On an otherwise dreary morning, I ventured into an office supply store determined not to buy all of Aisle 9. I get into trouble around shiny pens and pretty pencils, whimsical sticky notes, glossy-paged journals, and fancy scissors. I would say the siren’s call is worse when Mercury is in retrograde, but it doesn’t matter what Mercury is up to when it comes to my weakness about office supplies. I’m thinking about starting a support group.
But I’m not quite at resistance-is-futile level, so I hit the store with a 5-item plan. I needed 5 items. It should take 5 minutes to find them. Five items, five minutes. That was the plan, which worked until I reached checkout, aka the Island of Impulse Purchases. There I saw this innocent-looking 10-item Things to Do pad.
It’s a to-do pad, one of a zillion other to-do pads, but this one stopped me in my tracks. Why? Because right there in the impulse purchase zone, I had an epiphany. This pad was for 10 things. If I bought this pad, I’d only have to do 10 things. Ten things, as opposed to my usual list of…Let’s just call it an impossible number.
The self-defeating effect of never-ending tasks:
Last month, at the Pennwriters Conference, I presented a workshop on the Writing Hour. Writing for an hour a day, every day, same time-same place, is my work-related religion. I write first thing in the morning, which means my daily writing goal is accomplish by 8:00 a.m. Everything else I accomplish is gravy.
Unfortunately, that gravy is sometimes lumpy. This is what my to-do list generally looks like:
There is no way a single human can knock off this kind of list in a single day. I’m not sure a squadron of humans could do it, but I had fallen into the trap of reminders. As if I needed a daily reminder that my website needed upgrading and I had to answer email. In addition to what I had to do today, I was noting tasks that needed doing…someday.
In prepping for the workshop, I researched time management, particularly the effectiveness of multi-tasking and list-making. Turns out, these are not always the organizational gems they are touted to be. Multi-tasking undermines your productivity because, simply put, you can only truly concentrate on one thing at a time. I can testify about the benefits of single-focusing via my Writing Hour.
Equally, list-making is tricky. If every day you list of everything you need to do, every day you will fail. Every day, you will carry over more tasks you didn’t accomplish yesterday. This is what I call the self-defeating to-do list. You can never cross off every item on the list if you list too many items. You’re setting yourself up for failure. Every day.
Much of writing is a mental game. The appeal of my Writing Hour is two-fold: I’m a lark, so my most creative time of day is first thing in the morning. Second, by 8:00 a.m., I’ve accomplished my most important and satisfying task of the day. No matter how awful the rest of the day turns out to be, nothing can take away the hour I wrote. That’s winning.
How do you create a winning to-do list? By writing a list you can actually accomplish in one day. Maybe, if you knock off your list, you’ll enjoy the same psychic satisfaction I get from my Writing Hour.
I bought the 10-item list pad. (I also bought scissors with a tiger theme. Really, I need the support group.) Now I list 10 tasks I need to complete today and only today, with one exception. My website needs work, but I don’t have the time—or desire—to spend a solid week at it. So I tinker at it a bit every day.
This is my new approach to the daily to-do. #1 is static: Writing Hour. #10 is static too: Work on Website. In between are 8 tasks I must and/or can accomplish today. The list is short. It’s specific. It’s doable. It’s winning.
Do you write short lists? Long lists? No lists? Tell me!
31 thoughts on “The 10 Task To-Do List”
I like this. A lot. Scanning back through my daily lists, most of them interestingly have 8-10 items on them. Except for Monday’s which had 20. 7 of which didn’t get done. Like you, Work on the Web Site has been on there every day for a week. Constants at the top, 6 days/week, are: Write, and Walk. Which always get crossed off. I think I need to get to a stationery store…
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Uh-oh, I didn’t mean to spread my addiction! Maybe you have been doing instinctively what I have learned the hard way. Constants at the top, holdover (1) at the bottom…this is my approach.
So wonderful! I am also a list maker, but try to do it on Monday and spread the tasks out for the week with a day by day list. Unfortunately, after I travel, the list is humongous, like my one for today and tomorrow. Oh well, there’s always Saturday and Sunday. By the way, I have a store you would love…
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No, no, no more stores for me to love! I have tried the weekly list, but I have trouble thinking that far ahead, so I admire you for that, Noelle. I hope yours is less humongous soon.
