Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

3 minute read

Most Creative People

How Etsy's Creative Director Uses Intricate To-Do Lists To Free Up Big-Idea Brain Space

Etsy's Randy Hunt uses insanely thorough lists to remind himself to do everything from taking out the garbage, to meeting Noam Chomsky—all in the interest of unlocking creative ideas. Here's how you can steal his approach.

[Image: Flickr user David]

"You could use a pad of paper if you wanted to, although that would be kind of crazy," Randy Hunt, the creative director of Etsy, says of his intricate list-making routine. See, one of the main tenets of Hunt's method involves keeping a never-ending to-do list that includes his whole world of things that need to get done, from work to personal and grand to mundane. "I put literally everything in there: taking out the garbage, walking my dogs," explained Hunt, who also includes "bucket list items" like "meet Noam Chomsky" and "get invited to the White House," on his list too. Not even the most organized could keep track of an entire life's worth of chores by hand.

That's where Omnifocus comes in. The software organizes responsibilities into an inbox, accessible via iPhone, iPad, or on his desktop. Unlike an email inbox, there's no need to aspire to "inbox zero," as the list will never, ever get finished because Hunt is constantly adding everything and anything to it.

Randy Hunt

While having so many looming duties might sound more overwhelming than useful, Hunt claims that the "constant flow" creates a more "zen" approach to his responsibilities. "You can sort of choose to orient yourself to that flow in certain ways," he told Fast Company. "You're more in control to how you respond to it."

Hunt chooses to orient himself to the flow each morning, when he inspects his Omnifocus inbox and proceeds to make lists from the list. If something takes less than two minutes, like an email, he does it right then. If it requires more time, he categorizes it, which, he claims, is where things get fun. Categories come in three flavors: time, context, or project. The first option gives something a due date. Context, Hunt describes as: "where you need to be, or what state you need to be in to do the task, or who you need to be with." Finally, you can add something to a project, a more finite event that involves multiple steps, like redecorating the living room or putting together a marketing proposal. (See how it works on mobile here.)

The list-making doesn't stop there, though. If Hunt hasn't completed a task within a week, it floats back into his inbox, unless he otherwise specifies. The bucket list items only show up every four months, for example. "I'm not actively planning how to meet Noam Chomsky right now. But one day I might decide to—he's getting pretty old I should probably figure out how to meet him," he added. And, he also keeps some static lists that serve more as guides than a ranking of tasks, like a group of favorite restaurants in cities he visits, or movies he wants to see, which he sees as ever-evolving. Hunt does a weekly inbox check to determine the validity of his projects, ensuring important items don't get lost in the abyss of Omnifocus.

That process results in time or topic specific aggregations, so that when Hunt finds himself in a given situation he can pull up the correct agenda. "It's about being very strategic about structuring your efforts towards certain projects in any given moment," he explained. For example, he has a context for Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson so that when the two of them meet, he can reference the "Chad" file and have all of the things he needs to discuss in one place. Or, when he's out walking around, he has a context called "errands" that reminds him to get toilet paper.

The app is also hooked into his iPhone's geo-fencing, so Hunt can associate certain contexts with certain locations. When Hunt walks out the subway station near his house, Omnifocus buzzes, reminding him to do all the tasks associated with home, like taking out the garbage.

For Hunt, staying on top of things requires not only devotion to Omnifocus, but an obsession with order, something you wouldn't expect from someone with "creative" in their title. Yet, he insists that this system is the key to his creativity. "It’s about freeing up that capacity in your brain to use it to solve higher order problems," he explains. When Hunt has to deliver something creative he doesn't worry about all the other things he has going on.

"I think this is not unique to me," he explained. "I think a lot of designers can relate; you oscillate between this chaos and organization thing."

loading