To-Do Lists — Big Picture vs. Little Picture

by Katy on January 26, 2024 · 53 comments

I’m a huge fan of a daily to-do list. I scribble them into my planner each morning so I can give myself credit for stuff other people accomplish without having to pat themselves on the back. I find that I’m much more likely to knock out necessary tasks if I can mark them as “done,” which scratches that itch for external validation. To clarify, the to-do list is external to me. My armor against procrastination.

Little Picture

I put floss/brush/shower/litter boxes on my daily to-do list, which might seem like overkill, but it motivates me to get the ball rolling early in the day.

I then break tasks down into component pieces, so instead of “laundry,” which is vague and decidedly non-concrete, (is “laundry” ever really done?!) I give myself four squares to cross out for each load.

  1. Load washer.

  2. Switch laundry to dryer.

  3. Fold laundry.

  4. Put laundry away.

This might sound like an overcomplication of a standard chore, but it means that I never fall behind on laundry, even when I had kids at home. I can see what needs to be done and it feels incomplete if the boxes aren’t completed.

But what I’ve described are pesky little picture tasks that repeat on an almost daily basis. The time loop tasks that endlessly repeat.

Big Picture

I put “big picture” tasks in a separate area of my planner, as they don’t have to be completed on a specific day. Examples would be “take car through DEQ” or “clean and organize back porch.”

At this point you might be convinced that my days are filled with nothing but drudgery and icky hustle culture, but I make sure to slip enjoyable tasks onto my to-do lists. “Read for an hour” or “text a friend to schedule a play date” are common inclusions.

I’m not a productivity junkie in the manner of toxic men who write productivity books, but I still want to make sure that my bidness* is being taken care of. Taking care of life’s unpleasant tasks in a deliberate and efficient way, so I have the time and (most importantly) energy to do the better things that make life worth living.

How many of us have spent a day doing nothing enjoyable because we felt we hadn’t earned it? Because we hadn’t made that unpleasant phone call, sorted the mail or tackled that pile of dirty laundry?

“I can’t cuddle up with a book and a cup of tea because I haven’t dealt with X,Y,Z yet.”

My daily to-do lists mean that I can give myself the grace and permission to work on an unnecessary creative project, guiltlessly watch TV or socialize with a friend. I do so knowing my tasks, both big and little picture are taken care of.

Do you have a productivity hack that keeps you on track? I’d love to read what you do or maybe even struggle with when it comes to life’s daily tasks.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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* Takin’ care of bidness!

{ 53 comments… read them below or add one }

Christine January 26, 2024 at 1:28 pm

Nothing as specific as a list, but I like to be sure my housework and yardwork are completed by early afternoon so I can have the rest of the day to myself for reading, watching TV, walking, meeting up with friends at the indy bookstore. The exception is making supper and cleaning up afterwards, a necessary frugal chore for me, and taking in the clothes from the clothesline at the end of the day.


Katy January 26, 2024 at 1:48 pm

I look forward to the summer months when I can use my clothesline again.


Blue Gate Farmgirl January 26, 2024 at 2:09 pm

I am a huge fan of lists. I do not list personal activities like hair/teeth/clothes, bed made, room straightened, I do not put my daily chores of winter: start fire/get fire going, feed animals, make coffee (reward), start load of laundry and dishes if there are dishes. I use daily lists, big goals written at the end of the year and reflect on the day in my journal. Gentle chatisement is allowed in the journal.
I put a big goal project at the top of my monthly task list and break it down into pieces for daily check offs. It is really effective for me. That is how I am slowly getting my farm back in shape and when something is really big like selling a tractor or car/truck/boat/rv I share my tasks with friends and family so they keep me accountable. This keeps the evil Phantom Procrastinator at bay.


