Taming the To-Do List

Almost everyone I talk to seems to feel overwhelmed by the pace of their life: too much to do in too little time. Perhaps some of this is fueled by all the electronic means of communications available to us, with overflowing email in-boxes, endless Twitter streams and RSS feeds, and a Facebook news feed that we will never catch up with. But perhaps some of it is also fueled by our natural desire to feel important, to be valued, to make a difference because we are here on the earth, so we allow our days to fill up to overflowing with tasks and “things to do”.

I periodically have the jump off the hamster wheel for a couple of hours, take a deep breath, and remind myself of what I’m trying to accomplish. Sometimes I even re-read a book that years ago changed the way I manage my life: Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey’s book helps me remember that there is only so much time I will have on this earth, and I want to be sure that I am living each day in an intentional way and doing the things that really matter to ME.

There are certain things I want to accomplish in my life, and I have found that if I don’t intentionally plan for those things, they won’t get done. Interesting things pop up all the time and ask for my attention; this planning process gives me a way to decide whether those interesting things are worth a reallocation of my time. Despite all the electronic systems available for this, the most effective tool I’ve found is a paper-based planning system called the Planner Pad, and here are the steps I follow.

1. Roles. My planner isn’t only for work; it reflects everything that I want to spend time on: family time, work, volunteer activity, recreation and personal development. Covey’s book talks about establishing “roles” in your life; I include each role in the top section of my planner. For me, I have 4 work-specific roles, one called “volunteer”, another called “wife”, and one that is “me”. Each week I think about what I want to do in each role, what is important to those that are affected by the role, and how I can make it better. You may think it odd to include something like “wife”, but if my relationship with my husband is important, I need to spend time thinking about how to make that relationship the best it can be. I do that for my work roles, so why wouldn’t I do it for the most important person in my life?

2. To D0’s. I capture every “to-do”, big and small, in my planner. If I don’t have it with me and have to scribble down something, I transfer it into my planner as soon as possible (but I try to always have it with me). Whenever I have an idea, or someone asks me to do something, I write it down in the top section of my Planner Pad. If it fits in one of my existing roles, it goes there. If not, it goes into a blank column at the side, so that I can think about it during my weekly planning time.

3. Reflection. I make a weekly appointment with myself every Friday afternoon to reflect and plan. If something comes up on Friday that makes this impossible, I make sure that I find time during the weekend to do it, so that I can begin my week with a clear sense of my priorities. But I do my best to keep that appointment with myself: it is one of the most important appointments I have each week.

4. Priorities. I read through the “to-do’s” that are under each role from the previous week, and go through my email inbox to make sure I’ve added any new assignments or needs. Then I start thinking about each role and what I would like to accomplish in the coming week. If I have put a lot of  time into one role during the past week, I may need to make a conscious effort to balance that out in the coming week so I can make progress on other things. If I am going to be preparing for a critical presentation in the next week, I know that most of my other roles won’t be get much of my attention, and that’s OK. At least I’m making a conscious decision about my time.

5. Scheduling. Once I have a clear view of all my roles and what I need to accomplish, I can begin planning my time for the week. I typically start doing this at the bottom of the pad, by filling in all the appointments that are already scheduled for the next few weeks. That will remind me of things that I will need to prepare for these existing commitments, and if they aren’t already on the to-do list at the top, I can add them. This also shows me what free time I have during the week, and alert me to any potential conflicts. I might find that I need to reschedule something to be able to have the time for something else that is more important.

6. Daily to-do list. Now with my roles and master to-do list written at the top page, my already scheduled time at the bottom, and my priorities clearly established in my mind, I can start to fill in the middle section: my specific to-do list for each day. I schedule time slots to accomplish those tasks, which helps me recognize if I don’t have time to actually complete it. I also put this on my electronic calendar to be sure that others don’t “steal” that time from me by inviting me to a meeting, and to allow me to make a conscious choice about whether the meeting to which I’m invited is more important that the task I have scheduled for that time.  I make my daily to-do list at the end of each day, basing the list for tomorrow based on what I was able to accomplish today.

I know this seems way too regimented for many, but it works for me. Some weeks I am more disciplined about it than others. The weeks when I really follow this process are usually my most productive – or at least they feel that way because I have a clear sense of what I have accomplished. Having the overall picture of the goal for the week makes all the difference. I can see whether I really have time to do all the things I want to do – and it I don’t, I can make some choices about what things will have to wait. For work related items, I have a clear base from which I ask my boss for help with prioritizing my time. I’ve been feeling a bit overwhelmed lately, and it’s because I haven’t been following my own advice, so as soon as I finish writing this, I’m going to go do this process for myself, and regain for myself a degree of calm.

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