Two pads + a calendar: the simple system I use to organise life


Earlier this year, on the suggestion of a listener, Carly and I tried bullet journaling as a life-hacking experiment for Straight and Curly. Fans of bullet journaling (or BUJO as they call it) reckon it’s life-changing from an organisational point-of-view.


It just made me want to stab myself.

So many rules and symbols. So much re-writing/transferring/mucking around.

Another reason it didn’t work for me, I suspect, was because I already had a perfectly good system for organising my life – so I didn’t really need a new one.

I recently shared the bones of that system (ie my system) in the Straight and Curly Facebook group (it’s free to join so get in there!). Gabby Tozer (fellow author and one of our awesome listeners) gave it a go and gave it the thumbs up.

So, on the off chance that my system might be useful to others, (it’s a LOT simpler than BUJO!), I’m going to share that system with you all today!

I kind of feel like it needs a catchy name and maybe I’ll come up with one later, (or maybe you guys have some ideas?!) but, for now I’m going to call it Kelly’s Awesome Two-pad System for Organising Life. I know. I should be in marketing.

Why this system works for me

  • It’s simple
  • On any given day I can see, at a glance, all the tasks I need to do for any given area of my life
  • It allows me to feel in control of life

Equipment you will need

  • An A4 pad
  • An A5 pad
  • A pen
  • A ruler
  • A calendar (digital or analog)

How it works

The A4 pad is for your running task list

I used to have a big long to-do list of every single thing I needed to do across my whole life. This list was depressing to look at, often ran the length of two A4 pages, and made me feel overwhelmed.

One day, I decided to divide that to-do list up into four sections (to cover off my three areas of work life + home admin). Those four sections are:

  • Flying Solo
  • Swish Design
  • Kelly Exeter (this covers my writing, blogging, podcasting and speaking)
  • Home

After dividing up my loooooooooooooong to-do list so everything sat in its right section, I immediately felt less overwhelmed – because …


The good thing about dividing things up like this is when a new task needs to be added to your to-do list, it doesn’t get added waaaaaay at the bottom of two A4 pages, it gets added to the bottom of the relevant section. Like this:


Also – when doing my ‘Today’ list for the next day (see below), if the next day is a Flying Solo day (for example) – I can zoom right in on the Flying Solo tasks only.

So that A4 page ‘snapshot’ – that’s my macro/weekly to-list. As things get done, they get crossed off the list (bessssssst feeling evvvver!)


Then, each Sunday night I:

  • Create a new ‘four-section’ page for the following week
  • Transfer any undone tasks from the previous week to that list
  • Add back in the tasks I do every week (like blog posts, Flying Solo wrap and report etc).

The A5 pad is for your ‘Today’ list

Generally speaking, my week is divided up like this:

  • Flying Solo days are Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.
  • Swish Design days are Wednesday and Friday.
  • My Kelly Exeter ‘days’ are the morning hours from 4.15am to 7am.
  • Home admin is generally 7am-8.30am and 4.30pm-7pm.

Of course, there is bleed between all of these. It’s not realistic to keep everything within those tight boundaries. But those boundaries are the starting point for my ‘Today’ lists.

Back in the day I’d simply create your standard to-do list. Meaning: a long and unrealistic list of all the things I expected to get through in a given day. Then, one day, I was facing a list that was so long and crazy, I actually sat down and scheduled exactly when in the day I would do each task on that list.

This was life-changing.

The first thing that exercise showed me was that I was asking myself to get through eight hours of work in five hours. So I ended up having to bump a few tasks to the next day.

The second thing I found was that instead of finishing a task and scanning my list to see which I felt like doing next, I didn’t have to think, I just did the next thing that was scheduled. This also stopped me from procrastinating the hardest tasks to the end of the day when I had the least amount of energy for them.

Since that first day of doing my ‘today’ list in this way, I’ve refined the system.

  • I prefer to over-estimate how long something will take rather than work on ‘best-case’ scenarios.
  • I make sure there are buffer periods in there for unexpected things happening (like long phone calls, having to do an urgent job etc). For example, I always schedule an hour for lunch – but lunch never takes an hour.
  • I schedule my hardest/most brain heavy tasks for the start of the day.

I create my ‘Today’ lists on an A5 pad and I always do them the night before.