Marie January 26, 2024 at 2:17 pm

We make a yearly list of things to be accomplished on our little farm.
Last years biggie was replacing lots of deck boards($800) and painting the house ($200) We had 2 5 gallon buckets of white paint, went to the hardware store, had them tinted for $1.50 each. Score!
This year, I’ve started in my head, just have write it down


Marie-Josée January 26, 2024 at 2:23 pm

I don’t like to do manual work like cooking, dishes, laundry or cleaning. I’ve come to the conclusion that I am made to be rich. Since I’m not, I spead chores out throughout the day and week to make them more bearable. Working from home since the pandemic has made this much easier. I do a batch of dishes after lunch so that the after dinner dishes are more manageable. We’ve simplified our (gluten-free) meals. I used to cook a different green veggie with each dinner and this has been replaced by a wonderful soup filled with a variety of green and other veggies that we batch cook and freeze in individual portions. We eat it with five suppers and we have not tired of it yet. We recently purchased an air fryer and Wow, it is life altering. I am now dreaming of a two compartment model to cook meat, fish or tofu portion on one side and root veggies on the other. It cooks so quickly and has really diminished our dishes. I wash and hang a load of laundry twice a week, always early in the morning before my work-day begins. We do the general house cleaning on the week-end. It takes about an hour to make our appartment sparkle when both of us participate and we try to get it out of the way on Saturday morning, but the struggle is real. My husband sometimes gets a part done on Friday’s as he works 4 days a week, but he never manages to get it all done. I am hoping that when I work 4 days a week in a few weeks, we will manage to do get the shopping, batch cooking (like spaghetti sauce) and cleaning chores done on Friday’s and Saturday’s so that we can enjoy a real day off on Sunday’s.


Coral Clarke January 26, 2024 at 6:58 pm

I really related to Quentin Crisps quote” The trouble with housework is, you do it, and then, 4 years later, you have to do it again!”


Lindsey January 26, 2024 at 7:09 pm

I loved him and actually met him not long before he died. It was a reading in NYC.


Bee January 27, 2024 at 6:44 am

When I stayed at home when my children was small, I used to say that I felt like Sisyphus from Greek mythology. Everyday he struggled to pus the rock up the hill and every morning it was at the bottom again. It’s hard sometimes to feel like you are accomplishing anything.


Bee January 27, 2024 at 6:45 am

Edit: push the rock up the hill


Katy January 27, 2024 at 1:19 pm

I remember those days well, even though I was a working mom. The way I addressed this was to deliberately ignore the occasional chore that undid itself in order to accomplish a chore that didn’t.


Marie-Josée January 28, 2024 at 10:32 am

I will look him up, he sounds hilarious! Thank you.


Lindsey G January 26, 2024 at 2:28 pm

I love a to-do list and have long favored pen + paper lists in notebooks I get for free from my job or the back of a used envelope. However, the notes app lists I’ve been making for the past year have been my go-to for daily lists. I like using the checkboxes in the list format as I feel like I’m accomplishing something!


Vickey February 14, 2024 at 5:19 pm

Same here. And I can share them w/DH, for projects we’re both working on, or things to get when out for errands, or or or….


Kara January 26, 2024 at 2:33 pm

I print my own planner pages and have it spiral bound at Staples, it turns out free because I use the $5 reward that I get from taking ink cartridges to be recycled. On one spread (the 2 pages side by side when the planner is open) I have the 7 days of the week and on the next spread I leave it blank. This is where I make list, jot notes, write ideas, etc. This way I don’t lose lists on random bits of paper. It works great for me.


Ruby January 26, 2024 at 3:17 pm

If working on a project, I do make lists. But for the day to day, my procrastination buster is to get dressed for the day as soon as I get out of bed and then make the bed. After that I have a kind a loose weekly schedule of what gets done what day: housecleaning, dusting, laundry, baking bread, cooking, shopping for groceries.


Sandra January 26, 2024 at 4:01 pm

I am a list maker, too and for the same reasons. It keeps me accountable and I will get it done, if not that day then it moves to the next day. Somedays the lists are pretty long and I excuse myself if not everything is crossed off, just as long as it stays on the list. I also keep a running grocery list. I was amazed when talking to a friend to find that she never shops with a list, at least not on a piece of paper. She likes to be inspired and I’m sure she has a sense of what she needs. I might also add that I won’t run to the store for one or two items. I can always make do or make something else until I have a real list.


