfectly capable of deceiving our own minds, even when we are fully aware of the deception. The solution to my problem involved precisely this kind of deception.

Eventually, I realized that these massive items on my to-do list were simply too big. So, I started breaking them down into smaller, more manageable pieces. For instance, instead of just having a single entry about creating a layout in Photoshop, I might start with something like:

  • Establish a basic grid
  • Create a greyscale wireframe
  • Test several different background options

By using these kind of smaller tasks, the complete list becomes larger, but also a great deal more manageable. Often I can get one, two or even more of these smaller, mini tasks completed in a single evening.

The benefit of this is that, while I may not actually be getting any more work done that I was doing before, it feels like I am getting more done, because I’m actually able to check things off on my to-do list pretty much every day. There is just something profoundly satisfying about completing a task, even if that task is only a small part of a larger project. It’s even more satisfying if I can make a nightly to-do list and complete everything that was on it.

It’s also incredibly motivating. Every time I check something off my list, it invariably gives me the drive to get started on something else. Plus, if I can complete everything I had scheduled for one day, I tend to wake up the next morning with more energy and motivation to keep the momentum of my work going.

Interestingly, all of these positive experiences stem from the simple act of breaking larger tasks into smaller and more manageable mini tasks, all so that I can feel as though I am accomplishing more. And, ultimately, because I feel like I am getting more done and don’t tend to get bogged down by the larger scope of the project, I actually do get more done.

Just by giving myself the satisfaction of being able to actually acknowledge my completion of small tasks, I have actually seen a significant boost in my own productivity!

Task Management Software

As we bring this article to a close, I thought it would be useful to offer a brief list of different task management applications that you could use for managing your own to-do lists. If you’re already using a different app, these might provide some interesting alternatives. If you’re not using anything at all, then hopefully you can find something that will work for you.


This is the application that I am currently using, and I’m really happy with it. It’s a Mac-based app with an attractive design, and the ability schedule and manage your tasks in a variety of ways. Smaller tasks can be collected into larger projects and you can also include task-specific notes that link to emails, websites and other documents.

Things for Mac

Things for Mac

Additionally, you can also synchronize the desktop application with apps for the iPhone (which I have) and the iPad (which I don’t), meaning that I always have my task list at my fingertips – even when I’m on the go.

Remember the Milk

This is a web-based task management solution that offers a wide range of options, such as several different methods for getting task reminders, tag-based task organization, geo-location for your tasks and a number of other really great features. There are also apps available for both the iPhone and Android powered smart phones.

Remember the Milk

Remember the Milk

Personally, I haven’t tried this one, but it looks pretty good and I’ve heard all sorts of really great things about it. Being web-based, it also has the added benefit of allowing you to access your tasks from anywhere you have an internet connection.

Task Coach

Task Coach is an open source task management suite, that is widely available across a wide range of platforms, including Windows, Mac, Ubuntu and the iPhone. Again, I haven’t used this one, but some of my followers on Twitter drew my attention to it, and it certainly appears to have a ton of useful features, including both time and effort tracking.

Task Coach

Task Coach

If you’re looking for either an open source application, or something that allows for really extensive organization and tracking of your tasks, then Task Coach might be the one for you.


Anxiety is a really simple little app for the Mac that integrates seamlessly with iCal, providing a nice, lightweight interface for managing your to-do list. You can organize tasks by attaching them to different calendars. It also adds a simple little icon to the menu bar, allowing for quick and easy access to your tasks. I used this one for a while before finally switching to Things, and was relatively happy with it. I just wanted something a little more extensive that I could sync to my iPhone.



If you’re already using native OS X apps for your task management, this lightweight little addition can provide you with a great way of interacting with your tasks.


This is another alternative that was brought to my attention over Twitter. It is a web-based service that appears to take a much different approach to task management. It uses an interface that it calls the “board”, allowing you to move projects through a number of different stages, from inception to completion.



It looks like an interesting way of approaching the issue of task management, and may be best suited for team-based projects, or for individuals who thrive in a more visual environment.


Of course, there are certainly many, many more task management applications that you could find out there, especially for Windows. If you’re drawn to more tactile methods, you can always use a good old fashioned notebook (moleskine if you’d like).

Regardless of whether or not you chose to use one of the above cited programs or a method of your own choosing, the important thing is that you are doing at least something to keep track of your tasks. Beyond that, however, I hope that this article has demonstrated how making just one simple change to the way you handle your tasks can really help to increase your motivation and overall productivity.