Here’s my ‘Today’ list for today:


It’s important to note here: you certainly don’t have to schedule out your day like I do. I only do it that way because I’ve found it’s really helped me move more quickly and efficiently from task to task. (I’m easily distracted and my preference is to go check out Facebook ‘for a minute’ after finishing any task!) I’ve also found the above allows me to be more realistic with what I can accomplish in a day. If neither of these things are a problem for you (distraction/making realistic to-do lists), simply writing a ‘today’ list is all you need to do!

What about social events/meetings?

Those go in my Outlook calendar. When I’m creating my new A4 list for the coming week, I refer to my calendar and any events/meetings that are occurring in the coming week, they go into the appropriate area on the A4 list (and then, into the daily ‘Today’ list for the relevant day). The ones that aren’t occurring in the coming week – I don’t think about them.

What about exercise?

Gab asked if I put exercise into my to-do list? For me, exercise is a daily non-negotiable that is done every single morning. It doesn’t need to go in my ‘A4’ big to-do list. But, as you can see, it’s in my daily to-do list. Every day!

What about big goals like writing a book?

When I am actually ready to sit down and write a book, or train for a marathon, then those things appear in my daily ‘today’ list i.e.:

  • 5.00am-6.00am: Free-write ~1000 words for Chapter 1
  • 6.00am-6.45am: Fartlek session

But if they’re things I want to do in the future, they don’t live anywhere except my head. I find if I write something like that down before I’m in a position to do it, it just taunts me and I don’t like things, especially TASKS, taunting me!

So there you go – that’s my system


As you can see, it’s not pretty or Pinterest-worthy, but it is simple and ridiculously effective.

  • It allows me to feel on top of life (which reduces anxiety and stress).
  • It allows me to be really productive with the hours I have available to me (which gives me the ability to schedule more whitespace into my days).
  • And, perhaps most importantly, it makes me a nicer person to be around on a daily basis. Which is especially important to the people who live in a house with me and work with me.

Got any questions? Ask them in the comments and I’ll both answer them below, and update this post as others will probably have the same questions 🙂

Comments 52

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  1. Oh Kelly, I LOVE it!! Your system would totally work for me. I looked at the bullet journal but it all looked a bit overwhelming but I knew my system was failing me a little- not clearly defined enough in my head I think. Your system is so straightforward and easy to use. Brilliant. thank you so so much for posting that!!

    1. Pleasure!

      I just feel with these systems it’s better to start SUPER simple and with as few rules as possible. This allows everyone to adapt the system to their own needs much quicker!

  2. Thanks for sharing, Kel. I absolutely love the idea of breaking the To Do list into areas of life — I’m doing that immediately.

    Scheduling in my day like you do would make me run screaming for the hills by 7.15am (I could schedule that in as my ‘run’?). I just can’t be bothered for one thing and I just can’t be contained for another (what if I don’t feel like editing at 10 am because I’m suddenly compelled to write… or something). Instead, I work on a ‘3 by 3; 2 by 5’ system. Each morning I take 3 things from my To Do list (or lists — now!!) that absolutely must be done by 3pm that day and 2 that I need to complete by 5. The 3 things tend to be the most important / urgent and the 2 the ‘should really get this done’. If I can get those 5 things done on top of all the day-to-day stuff that isn’t even on the list, I’m loving myself.

    1. You know – it’s funny. I would never have thought I’d like doing that scheduling out of a day thing. So restrictive and no to-do list is going to tell me what to do! But I’ve actually found it takes away all that angst of ‘which of these three things should I do next’. Mainly it’s stopped me always leaving the hardest job of the day till last and then having to summon a huge amount of energy to do that job while hating myself for not having done it yet!

  3. Io have been using the bucket journal system for a while and there s are parts I love about it. You really can personalise your bullet journal to what you have in it eg your big list could go in there.

    The parts that I have found hard it that I have 4 kids so setting yo every week and daily stuff is frustrating me.
    So I have Been looking at the day designer for next year. You can print off the PDFs to try it out. Haven’t done it yet but basically you schedule in what you need to do which I think would make me more productive. There is your to do, gratitude and daily spend.
    I have all my lists in my bullet journal books / movies to read . Goals for the year, menu planning. Some random ideas that come to me. Better than pieces of paper.