Ava January 26, 2024 at 6:27 pm

I don’t keep a list all the time but I am always more productive when I do. I don’t list chores that I do every day like straightening the bed and scooping cat poop. I don’t list personal maintenance items I do myself but if it requires making an appointment, like getting a haircut, it goes on the list. We keep a running grocery list. My husband has just started doing this on line and I like that much better than his telling me something to put on the list when I am at the other end of the house from the list. Every month, I make a calendar from a large sheet of paper. That goes on the fridge and it is to record appointments. My husband has offered to order calendar pages but it takes me 5 minutes to make a new one. We have a stack of large sheets of paper that we acquired somewhere, so we may as well use them up. Now I am inspired to get back to list keeping until I get lazy again.


Lindsey January 26, 2024 at 7:18 pm

Another detailed list maker here. And at the end of the week I count how many tasks were done and how many were not done. And I chart those scores. At the end of the year I try to figure out why I was more of less efficient at certain times or with certain tasks. I also keep track of every penny we spend every day, on a program that produces charts when I want to compare things. I analyze those patterns at the end of the year, too. I think I am about two or three steps away from being obsessed with quantifying things in life. I believe I can hear the nun in high school who taught us about the value of keeping track of things so you don’t waste your life, cheering from her grave.


Selena January 26, 2024 at 8:15 pm

Planner?? what is a planner?? I have notes. Numerous notes which I cull through, creating new notes. Yeah, I scoop the main litter box twice a day. The “extra” gets done maybe daily/every other day. Dishwasher is ran when upper/lower/silverware rack is full/close to full. Laundry is now once a week though there are times during the summer when the better half is “contributing” double the load. Upside is hygiene is important to him. And I *abhor* socks in the laundry and silverware in the dishwasher. I swear socks seem to multiply.
One gets done what one gets done. Yeah, I got a lot more done when I took some time off of work. Now I’m glad I did as otherwise there would be twice the “paper tigers”. Much to my dismay, paper, it will be the bane of my existence until I die. Dust will be someone else’s problem!


Rachel January 26, 2024 at 9:25 pm

It’s uncanny how alike our planning is, right down to the little boxes for some multi-step chores.
I keep my daily tasks in a diary and larger projects in a notebook. I add one or two of the latter to each day’s tasks.


Marilyn January 26, 2024 at 11:41 pm

I also keep a to-do list and checking off completed chores gives me a little sense of accomplishment. I usually tackle the easiest chores or the chores I don’t mind doing first. I try to make the big chores easy by breaking them into a series of small chores. For instance, if I want to clean the garage (big chore), my to-do list on Monday will include the note “clean one side of garage”. Then a few days later, it will be “clean another side of the garage”, etc. I make some of the boring chores more fun by listening to music while I’m working.


Ecoteri January 27, 2024 at 1:31 am

I sometimes list on back of envelopes, sometimes I use recipe cards (there is something very inspiring about a crisp recipe card with things to do written on it – I get more done). I have a mid-sized spiral bound notebook that I have used for a while for the ‘core-dump’ lists (plural!!!) for the farm, the garden, the various rooms, the goals/dreams. I write each kind of list on a single page, sometimes leave a few pages before starting the next list. I gleefully cross things off when accomplished.
I don’t have a daily list – mornings are always up, dress, feed dog so I remember my medication (tiny-habits trick), boots and coat on to go let out chickens and water and feed them, then down to sheep to hay (if necessary) and ‘sheep crack’ and water. By the time I am back in the house I have had the recommended sunlight-to-eyes exposure and at least 1000 steps toward my goal of 8470 steps. Once all that is done it is back in the house to make a coffee and my morning kale and protein and other weird things ‘glug’ drink (not pretty but effective) and THEN I feel as if I can lift my head and address the day.
most days I am following my computer/phone calendar but that is for the (hopefully only) One-Big-Thing that I try to space and schedule through my week. I do try to put going to the gym, but that block moves around a LOT due to me needing my accountability partner to meet me there, and she works during the day and often we scramble to get two workouts a week.
Other than that, I hate to admit that my chore lists just seem to be getting longer these days. I am getting a lot of books read, though!


