Monday, December 3, 2012

To-do: Make a List

In a meeting years ago, I sat beside a colleague who was taking advantage of the downtime before the meeting started to add items to her to-do list.

It was three pages long. On legal paper. I felt overwhelmed for her.

Lists like that give me heart palpitations. I love checking things off my list, then tossing the completed list into the trash can where it belongs.

Lists as long as my colleague's give me the feeling that I will never complete them. And so, I've taken a passive-aggressive approach, refusing to allow my own lists to go beyond a certain length. "Certain," by the way, varies according to how overwhelmed I feel at the time.

In preparing for a class I was teaching last month, I found some great information about to-do lists, but the most worthwhile bit I found was the concept of scheduling the items on my to-do list. Organizing expert Julie Morgenstern likens unscheduled tasks to physical items that have no home. Time, Morgenstern asserts, is like a closet. It has boundaries. Just as too many clothes will cause a closet to overflow, too many tasks will cause a schedule to do the same.

Perhaps my colleague's calendar has the capacity of a houseful of walk-in closets. My calendar, however, is more like the closets in our cape cod - cramped, but with lots of nooks where things can be tucked.

So, I am making an effort to take Morgenstern's advice and tuck things into my schedule, giving my to-dos a place of honor alongside work commitments and doctor's appointments.

And do you know what? It works! I'm crossing more things off my list and spending fewer days cutting the list off prematurely because it's too long and I can't face it. When I begin scheduling tasks in alongside other commitments, I can see at a glance when the schedule is getting too crowded, and so rather than not writing things down at all, I simply move them to another day. This approach also dovetails nicely with basic., but brilliant advice from organizer Marcia Ramsland - limit it. Know how many things you can do in a day (literally) and keep your list to that number. She also advises that you do the three most important things on your list early in the day - a guaranteed way to feel productive.

I often wonder how many items my colleague checked off in a day, and how she could possibly see the forest for the trees in that long, overwhelming list. She's very successful at what she does though, so I'm guessing her list works for her.

As for me, I'm checking "write blog" off my list and moving on to the laundry.

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