Do You Manage Your “To-Do” List, Or Does It Manage You? (Guest Post)

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?

DaphneGrayGrantPicDaphne Gray-Grant is a former daily newspaper editor, a writing and editing coach and the author of the popular book “8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better.”

Sign up for her newsletter, Power Writing—weekly, brief and free—through her web site.

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

11 replies
  1. Ruth Raymond
    Ruth Raymond says:

    This is awesome advice! I was particularly excited about doing the must-do-today items whilst eating tomatoes, but then clicked the pomodoro link to reveal that the idea is to use an egg timer. Brilliant!

    On those days that I need to be super productive, I make a list with actual times assigned to the tasks. If I haven’t accomplished a task by the time the next one is supposed to start, I adjust the schedule and see where I can save time or work faster. I think that adopting your task categories and using tomatoes — oops, I mean pomodoros — will be incredibly useful. In fact, I’m going to add it to my list of things to do today…

    Love the book, by the way — it truly delivers what the title promises, even for seasoned writers!

  2. Eve Johnson
    Eve Johnson says:

    Great advice!
    I love the idea of re-branding the Quadrant Two tasks as things you most want to do. As someone who struggles to stay motivated – now always seems like the right time for Sudoku, or a walk to the beach – it helps to have a reminder that what I deeply want is often different from the desire of the moment, and that if I stick to my priorities, I’ll feel good about it later.

  3. Daphne Gray-Grant
    Daphne Gray-Grant says:

    Ruth, you make a really good point about assigning actual times to boost your productivity. When I’m in a bind, I do the same thing. It helps me portion out my time so I can get as much done as possible.

    Eve, I like your phrase “rebranding.” I hadn’t thought of it that way, but that’s exactly what I’m doing. “Quadrant two,” seems too dull and boring. But “Things I most WANT to do today” is highly motivating. I think we all need to remind ourselves about the things we most want to do each day to have any hope of ever getting them done. I don’t like Sudoku. My weakness is reading blogs…..

  4. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Great stuff, everyone!

    This discussion is having me take a look at work, the nature of work and how salaried workers view work vs. entrepreneurs. This may be a sweeping generalization, but in the 9-5 world, given the pace of things, arguably, on a daily basis, most people in that arena are operating in reactive mode: doing a lot of things that are urgent, but not really very important (certainly not to them personally).

    There’s the appearance of being very busy, which, of course, seems to be the superficial goal these days (to prove that one is a “serious player”). But it’s a kind of “busy-ness” that’s not very fulfilling, since, after all, none of it seems all that important. Probably explains why so many people in the corporate world wake up one day and say, “I want to do something that makes a difference,” having realized that little they’ve done for years would qualify as that.

    As opposed to those in the entrepreneurial world, where you have far more opportunity to involve oneself in activities that, while rarely urgent, are usually very important to you: creating a new product, writing/releasing a new book/ebook, launching a new service, etc. (OR, in the case of those 9-5’ers, starting a side business or engaging in a favorite hobby).

    For all of us, regardless of which world we inhabit right now, the ongoing challenge is to keep from having our workdays devolve into a whole lotta “urgent, but not important,” which can absolutely happen to us in the self-employed world as well.

    AND, given our cultural obsession with the whole “busyness” thing, it’s sometimes easy to fall into the trap of considering that an end in itself, when, in fact, it’s nothing of the kind.

    This has definitely had me look at those activities on my plate that absolutely are part and parcel of my ongoing professional fulfillment (and to a certain extent, personal as well), and making sure they don’t get lost in the “busy-busy” paradigm.


  5. Daphne Gray-Grant
    Daphne Gray-Grant says:

    Good points, Peter. That said, I’m not entirely convinced that those of us in the entrepreneurial world are much better at the important stuff. Just like everyone else, we tend to get distracted by the urgent. As well, when you’re self-employed (and have a mortgage to meet), it’s tempting to go for the short-term gain (i.e.: work that will pay right away) rather than the longer-term important stuff (i.e.: working on a book that will either satisfy you or, eventually pay off financially.) You’re quite right that we all need to refuse to lose ourselves in the busy-busy paradigm.

  6. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    I think you’re right, Daphne. The same dynamics exist in both the 9-5 AND self-employed worlds; it’s just that our working conditions are better…. 😉

    BUT, yes, at day’s end, in both worlds, we can end up in the place of having put out a lot of fires, and “majored in a lot of minors,” but not have gotten done much of substance.

    Though as self-employed types (those of us who are), we generally have more opportunities, but it’s up to us to make something of them, assuming, of course, it’s indeed something that we say is important to us.


  7. Donna Batchelor
    Donna Batchelor says:

    Great advice, Daphne! One trick I use is to write my daily to-do list on a notecard. I used to write it on a sheet of notebook paper, but the list always ended up really long and I never completed it in a day. This left me frustrated most days, so I started using notecards. Unfortunately, what’s written on my notecards every day always consists of “quadrant 2”-type stuff, and I get burned out! I plan to try your four quadrants now!

    I don’t have kids at home for the “outsourcing”; however, I did get some of my time back by having my groceries delivered. Totally worth it!

  8. Carolyn Frith
    Carolyn Frith says:

    I keep my “to do” list under just one task in Outlook. There tend to be multiple items in there, but sometimes I can’t take action on them. For example, a project may be stalled because a client is reviewing my first draft or I need some more information. So I highlight all the items that I’m able to work on. Then, each day, I arrange those tasks in order of priority based on how long they’ll take and when they are due. I find priorities change so the daily look is essential.

    In addition, I keep a spreadsheet of all the projects in the hopper for the month and the $$ associated with completing them. I make sure that during the month I’m tracking along with the $$ I have earned and what I expect to earn that month. I discipline myself to make sure that when 50% of the month is complete, 50% of the work is done. Since many of my projects are due at the end of the month, this assures that I stay on track and don’t have any month-end surprises.

    By the way — that’s why I’m late to respond to this job — I was only just keeping up with the demands, but now I know I’m in good shape.

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