A. Marie January 27, 2024 at 4:01 am

My list keeping is probably closest to Ecoteri’s. I presently use a backless spiral notebook (DH tore the back off it during his last month at home, probably thinking he was being “helpful,” poor lamb) for the main list, which is divided into categories (gardening, financial stuff, etc.). I work from the backless back of the notebook, and tear off the current page and start a new one when the majority of the items on that page are scratched out.

Like Ecoteri, I don’t keep a daily list (my a.m. routine is pretty well ingrained by now). I keep grocery lists on the backs of junk mail envelopes, so that I can use the envelopes for NY State container return slips and the few paper coupons I still clip. And I keep track of appointments by putting the reminder cards (or the Post-it notes on which I’ve written down the details) on the side of my refrigerator with magnets. I never have made much use of computerized lists or calendars. Just call me the Gutenberg Kid.


A. Marie January 27, 2024 at 6:30 am

Oh, and I forgot my favorite note-keeping tool: a small Anne Taintor looseleaf notebook in which I keep my “underground economy” records (NY State container deposits, found money, and good trashpicking finds). On one of the subject dividers, there’s an elegant 1950s lady wondering, “Hmm…what can I buy today?” I’ve inserted “NOT” in front of “buy” with a Sharpie.


Katy January 27, 2024 at 1:24 pm

I couldn’t deal with the separate pieces of paper, as I know I would misplace them.


Ecoteri January 27, 2024 at 1:54 pm

@Katy, the separate pieces of paper are a living-alone kind of thing. I store things archeologically so I know how far down a pile the required item has ‘moved’ – if someone “helps” by moving piles or (GAHHHH) sorting them for me I am hopeless at locating, but given my lacklustre housekeeping methods and a well trained house cleaning gal (floors! Bathrooms! Change the bedding! windows! occasional specific areas!!) who avoids the ‘piles’ as she has been directed, my pieces of paper serve their purpose well. colourful stickies out the end of my spiral notebook help to locate IT when it has moved down in a stack of books….


Bee January 28, 2024 at 4:54 am

My dad was a pile maker rather than a file marker. He could tell you exactly where everything was at any given time. I learned never to touch anyone’s paper piles.

Denise January 27, 2024 at 1:58 am

I’m a terrible procrastinator and so lists really do help me. Although I found a funny joke online (Quentin Crisp would approve, Lindsey!). “My life coach told me that I’m a terrible procrastinator. I don’t know what that means. I’ll look it up tomorrow.” Unfortunately, that’s what happens with my list: I put off looking at it…I blame the ADD, but some of it is definitely idleness.


Katy January 27, 2024 at 1:25 pm

Okay, that is hilarious!


K D January 27, 2024 at 4:52 am

I do make lists and have a planner. I also have a weekly spreadsheet. It started as a way to keep track of exercises PT assigned many years ago. It has morphed to include things like number of steps walked and some healthy eating items like eating yogurt.


Katy January 27, 2024 at 1:23 pm

That’s funny. I don’t really like yogurt, (the tanginess gives me the ick) so our lists would be very different from one another.


Bee January 27, 2024 at 6:14 am

This is a timely subject for me, (ha ha) I am coming off a very unproductive period of my life. I was always fairly organized until the pandemic. I managed to keep things together through the first two years of Covid. But as days became weeks then months and years, I found each day just melted into the next. My days had little structure and there wasn’t a lot to look forward to. Then I had a series of challenges including a head injury that left me feeling overwhelmed, confused, and little exhausted. As a result, I felt like I didn’t get much done in 2022 and most of 2023. I even abandoned my lifelong habit of regular list making.

Since the end of last year, I have been working on redeveloping the habits that helped me to be a fairly productive person in the past. It has been a bit difficult, and it is a work in process.This is what I’m doing now:

I follow morning and evening routines. I don’t write these activities down, but I generally try to do them in the same order daily with minor variations.

I use a spiral bound notebook divided into three sections for my list making. The first section has my weekly to-do list. It is divided into 6 subheadings: household, financial, projects, business, errands, and personal/social/volunteer work. If something must be done on a specific day, I put those days in parentheses.