    1. You sound like you love your lists Lara!

      I actually *hate* list-making (which is weird right?!) I think this is why my v simple system works for me. I have downloaded sooooo many beautiful list templates (like the Day Designer one” – but I always find it hard to use them because I hate when there are bits that I don’t use! (like say tracking the weather (!!) or how many glasses of water I’ve had like some of the Kikki K ones do)

  4. Omg this post excites me muchly… and the comments too! I love seeing how others organise their life. I love the idea of splitting the to-do list into sections. I’m kinda doing this but digitally using wunderlist which is great cause i also have my grocery list and present buying list all in one place with my work/home/blog to-do lists. Although I’m much more of a paper person and prefer to write everything down. Xx

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      Man I gave Wunderlist a go – I’d really love to have digital to do list because they can go everywhere with you. But I always comes back to analog!

  5. Oh, I like your categories approach too! I have a two system approach too, but nothing like as refined – a daily note pad with the tasks for the day, and an ongoing pad for longer tasks. But a refined approach would work better – just not one as complex as some that I’ve seen, which overwhelm me.

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      Yeah – the ones with too many rules, I think it’s gets too hard. I think starting with a really simple system and then building out your own rules is a good way to go!

  6. I currently have 3 categories of to do items.
    1. Short term
    2. Long term
    3. Away from home

    #1 is for things that need to be done soon at home (or can be done anywhere). #2 is for things that need to be done sometime. #3 is for things that need to be done at a specific location that isn’t my home. It helps me be more organized when I am out running errands to have all of these listed together.

    The schedule is a nice idea. The problem is that I simply don’t follow it when it is just for me. I can say “I will work on x at 5 pm” but then I won’t do it. In Gretchen Rubin’s terms, I’m an Obliger and I don’t feel obligated to a schedule just for me.

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  7. Ooooh I really love your A4, 4 x section page. It makes so much sense, and yes, is way better than the extra long, all mixed in together, one/two page to do list that I have going on. I’m definitely going to give yours a go! I’m not sure about the timed ‘today’ list – I just don’t know that I could stick to it….but maybe that’s the whole reason why I need it! xx

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      Lol – most people aren’t a fan of the timed to do list. And I do give myself days off from those. But they work absurdly well for keeping me on task!

  8. Love it. Simple. Effective. Clean and clear. That’s gold, Kelly. Thanks for sharing and helping me to refine how I organise my work (I love lists, especially ticking them off as I go!)

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  9. *adds buying new notepads to the to-do list*
    *realises how out-of-control to-do list is*
    *crosses it off the list, grabs the car-keys, and goes to buy new notepads IMMEDIATELY to fix to-do list*
    Love it. x

  10. Hi Kel – I love a to-do list, so much that i have multiple in many different places! So i’ve now consolidated in to the master To Do in an a4 book (i think size is everything). But i’ve also got separate pages for books/movies/tv shows that i’d like to watch or have heard of. Ditto for bigger goals (e.g. join crossfit) that don’t or can’t be assigned to a week per se, but are something that i’d like to do in the next few months. Having them on separate pages for me means the ‘to do list’ is not distracted by these bigger goals, but stops them whizzing around in my head. I do the same for gift ideas as well, so I’m not scrabbling when it comes time to by for birthdays or xmas.

  11. I’m glad you found a system that works for you, Kelly. My life doesn’t require ANY kind of to-do list kind of organizational system. I did read on another blog about bullet journaling and had an IMMEDIATE visceral “oh Hell No” response.

    If I WERE to need a To-Do List approach, I’m sure yours would be a great place to start. I wish you the best success with your system!

  12. Love it! Very timely as I really need to get my shizz together. Love getting back to paper – really, I spend so much time looking at a screen I know I’ll enjoy the touch and look of paper (and my eyes will thank me!)

