Mastering My To-do List

Photo of a List by Great Beyond

Photo by Great Beyond

Quote of the day:

Scream at the thundering gods, daring them to strike you.

Leo Babauta, from his post Be Inspired on his magnificent blog, Zen Habits.

His article had a lot of good suggestions about how to overcome procrastination and just get started.

Here’s my normal weekend routine for getting things done. I’ve read several productivity books and articles over the years and this process has developed from several different methods I tried.

1. ‘Mind Dump’.  I’ve tried to think of nicer things to call this one, but this sticks.  I get a fresh piece of paper and get every idea, big and small, obvious or not, onto the paper.  Once I have everything that was already buzzing around in my mind I give myself time to sort of zone out and see what else pops up.  Mentally taking myself around the room helps me think of chores that need done. Physically going through my calendar and the places where I jot down notes is next, followed by another zone out.   This is usually done Friday night or Saturday morning with a cup of tea, by the window.

2. Quick Categorize. I scan the list and mark anything that must be completed this weekend. I then mark anything that just seems really important to me for other reasons like, it will save me money, the uncompleted task has been a source of stress, or I’m really excited about the task. Since I typically generate long lists that couldn’t all be done at once, these two categories are enough to keep me occupied for now.

3. Time Block. All of the tasks that require going out get blocked together (provided it’s feasible to do them all in one outing, then you need more than one block). Everything that requires making phone calls or writing e-mails get blocked together. And I go from there. If I see I have some tasks that didn’t make it into the original priority list but can easily be completed when blocked with priority items, I’ll stick them in there- bonus task completion!

4. Go! It may seem like the above three steps would take a lot of time, but it really only takes 10-15 minutes. Once it becomes clear what activities I really need to focus on and how I’m going to get them done, I’m usually feeling motivated to get started.  If there’s something I’m procrastinating on, then I just do quick and easy ones first, which just give me an extra boost as it feels good to tick things off the list.

5. Everything else. Most of the time the priority items don’t really take up that much time and I can have my pick at the other things on the list. If I’m feeling highly motivated I’ll get a lot of ‘chores’ out of the way. If not, that’s cool, I’ll just focus on the fun stuff. If a task keeps popping up on my list for weeks and I still haven’t done it, sometimes I have to acknowledge that I’m just not so interested in accomplishing it after all and drop it, or put in a tickler file to think about further down the road.  Some things I know are going to be a ‘project’ and I might actually give myself a calendar reminder to think about taking it on later.

The key here isn’t really to do everything, but to get all of those ideas out of your head and onto paper- freeing your mind to focus on your task at hand.  My lists, tickler files, and calendar reminders do all the ‘remembering’ for me.

If you’ve never tried anything like this, you may think that having long to-do lists will stress you out. For me, being disorganized and constantly worrying that I had forgotten something was much more stressful.  Now I’m much more relaxed in my free time knowing that the important things are being taken care of.

So what does this have to do with the quote? Oh yeah, back to that. I don’t just use these to-do lists to get daily chores done- the big stuff goes on here too: Have conversations in Swedish. Get an article published. Be a freelance technical writer. It’s so easy to get bogged down in the little things we have to get done to maintain our life as it is. To live the life that we really want, we need to sweep the minutia aside; not by neglecting it but by efficiently getting it done- so we can make the real stuff happen! All those goals I have, they’re not going to fall into my lap out of nowhere- I have to get to work. With the little things out of the way I can write, study, and live the life I want, ‘daring the gods to strike me’ with inspiration, flow- and success!

You can get a lot of other great ideas about productivity and getting things done all over the web. I’d recommend Lifehacker and Zen Habits for starters. Enjoy!