The second section contains my master project list. It is everything that I want to do or have done in the near future. Generally speaking, these things are not urgent. Many larger projects are on this list including such things as painting the trim in the kitchen and cleaning out the hall closet. Right now it is approximately 5 pages long. Whenever I think of or see something that needs attention, I right it down here. I refer to this section when making my weekly to-do list.

The third section Is filled with all sorts of miscellaneous lists. There is a list of books I want to read, clothing various family members need, and menu plans. I use this section as a brain dump.

In recent weeks, I have been experimenting a little bit with bullet journaling. These format look like your lists, Katy. I hoped that this would help me write more goal oriented lists. However, I can’t seem to get the hang of it.

I also have experimented with doing certain chores on particular days: Monday – housework, Tuesday – household paperwork, Wednesday – errands and so forth. Grouping things together seems to increase efficiency and productivity.

I have also tried keeping everything in a calendar, but I find daily lists frustrating. Some days things just don’t go to plan. I then feel unproductive because I didn’t accomplish what I had planned to do that day.


Katy January 27, 2024 at 1:22 pm

It’s so interesting to read how everyone organizes their lives and “to-dos,” thank you so much for sharing yours. I like the sound of your spiral notebooks.


Bee January 28, 2024 at 4:39 am

There are so many organizational hacks out there. I think the most important thing is finding something that works for you. Our brains are all wired differently. We have different preferences. Our lives are all at different places.


Jill A January 27, 2024 at 7:13 am

I also used to keep a daily list. I used a notebook and did a sort of bullet journaling. I haven’t done it for a year or more. I did have a lot of small projects to do over the summer so I kept a list on the counter. Sometimes I just need a reminder of the small projects for days when I don’t have a lot going on. It is a good motivator. If I have a busy day with a lot of chores to share with DD#3 then I will make a list and we both work to mark off items. It is very satisfying to mark something off the list.


Katy January 27, 2024 at 1:18 pm

Yes, it’s harder to forget what you’ve written down!


Mary Ann January 27, 2024 at 7:14 am

As for lists, I am a big picture gal. When I am off work, my joy is puttering. I usually move in circles never finishing anything all at once but eventually making a huge (often manic) net gain. I’ll be typing a post and in the middle of it unload the dishwasher, then mail two letters and clean my front seat of the car. Then I will go finish the post. I try to follow my inspirations because energy comes with them. I’ll be being putting clothes away, then I see something to donate which might lead me to clean out all my drawers, create a huge donate pile, then haul it off to Goodwill. I just go with it. Yes, sometimes it is laughable when I forget something half finished but on the whole it is very productive. Often this kind of day is followed by me staring at the wall in the sunshine for a day. It is my process.

When I have a chore that is nagging me I set my alarm clock and promise myself I only have to work on it for 30 mins. Often I will end up going longer but sometimes I just stop when the alarm goes off. Especially in renovating the River House I follow the principles of a book I bought – The 30 Minute Gardener. He encouraged focusing on little accomplishments every day. The world might see a mess but I no I have tended to another little patch.

I am currently writing down my food for the day. I am seeing slow but steady downward weight progress. Good to get it into black and white.


Katy January 27, 2024 at 1:17 pm

As long as you’re doing something consistently for an hour or so you’ll end up having accomplished something.


Teri January 27, 2024 at 2:09 pm

This “distraction” while working on something that leads to accomplishing something else sounds familiar!
I’m a life-long list maker, on a notepad, notebook, or phone!


Bee January 28, 2024 at 4:47 am

Sometimes it is difficult to focus. I started off cleaning the kitchen yesterday and ended up repotting orchids.


Marie-Josée January 28, 2024 at 10:46 am

I just love the process you described in the firts paragraph of your post – honouring your energy and going with the flow. So inspiring and real form of self-love and self-respect. Our lives are so regulated and conditioned by outside forces. I have a few friends who really live their life honouring their energy and interests by working part-time and living more modestly. They are so inspiring to me. I remember when I was younger and at home with my small children, I read a very inspring book. I think it was written by Shakti Gawain and I decided to really follow what my energy dicated for a few weeks. If I was vaccuming the floors and my energy ebbed, I just stopped and rested. I also immersed myself in self-acceptance and loved my body exactly as it was – post-partum at the time and boy did that do wonderful things to my libido. Unfortunately, I stopped the process after a while, which is really too bad, because I had this unique opportunity to pursue this for a few years until I had to go back to work. I felt so happy and at peace during those few weeks.


