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Write a to-do list for your project, even if it’s a bit depressing

The door makes that oh-so-solid thunk upon closing, you turn the key, and the engine catches right away. You drop the transmission into reverse and start out of the garage, excited to enjoy your first drive after that big rebuild. Then you see it—the 20-foot-long oil slick following you out of the garage because you didn’t tighten that one fiddly bolt. It was a simple step in the process, and one you could have sworn you didn’t forget.


But you did.


You can wake up now. That was only a nightmare. At least, it will only be a nightmare if you track your projects accurately. A running to-do list may seem like a double-edged sword; organization is great, but a litany of tasks makes the finished product seem hopelessly far away. However, it’s a challenge worth embracing. Here are five ways that a to-do list can make your time in the garage even more rewarding—especially if you have multiple projects running at once.


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Replies (17)

Replies (17)

I always have a 6x9" coil notebook for every project. I write everything down as I am doing it. Part numbers and orders. Every bolt torqued down. Sketches of how things are laid out. Wire diagrams. Everything. Later when I wonder did I do something I can look back and see that I did. I might end up with a 100 pages. Plus very important, DATE EVERYTHING including the year.

Pit Crew

And going one step deeper, if it is a healthy project, break your list into parts as well as list everything separately. I've found that over the years that if I make my lists so that there are plenty of 15 minute jobs, even if I "only have" 15 minutes or I'm really not feeling it that day. I can get in there with the purpose of only doing that one 15 minute job and then I stick to it and next thing I know I've five 15 minute jobs done and I have an awesome sense of accomplishment. For install headlights I'll have 10 entries. So don't just have "put door back together", list each part of it. Yes it makes your list way longer but, it allows you time to think about how things "should" to go back together and in what order. I'll have an easy 5 pages on a simple project.


Long ago in my youth, it used to amuse me when I'd see an older person had a to-do list. Then I worked in a racecar & restoration shop, where every car had pages of to-do items taped to it. In that world, something overlooked ranges from embarrassment to tragedy. The wisdom of The List was immediately apparent, and I've done that ever since, on everything.

Intermediate Driver

After I got my 66 Mustang back from  paint I had 3 months to get it back together before the 2019 Mustang 55th at Charlotte. I took a file folder and listed the 'must do' on the front, the really should do next and so on until all 4 sides were filled with 'to do'.  If I had to wait on parts I'd find another task. In the end I finished all but two 'I'd like to do' items before the show in Charlotte. The list worked well and kept me focused and gave me small 'wins' when I crossed one off. 

Pit Crew

Also for the sake of your general mood and daily obscenity count at any time, let pessimism always, and I mean ALWAYS rule the day. 


There are rules that should be branded onto our car loving souls and they are 1) Tasks are never as easy as they should be.  2) Tasks always take longer than they should.  3) Projects are always more expensive than originally planned.


If once in a great while the gods of mischief are asleep and you do not waken them, and one of those 3 rules doesn't apply, just quietly go on to the next task... no victory dances!  


Follow this advice with zen like focus and you may just finish that project with your general sanity intact... 


This system works for me.  For a complicated task I will break down the individual steps ahead of time, then review before I start.  Many times the way I thought I would attack a repair got changed before I even started (on review), rather then when I was arms deep in the engine bay.

New Driver

In the car world we get fooled on this every time you read a repair manual>

"Step 1: Remove engine."...


Obtainable goals,

Managable portions,

Sense of accomplishment instead of being overwhelmed.

That's the same advice for those of us with ADD. 

New Driver

I run an IT department and what was described in the article is loosely a Kanban style of Agile project management.  I recently started applying this method to my car projects and it works! 

Imagine 3 columns: To Do, Working On, and Done. The goal is about “Flow” - move Things from left to right, never allowing the “working on” column to exceed 2 or 3 things at any one time. It’s about getting things done so only when you Finish one task, grab a new one. Haven’t finished? Do that first so you are always making progress and completing tasks. KEY POINT: Break things down so there is constant flow and constant personal reward to keep going.  For example “paint car” doesn’t work.  But something like:  remove front clip, send to have stripped, epoxy fenders, fix dents & rust in fenders, Apply primer filler, block sand, etc etc. ... smaller task to keep the flow going.  Every time you walk out to the garage something is accomplished.  Discouraged? Look at the done column - see how you’ve progressed. 

Trust me, I know it sounds like a lot of extra work, but what happens is the focus and motivation levels change, you know exactly what to do, feel good about what was done, so in the end — you are much farther down the project road than if you Hadn’t taken this “extra” step.  
There are lots of free software to do this or even better, do what Toyota does - they liters have a bunch of post it notes on a wall with tape lines for columns.  
it has changed how I work in my garage. 

Pit Crew

I got fooled, did a complete overhaul of my Model A engine but did not check the manifolds for flay/level, they seemed to be OK.  Well, 600 miles and # 4 at the rear was puked and noisy, back to drawing board ~~    Took it off, worked it down flat using a heavy flat steel with light paint on it, kept hand grinding down the high spots 'till we had it looking really good, it's back on and sealed, lucky I had the gaskets.   Lesson here is:  Do things as you go, do it right the first time, saves a ton of time and misery.

