Got this great guest post from writer, author and coach Daphne Gray-Grant, with an intriguing take on “To-Do” lists. I must confess, I never looked at it this way, but, when you stop to think about it, it makes all the sense in the world: if you don’t tackle the things that are important, but not urgent, then you’re simply operating in reactive mode. I’m going to put these ideas to work. Enjoy. Thanks, Daphne!
I’ve been addicted to “to do” lists since I was 13 years old. They taught me that putting tasks on a list helps me to remember to do them. They helped me learn that really understanding my priorities makes it easier to say “no” to the things that will waste my time.
They gave me the undeniable thrill of being able to stroke a firm line through a task I’d just completed. And when I started using them for tracking my writing progress, they reminded me that writing is not just about letting my fingers move over a keyboard: it also involves research and phone calls and fact-checking.
But, recently, my “To-Do” list had gotten out of control.
Frequently 30 items or longer, it daunted me every time I looked at it. Instead of inspiring me to action, it made me shiver with dread. One writing job, in particular—some 9,000 words of angst—lurked on it like a mild tooth ache certain to erupt into a tooth so decayed any sensible dentist would call for a root canal.
But, here’s the interesting thing: Because there was no immediate urgency/penalty attached to this job (the deadline was still three weeks away), I didn’t even feel a sense of failure about it. [Aside: Isn’t it easy to let big writing jobs lurk?] Although, of course, I had a growing unease as time ticked inexorably by.
As there are few things I like better than organizing myself (for me it’s like a back massage, a glass of really great red wine and fabulous haircut all thrown into one), I spent a couple of hours thinking about how to make my “To-Do” list work better.
Eventually, I remembered a column I’d written about Steven Covey, and reflected on his four quadrants. Remember those?
(1) Tasks that are important and urgent
(2) Tasks that are important but not urgent
(3) Tasks that are unimportant but urgent
(4) tasks that are neither urgent nor important.
Many people think items in quadrant one should be the highest priority, but Covey argues—and I agree—that box number 2 is actually the most crucial. After all, if you allow the urgent stuff to take control of your life, you’re constantly rushing to put out fires. Only by making time to do what’s really important—for example, planning, reading, writing a book—can you be really productive.
I decided I needed better names for my list—titles that would inspire me. Here’s what I came up with:
(1) Things I Most WANT to Do Today. I liked the way this sounded. Strong, determined. Motivated.
(2) Must Do Today. Here was the note of urgency and a realistic assessment of the time required. I now try for no more than three per day and I really do them. And, by the way, I always do them using pomodoros. This intense 30-minute commitment is like a magic bullet for writing procrastinators.
(3) Quick Things Due Today. Each of these tasks can be done in five minutes or less. As such, I can knock something off the list when I’m between phone calls or wanting to take a quick break after some difficult writing.
(4) Optional Tasks. Quickly, I realized that I should outsource as many of these jobs as possible. I have three teenagers in my home and they’re always eager to earn $12/hour.
I also added a column titled “Personal” for the personal things I need to do during the day and another one called “Meetings” so I don’t forget about them, either.
Did this new system help me get my big writing job done? Sadly, I’d left developing this new list too late for that. I had ended up leaving the job to the very last minute and shocked myself by writing 9,000 words—while keeping up with my other urgent tasks—in four days. It was absolutely exhausting and involved my starting work at 5:30 a.m. and going until 8 p.m., twice.
Since then, however, the new list has worked like a charm. I’m getting more done, sooner. I’m not feeling a clench in my gut every time I think about my “To-Do” list. Best of all, I’m accomplishing more of the things that I really WANT to do.
In short, it’s done more than make me a more organized human being. It’s made me a better writer.
Typically, how long is your daily “to do” list?
What special tricks do you have for getting the really important stuff done, despite the deadlines you have to meet?
How do you stop yourself from frittering away time on fun but (mostly) inconsequential stuff like Facebook and Twitter?
If you haven’t before identified the accomplishments that are most important to you, how might doing so change your writing life?