MB in MN January 27, 2024 at 10:01 am

I love lists. I was born with a list in hand. My dad used to say that I have lists of lists. Daily, weekly, monthly and master planning lists. People to see, places to go, books to read, movies to watch. If it’s written down, it gets done, and I love getting things done. One of my favorite lines is: “I have a plan and I’m working my plan.”

Typically I don’t list routine daily tasks, but when I feel lethargic, I write them down, choose the easiest ones first, and off I go. It’s amazing how well that works.

99% of my lists are done with pen and paper and I cross off completed items as I go. I need that visual so I’m not re-reading tasks. Plus, it’s so satisfying to see all those lines crossed out. The other 1% are on my phone: BUY (but not the grocery list), DO (those things I think of when I’m not near pen and paper), and CASH (for non-credit card spending while out and about that needs to be entered in my finances spreadsheet later). Speaking of spreadsheets, I find almost anything can benefit from one!

I also log how much daily physical activity I’m getting and how many fruits/vegetables I’m ingesting so that I can make sure I achieve my daily goals in those categories.

Thanks for this post, Katy! It’s fascinating to read about the different approaches used by this community.


Katy January 27, 2024 at 1:14 pm

Wow, I wish I could just spend a day shadowing you, I feel like I’d come away having learned so much!


Jennifer January 27, 2024 at 12:59 pm

On the weekends when I have more time and energy for chores I do tend to delay them. So when I get that craving for chocolate or a treat I tell myself that once I finish (insert unpleasant task) then I will have my treat. Usually the task is pretty quick anyway and once I do it I feel productive and definitely enjoy my treat.


Katy January 27, 2024 at 1:11 pm

I once had an idea for chocolates that had a blank side so you could write whatever chore on them. I even tried it out on myself and realized that someone who needed this kind of motivation, (me) should not be left alone with a bag of chocolates. (Also me.)


mary in maryland January 27, 2024 at 4:05 pm

sometimes when I have a certain number of rows to knit, I put that number of M&Ms on the table and eat one after each row. More motivating than those digital row counters.


Marie-Josée January 28, 2024 at 10:48 am



Michele January 29, 2024 at 4:38 am

I have a planner that I write lists in. I like to cross things off, too. Sometimes if I do something I didn’t write on the list, I write it down just to cross it off!!


MB in MN January 29, 2024 at 7:16 am

Me, too!


Q January 29, 2024 at 12:33 pm

I write things on post its that I leave on computer: which I think is a stereotype of an old person! I also put non-routine things (eg: call and make appt for…, get down Christmas decor,,,) on the google calendar to remind myself, and I only put a couple of things each day.
Katy, I love love love that you have multiple boxes for the laundry: I, too, like to check off boxes, and that is a great way to feel accomplished and motivated.


Bee January 29, 2024 at 2:17 pm

I love a sticky note. I have them on my care dashboard, on the back of the front door, attached to my wallet. Whenever and wherever I need an additional reminder. They are a great invention!


Q January 29, 2024 at 3:33 pm

Bee, I am with you! So helpful!


Hawaii Planner January 31, 2024 at 7:24 am

I’m all about to do lists. I have a daily one (I sit down over the weekend & plan out my week days). I blend work & to dos & my workouts, because I like to look at the day comprehensively & understand that if I have a super early meeting, I’ll need to adjust my workout schedule accordingly. Or, if like last night, I have a high school soccer game to attend for DS16, I leave work early enough to have time to grab dinner at home before I leave for the game.

I also keep a “longer term” to do list, which has things that I can’t accomplish within the week.

I’ve gone back & forth on the daily stuff I always need to do. My general approach is, if it’s built into a habit, then I don’t record it. If it’s easy to forget or I’m often tempted to skip, it goes on the list. Current items on my list include: journaling, language practice, & stretching. I don’t include showering, flossing, making the bed, etc, as though are so ingrained. However, at certain points maybe they needed to be on the list.


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