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I’m a list-maker, but specifics. X must be accomplished by Y. This, to me, is like SMART goals. The “T” stands for Time. Meaning, I will do this in a specific number of days, weeks, months (depending on the goal). Like you, I found that random lists of “things that should be done at some point” were useless and simply grew to ginormous, depressive proportions.
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Smart goals–why didn’t I talk to you before writing this post, Mary?! I do mine daily, but a person who plans ahead would certainly need the Time element. Thanks for sharing your method.
Love this! And I WANT that to-do-list notepad! I keep a legal pad on my desk. On it, I jot down Monday through Sunday each week, and then I list my to-do items under each day. Some items have to be done THAT day. Others need to be that week, so if it doesn’t get crossed off on Monday, there’s always Tuesday. Wednesday. Some things get carried over to the next week. But it keeps me on task. And it’s gratifying to cross items off and X-off an entire day’s worth of accomplishments.
But I still want that notepad. “My name is Annette and it’s been two days since my last visit to an office supplies store…”
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I love hearing these approaches! I agree about the gratification part. It’s lovely to tear off today’s sheet, crumple it into a ball, and toss it in the trash. Too bad I don’t have a cat. The to-do list could also work as a plaything!
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I already have that kind of list notepad, and several versions of same. It doesn’t help, in case you wanted to know. Sigh.
My middle daughter is the list-making queen of all time. She keeps them (actually, she keeps every piece of paper she touches, but that’s a whole other topic), and she makes LISTS of her lists! I fear for the girl, truly I do. But isn’t there the utmost satisfaction in crossing items off a list, no matter how long it is? One of my favorite things to do.
Karen, maybe it’s the half empty/half full kind of thing. At the end of the day, I kept seeing the tasks I didn’t do, rather than the cross-offs. I am finding that small goals, specific plans, work better for me overall. But that’s me!
If 15 people are gonna kill you if you don’t get them what they need then your to-do list is at least 15 items long. Thanks, Ramona. Nice article.
My list is based on what I need, Timothy, but you are right. I’d happily expand to 15 if my life depended on it!
I’ve always been a list maker! Since I started writing full-time, only the grocery list and the house repair list are non-writing related. On that front I have a yearly goals list and a monthly one. I have word goals for the month for WIPs (WsIP?). I make lists of my characters traits, what car they drive, relationships, etc. My favorite place to make writing-related lists is on a spreadsheet. I LOVE my spreadsheets. I do make my yearly and monthly goals lists in Word. I’ve found a really cool check mark that I put in front of the completed tasks. Good to find out there are so many of us.
Kaye, you sound like a list-master, not a list-maker!
I love that we are all so different. I can’t think about a yearly goal. I live day by day. Maybe that’s why I’m more comfortable as a short story and essay writer, than novelist! But I think our lists must meet our needs, and for people who are writing multiple series, I can imagine a yearly/monthly planner is a necessity.
When you start that support group, let me know! I love office supply stores. I buy sets of composition books to go with each series that I write, and I buy them in multiples of three because I’m an optimist. And pens! Paper clips! Tape! (What kind of a person gets excited about tape?)
Thank you for the constant reminder of morning writing productivity. Whenever I do write first thing in the morning, I am always happier. I often go back and write more, too, which is a boon for word count.
I do love the 10-item to do list. What store was that? (ha). My daily planner has 8 lines per day. I’m going to try to actually use that instead of the random sheets of paper scattered around my desk. Fingers crossed.
Diane, I have a roll of tie-dye duct tape! Very cute. The first thing in the morning writing is my habit now, and I feel completely lost the rest of the day if I have to miss or be late.
(Psst…Staples. Brand is called Poppin. Not that you heard that from me.)
I have always been a list writer. People, including my husband have always made fun of my lists. My husband is now retired and has to make lists or he forgets things. Bwaaa Haaaa Haaaa – Welcome to the world of List Makers.
Janet, you should put something about karma on your husband’s list! Thanks for commenting.