  13. I love lists and I love notebooks but bullet journaling just scares the daylight so out of me! My less than perfect handwriting and total lack of drawing/lettering skills also me as mine would never look pretty so nope, not going there. And seriously, making an index? I could do half my chores in the time it took to do all the bullet journaling. I have an A4 month planner sitting on the desk, all events and appointments are written in there at the beginning of the month. Then we can plan trips away, invitations for people to come visit etc around that. Daily to-do lists are written on chalkboard vinyl I cut and stuck to the wall next to the coffee maker and written as the coffee brews. Things that need doing sometime this month are on the bottom of that sheet. Groceries needs are noted as discovered on a magnetic pad stuck to the frigde. When going shopping/ordering online that list is ripped off and taken. It’s all effective, low-cost, accessible to all so no one needs to not know what is going on. I appreciate our lives are way less complex than many and this helps keep it that way.

  14. I very rarely comment on blogs, I tend to lurk and then forget whatever it is that I read, but I have come back to this post several times now, and I think it’s because it resonated so much with me in its simplicity.

    I have tried bullet journalling, I have bought every cute and colourful planner/to-do list going, I have pinned every Pinterest-worthy organising system there is and ultimately still ended up doing life by the seat of my pants as none of it has stuck.

    I didn’t try your system immediately, as I got bogged down in the details (standard OP for me!), but just this morning, I have ruled up an A4 page into three sections that represent my life, noted down things as I think of them and already crossed several off again. Stuff that has been rattling around in my brain for ages.

    So thank you Kelly, for sharing what works for you, because there’s a very good chance that it will also work for me, and just so you know, I pinned it too 😉

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  15. I just love this post and enjoyed reading the comments … it has given me an idea on how to refine my own organisation … which I’d like to experiment with before I come back here and share it … I’m Sooooo excited

  16. Great post Kelly! I was so inspired that I’m in the process of drawing up lists for myself. Although I have a question. What about those niggly little things that don’t have to be done straightaway, but that you need to get to eventually?

    For example, this is going to sound silly, but I need to buy a new ironing board cover but it’s not a priority as I rarely iron! Therefore I don’t want to spend money on something I don’t need straightaway. If I follow your system this task will be transferred from weekly list to weekly list, which will be dispiriting! Any suggestions on how to tackle this would be most appreciated. 🙂

    1. I put that item on my ‘home admin’ list … and yes I transfer it each week. And eventually I get so sick of transferring it, I just do it!

      You could probably get a new cover online?

      1. Thanks for the commonsense advice Kelly! I think in this instance it’s a case of MASSIVE resistance – to ironing of course. I’ll never understand people who say they love it (my dear late mother was one 🙂 ).

  17. Lovely idea. I am gonna get right down to it. I was struggling with the LONGGGG to do list and i am more of a pen and paper guy instead of an Evernote or wanderlust type of guy. Loved this technique.

    Thanks. This will definitely be a change.

  18. Hello Kelly I “met” you from the from Gretchen Rubin. I recently retired and with the coming year I am thinking about my planner since I cannot justify a costly planner anymore.

    In reading your article, I remembered what I used to do which was take a college bound notebook (cheap before the school year starts) and drew a line vertically and horizontally to divide into 4 quadrants like you. Hit head with palm! Of course, it worked great! I am going back to that. My quadrants are: To do, to buy, errands and I can’t remember the 4th….oh I know, to call! I generally did that each morning, but I think by the week is a good idea now that I am retired, I am less busy…..wait, no I am just as busy, just differently. I just downloaded your first podcast episodes for both of your podcasts and am looking forward to listening while I clean, declutter or garden. I am a self-improvement junkie at almost age 59! 2017 is going to be my best year ever!

  19. ” I actually sat down and scheduled exactly when in the day I would do each task on that list.”

    Me too!!! It keeps me on task and reduces the waffling that happens in my head over which task to do first!

    But I’m using my bucket journal for that 😊

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  20. This is so inspiring Kelly. I try so hard to plan the productive use of my time and make lists etc but struggle to stick with it (Facebook is a killer). I’m sure this has something to do with my personality type – questioner I think. I seem to be in an endless cycle of questioning what I should be doing and constantly researching/looking for the answers (including reading countless ‘how to’ blogs and downloading numerous fancy planning apps to get me organised) and not really DOING anything! Thanks for the reminder to keep it simple. Have notepad, will use it! #withsections.

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  21. OMG! I feel like I get sacked into the sexy allure of all of these awesome planners but I also csnt keep up with them. And then I go back to one massive to-do list and that doesn’t work either. I just bought 2 notebooks and am very excited to try out your simple method. Thank you so so so much for posting this ❤️

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