Intermediate Driver

I also use note pages to keep track of things needed.  Thee is a old fashion clip board hanging over my main work bench with things listed.  I also have maintenance books for each vehicle in our garage.  Everything from minor work to major repairs is listed by dates and mileage, what was accomplished, etc.  I also have a binder for each vehicle that has all receipts for virtually everything purchased for that particular vehicle.  I have used it many times going back to see where I purchased something or other.  I also have all the instructions for virtually everything, if they are out of the ordinary, in another book.  Sometimes buddies will come over and ask how something was done so we dig thru the books until we find it.  The little time allocated to keeping records can be well spent in the long run.  

New Driver

This is a great article. I have not been making a to do list for my current project...maybe the list would be too long. After reading this article, I feel that I need to improve my project time by making a list. I have too many projects but I have decided to concentrate on one at a time. 


Project One: This is a really big one, the frame off restoration of my '67 Corvette convertible. This project was started years ago when I was still working for my income and traveling over 50% of my time. It was not helpful that I was required to reserve a flight halfway across the country to put out a fire sometimes with only a few hours notice. Now that I have retired, I can seriously work to complete project one. Project Two: Build a new engine for the '75 Corvette and install the new engine. Fortunately the original engine is in perfect condition so this project can wait. Project Three: Remove the engine from the '91 Ford Bronco which blew a head gasket several years ago. I am afraid the failed gasket might have caused additional damage so a complete inspection and possible rebuild of the engine might be necessary. This should be project two but ATT it is not. 


I have been purchasing parts for the Corvette restoration for more years than I want to remember. Fortunately, I have kept the parts in the original boxes or plastic envelopes. These parts were labeled with both part number and a brief description. In order to inventory the parts I ordered (and not buy something I need twice), I entered each part into an Excel spreadsheet. I organized the parts into basic categories; (1) Labels, tags, and decals; (2) Body and interior parts; (3) Engine and transmission parts; and (4) Chassis parts. These parts are organized on 25 feet of heavy duty shelving units with the smaller parts in storage bins. Fortunately (or perhaps not so fortunately the cost), I included the part numbers, number of parts ordered, specific supplier, brief parts description, and cost. That cost part probably will be discouraging but I wanted to keep track of the expenses. I use spreadsheets to track my various projects. At least I know what I have and how much I have spent. I sometimes make spreadsheets to describe the general steps required to complete the project as well as the order in which these steps should be accomplished. Recently, I installed a large white board in the garage so I can track the task at hand and steps to complete that task.


I am far from well organized but I am trying. This article has pointed out some areas in which I need to improve.


Great article. 

Pit Crew

Punch list concept is a good one. I first saw it on home reno shows, but David Freiburger of Hot Rod / Roadkill fame is big on this.


Did it for my Mustang a while back and was surprised to end up with a list 40+ items long. Lots of tiny things (dome light lens) but some more involved. Totally worth doing the list.


Now to act on it!


This is not exactly a to do list but rather a how to do list.  I take digital photos from the start of the project until the end. These photos can be easily incorporated into a spreadsheet with instructions added describing the photos. Perhaps my memory fails when a project goes from a day or so to a year or more; therefore, I take a digital photo of the project before I disassemble anything. Then photos as I disassemble the parts. I try to accurately take photos of everything that might be confusing at a later date. Guess what? I have created a reverse photo album of how to put the car back together. Now how did that bracket fit? Let me check. Oh yes, this is how it looked before I took it apart. 


These photos and descriptions as well as notes in my spreadsheet record my progress and provide instructions when it is time to reassemble the project.


I can also use the spreadsheet to add new steps for the project as I find necessary. Just expand the rows or columns as required. I use columns to prioritize the steps, add notes, list the work in progress, work completed, totals, and almost anything I feel is important. I track my progress in the garage on a white board and after I go back inside to the computer, I transfer the notes from the white board to the spreadsheet. Just remember to backup the spreadsheet in case the old PC goes belly up.  

Pit Crew

I recently started with a "to-do" list for the interior renovation of my '73 240Z.  Every time I got to a new step I had to add "something else" to the "to-do" list.  That is exactly how the partial restoration of the '92 300ZX went 6 years ago ...  The initial list is NEVER complete!


Fantastic article and plenty of good advise. I've making a list over the last year of what needs to happen - in order - to get my 88 rocketing back down the road. I've also laden the garage floor with junk from the house during the last renovation that needs to go. You've inspired me to get that done so I can get to the car.


Well, the engineering mind can sure relate to this article.  Last year, I offered to get a friends 69 Camaro back on the road, after he let it sit in a garage for 46 years.  My free labor/knowledge, his money for parts/supplies.  It sat because he is a procrastination engineer and the only list he had over the years was in his head.  I'm a consulting, manage to the objective, engineer with punch lists for everything.  I did the car in my garage, 60 miles away from him.  The to do list was 3 pages and the parts list was 4 pages, digitally.  Got the restoration done, hour by hour, checking off the lists and sending him list cross off updates over 9 months.  Left to Mr No List, it would still be sitting on the rims, barely visible buried under many other unfinished garage jobs.


I have a big white board with all the projects for my 1967 Austin Healey BJ8.  I never erase any of them because I like to see my progress over the last 12 years.