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!