From charlesreid1

Main: Zettelkasten

Up: Zettelkasten/Patterns

An example todo list page is available here: Todo/Foo


The Zettelkasten/Patterns page has covered some useful patterns for using a Zettelkasten to keep track of daily notes. Now we get into how the Zettelkasten can be used to keep track of todo lists. You'll see some of the same concepts we covered for the Zettelkasten/Patterns/Daily Page Pattern and Zettelkasten/Patterns/Page Organization patterns.

The Todo Category

Before we get into how we organize todo lists, we should mention that we make heavy use of this pattern, so we have many todo lists. To keep track of all the todo lists, it can be useful to have a way to get a list of todo lists.

To keep track of our todo list pages, we add the category [[Category:Todo]] to all todo lists. If we need to see all our todo lists in one place, we just visit that Category:Todo page, and the list of todo lists is there.

Start with Top Level Sections

When starting a todo list page, we use a strategy covered in the Zettelkasten/Patterns/Page Organization pattern, which is to reserve top-level sections for different purposes the page may serve.

Typical top-level sections are:

  • Overview - used if we are revisiting the page and need a brief summary of the most important information
  • Plan - contains planned todo items, work that is not yet in progress
  • Todo - contains items that are currently in progress, usually notes from today or this week (and empty if a todo page is not being actively used)
  • Done - items that were previously in Todo, but were completed
  • Notes - a top-level section that contains notes about the todo list topic. Not necessarily todo items, but useful/related to the todo list.

Date Subsections

When filling in the top-level Todo section, we add a second-level subsection with the date (YYYYMMDD format), then one or more third-level subsections with the topics of each todo item.

Besides keeping information organized neatly into sections, we don't use any other special patterns to organize todo information. Sometimes we have a bullet list of items to complete, one by one, and sometimes we have a brief sentence describing some action taken.

Sometimes, we aren't keeping careful track of what we're doing, and we finished a bunch of todo items without keeping notes of what we're doing. In that case, we back-fill as best we can. We put brief descriptions if we don't have details, or add more information if it's available.

This pattern has the added advantage that if a single task that is supposed to be simple turns into a wild goose chase involving ten other steps, it's easy to keep track of what's being done chronologically - just add a new subsection to the corresponding date for each new direction the wild goose chase takes.

Topic Subsubsections

The top-level sections of the page are dedicated to different uses of the page: Overview, Planned Todo Items, In-Progress Todo Items, Completed Todo Items, Notes, etc.

Within those sections, the second-level headers organize information and notes by date, as covered above.

The third-level headers organize notes by topic. So if a single todo item requires completing tasks A, B, and C, which are completed on the same date, then tasks A, B, and C would have their own third-level headers.

What if halfway through task C, things start to get complicated? Starting notes at a third-level header doesn't leave room for many more headers - so if you find yourself needing to organize notes for task C into their own sections and subsections, start a subpage. If your todo list is at [[Todo/Foobar]], then split the notes for task C into their own subpage, [[Todo/Foobar/Task C]]. Create links between the two pages, so it's easier to navigate to/from them.

Overview Last

In terms of order, we usually organize the top level sections of the page in the order we've specified above: Overview, Planned Todo Items, In-Progress Todo Items, Done Todo Items, and Notes. These can be modified to suit your own purposes or the particular todo list.

Usually, we will start with the last section - Notes - and end with the first section - the Overview.

The Notes section is where we start when we're trying to figure out how to organize the todo list page. The notes section is typically only useful when you're starting up a todo list, which is why it goes at the bottom - it is rarely used once the todo list is started.

The Overview section is where we summarize important outcomes from various todo tasks. It might be a summary of major efforts, or a list or table that's the outcome of all of the work on the todo list. In any case, if you need to add an Overview section, you'll know it.


Example Todo List Page

Visit Todo/Foo to see an example todo list and see the structure described above in action.

VPN Server Todo List

To give a more concrete example of a todo list, suppose we have a private server and we're setting up a VPN network on the private server.

When setting up the VPN network, we would take notes on the server's todo page, or maybe we would create a new page with a todo list just for this task. It depends on how complicated we expect the task to be.

We would start taking notes on how we are setting up the VPN, steps that we're taking, commands we're running, links we're using, organized in the top-level Todo section, and a second-level section with the date. We would then create a third-level heading with whatever step of setting up a VPN we're on - maybe it's preparing the server to install the VPN software; maybe it's the configuration file; maybe it's how to connect to the network once it's set up.

If the task of setting up a VPN ends up taking multiple days, the notes will be organized chronologically, then organized by topic. This is important because without the chronology, it's hard to document what was tried and what failed, without making all of the notes really confusing. Keeping track of progress on tasks chronologically allow you to keep notes about dead ends or failed attempts, while also keeping them separate from notes on what worked.

Here's another concrete way to think about the notes in a Zettelkasten: picture yourself coming back to this page in six months, when the details of what you did are a hazy memory. If the notes are still organized together, and are still chronological, you can review your entire train of thought, what you tried, what failed, what you learned, and what ultimately succeeded. This provides a richer context and enables better memory and retention than a simple TL;DR one-liner summary of what works.

And if you do have a simple TL;DR one-liner summary of what works, that's a perfect thing to put in the top-level Overview section.