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.

"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."

[Image: Flickr user David]

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  • Peter Homes Boynton

    Another way of doing this is to use Things instead of Omnifocus. I have tried both, and find that Things is a little more flexible and the user interface is very clean. There is also the possibility of having Areas (public, private and work for example) and projects which belong to an area. There is also a very cool tag (context) function that allows for nesting contexts into as many groups as needed. For example in my implementation I have Who, Where, When, What all with more detailed tags underneath. In the What section, I have curiosity, follow-up, and ideas as context labels. Now, being well aware that this type of discussion can raise a near religious fervour, I merely mention Things as a tool that I have found useful and because it is so flexible fits to my slightly weird and bizarre way of thinking and doing stuff.

  • Excellent article! I have an OmniFocus tip I wanted to share.

    For fans using at least OF2 for iPhone, I stumbled upon combining start dates with location-based contexts to track me while preserving battery. Even though due times could do the trick, location-based contexts can be more powerful at times since they are happening at a precise moment.

    For example, there are days when I know I’ll be arriving home around a specific time. Let’s say I’ll be home at 6 PM. However, I get a couple thoughts around noon the same day that I must take care of when I get home. I want my phone to track me, but I don’t want it to track me from noon until 6 PM. You can create an action with a start time at 5:30 PM on a location-based context for when you arrive home.

    You can even enter these with OF for Mac. OF2 for iOS has background syncing, so it will grab the sync file during the day, and it won't track you until 5:30 PM!

    Remember to mark the actions complete to stop tracking. :)

  • Over the past month, OmniFocus has been my repository for all tasks/plans floating around my head. Great to break them down into projects & contexts. Working for a startup, you're wearing a lot of different hats & OmniFocus has been a godsend. Great article!

  • Hey Randy, I'm a list-guy too. Been fooling the GTD method for years. I've used Things for a while now for the same kind of routine you've got. Omni's app looks like it has some nice reminder features. Nice to see some other methods for managing the ever-growing to-do list of life.

  • Sherwin Yanzy Enriquez

    Is Omnifocus targeting a niche Apple only customers? Mac, iPhone and iPad. No Windows. No Android?

  • Fascinating and helpful. Thanks. Out of curiosity, does Fast Company produce sponsored content and if so, is this an example of it? Nicely done in any case.