It’s a small thing that can pay big dividends.

Now, what about you? Are there any other simple methods or techniques that you use to make your to-do list more of a real productivity tool, rather than a daunting obstacle to be overcome? If so, I’d love to hear about them!

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Jul 26, 2010

Ilias says:

I think it’s worth mentioning “the hit list” (OS X-only).


I haven’t used it myself but I’ve heard only good things about it. iPhone-app should be in the making.

Jul 26, 2010

Eduardo Baldan says:

Hi, Matt.
Great article. Getting organized is huge step to make our works better.

I organize my lists with Remember the Milk, which, besides being very flexible, has great community tips for using it in the smart way.

For the time track, I use the Pomodoro Technique – http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/ – which is a very healthy why of working, giving my mind time to “breath” and work at full power.

One more item to my task list is getting to know better the GTD methodology (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Getting_Things_Done). People say that once you get to know and apply it, the work flow gets much more powerful.


Jul 27, 2010

Jerry M says:

Great Post Matt! I would like to mention another Task management software which works well with any operating system – Taroby. Do check it out at: http://www.taroby.com

Jul 29, 2010

Vunky says:

Thanks for the post. Reminded my of the todo list I set at the beginning of this year:


Not sure if I’m going to make it all ;)

Things is indeed a great todo app for the mac. To bad that you cannot smoothly exchange the todo lists between different mac’s and your iphone.

Jul 29, 2010

Katja Nina says:

Great review, thanks! I’m off to do first thing on my to do list – sign up with one of the above!

Jul 29, 2010

Neil Wilkins says:

Love the blog. We use Basecamp todo and milestones from http://www.37signals.com which is great for allowing clients access to what you are working on so they can check in on progress without always having to bother you.

Jul 29, 2010

Martin Lucas says:

This is really helpful, I’m also one for keeping only large items in my to do list – so will now try and break them down to smaller tasks in future.

I use Teux Deux;


It’s an ultra simple task manager, just a day to day list – but the simplicity has helped me in sticking with it as it’s just so easy to add, edit and tick off items.

Jul 29, 2010

Ed says:

If your using Gmail – Nothing better than a simple Task List in Gmail and Calendar.

Jul 29, 2010

King Sidharth says:

You forgot http://teuxdeux.com

Jul 29, 2010

Vladimir Carrer says:

I had similar motivation problems than I decided to make (A4 Paper – Grid Design) To Do List http://www.vcarrer.com/2009/11/to-do-list-a4-paper-grid-design.html

Jul 29, 2010

Krzysztof Kotlarski says:

OmniFOcus is another To Do List App worth mentioning next to Things

Aug 1, 2010

Marlon Amancio says:

Great article! Simple and efficient. I prefer notebook and a pen, it’s more pratical and quick.

Another good trick

Aug 3, 2010

Misantrofia says:

“As designers, we all need to keep ourselves organized in some manner”. I think you could go further on that and say “As humans …” , organized work is the key to a successful product. Great article.

Aug 3, 2010

Shoogle Designs says:

Neat post as usual Matt.

Absolutely spot on, organization, tidiness and anticipation are crucial when it comes down to get things done in a clean, and effective manner.

I have to admit, I’m an absolute to-do-list freak, having tested many of the apps out there. I used to do everything on gmail, but as a blackberry user (others may want to testify), google calendar access on a blackberry is rubbish.

This is why i switched app and am now using http://reqall.com

Guys and girls, if you have a blackberry, give it a try, it’s much better than gmail, and it’s got the same functionalities (reminders by mail, recap per day). And it’s free of course.

Just thought i would share that with you all.

Matt, keep it up. always a pleasure to read your posts.
take care.

Oct 7, 2010

john stiller says:

A timely blog! I agree on this blog that in order to have productivity in an area you should manage your time well and to-do list is such a helpful tool thus this provide you to prioritize and organize things.
The video at howtobeproductive.com is correct when it says that the main problem of workers to be unproductive is procrastination. Thus keeping in mind the tips that can be seen in this video can help them to be motivated. I know I did!

Nov 20, 2010

Asma says:

Wow.It’s amazing article Mr.Matt.
It’s usful and helpful.
thank you so much.
Have a great time.

Aug 7, 2012

Kumar says:

I believe this is KANBAN concept. Actually as you mentioned, maintaining a to-do list is necessary. I personally set alerts on my to-do list and when the time comes I get alerts to perform the task.

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