I am a list-maker. I have a weekly to do and daily to dos. #1 for every day is to review my weekly goals and create daily goals. You have hit the proverbial nail on the head, Ramona: create a doable list. If too much is on it (a) it doesn’t get done, (b) you feel you have failed, (c) you start either not making a list or ignoring it once it is made — none of those are good outcomes.
So make a doable list, prioritize it so if something can’t get done, it’s the least important something.
With only 10 things, Jim, I don’t prioritize–yet. So far, I’ve managed to stick to what I really need to do today, and not go to sleep until that happens. With the exception of the website, which I think I’ll still be updating when I am 93….
Excellent post. I like best what you said about multitasking. It should be called what it is–being interrupted so often that at then end of the day you have a dozen unfinished tasks. That’s my unofficial librarian’s description, but it could work for nearly anyone with a real job. These days, I just interrupt myself.
Kathy, that was another epiphany moment. Do one thing at a time. It felt like freedom.
THE end of the day. ‘Scuse me.
Great post! I’m a list maker and a former office supply store addicted. I can’t get to the store these days…but, did you know they have all that stuff online. Horrors!
I make my list daily, but some of the things on it will take longer like laundry. I love crossing things off when completed. I usually use a steno pad that I keep at the kitchen table and make lists while eating breakfast. However, for my writing, I put reminders on sticky notes on my computer. I love them. Right now there are seven sticky notes in six colors on my screen, from a list of short story ideas to work on and what level they are at to a list of two authors’ books I plan to buy to reminder notes about my weaknesses in writing from first draw to final polish. If you haven’t tried sticky notes, I suggest you do.
I need to get back to writing first thing every day. I’ve been terrible at that lately. No excuses.
Writing first thing in the morning is the best way to start the day, Pat! You sound like you have your own method. I do see the thrill of the cross-off!
About that office supply store addiction: I’ve had four businesses here at home, and raised three kids here. When they all cleared out, and I started unloading their stuff out of drawers in their rooms, plus the four different places I’ve had office stuff, I found actual boatloads of stuff: hundreds of pens, thousands of crayons and markers, hundreds (literally) of pencils–most of them unsharpened, and a stack of notebooks to my hips. Not to mention paper galore, staples and staplers (including an electric one), three different kinds of hole punches, boxes of file folders and envelopes and nine different kinds of labels, bottles and sticks of glue, rulers, protractors, and all kinds of other flotsam.
Now I am no longer tempted. Sure wish I had some of the money back that I spent on all that stuff!
Karen, I still have school project paraphernalia. I think it never leaves.
I like your common sense rule. I have found that, while I like to bunch errands together, I need to be realistic about how many things I’ll be able to do in one trip. I put the most important first, and have given myself to postpone some if I need/want to.
Teachers and custodians at our school used to pick up supplies students left in lockers at the end of the year, to use as loaners for the next year’s students when they forgot to bring something.
I found you from a blogging book! So funny, how we all have these things in common. I just finished a huge post about crack cocaine for office supply freaks, talking about organizers, planners, notebooks, etc. In the middle of it, I talked about half-filled journals, and segued into how little my life has changed in the fifteen years since I wrote in one.
That led to an awesome scenario about customer service menus, and the heavenly one we’ll be on hold with, someday. I broke the post in two, and it worked perfectly. I wrote another awhile back about how to-do lists do you in. In mine, Taco Bell gets custody of your kids. This is because my lists go from daily, weekly, monthly, and likely-to-never-be-accomplished.
Get married is on one list. My guy proposed with a Taco Bell packet that said, ‘Will You Marry Me?’ He tried slipping a taco on my finger, but it kept slipping off. These packets are legally binding and the personnel of entire office buildings who ate Taco Bell one day had to call in Reverend Sun King Moon, or something, to perform group weddings.
Enjoying your blog!
Gigi, thank you for your comment. (Which blogging book?!) I’m only partially kidding when I joke about the office supplies addiction. If I did a yard sale at the end of summer, I could probably supply all of the kids in my neighborhood with school supplies for the year!
Love the Taco Bell proposal! What a creative guy. I hope that goes into a story someday.