Geetanjali Mukherjee

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Re-Thinking To-do Lists


I have written before about to-do lists and being organized and what apps or tools are best for this. I have been thinking a lot about this topic, especially because I started listening to a few productivity podcasts and heard some business authors discussing their methods, and it made me question how I approach this for myself. 

If you love productivity stuff, you will probably recognize the feeling - of the excitement of hearing about a new tool or method, of wondering whether there is something in your own process that you can change, of not being able to wait to try out the shiny new thing you heard about. 

Well, recently, I have been aware of this tendency in myself, and have stopped myself from running after the next new tool. At the same time, I found that my method is no longer working for me as well as it was, and I was resorting to keeping running lists in my head (not at all ideal, and I explain why in my book), or writing down tasks and ideas and to-dos in different places. 

Part of the problem was not that I wasn’t implementing my system, it’s just that I wasn’t trusting it. I often wouldn’t get around to doing something that was in my mind urgent for a few weeks, because I was just busy with other things. I often felt like I sat down and worked for a few hours at a stretch, and yet I didn’t really feel a sense of accomplishment. Sometimes I asked myself where the time went, and sometimes it felt like I was working on whatever was uppermost in my mind or whatever came up, regardless of its level of priority.

My process at the time was simple - following David Allen’s exhortation to have complete lists, I created thematic lists of different aspects of my work (and separate ones for personal tasks) in Wunderlist. 

The advantage to this was that I liked the simple interface, it automatically synced across my devices, and I could make as many lists as I wanted. I had more ideas than I had time to accomplish, so I created a Someday list, initially just one, and then broke it down by theme, which housed things I wanted to do someday. Sometimes I would move things from my someday list to my current list, when it seemed like I was progressing through the list or just wanted to tackle some of those as well.

I thought the system was working fine, but I found that I would forget about the things on my list, because I didn’t work with it in front of me. I didn’t have a plan for actually getting the items done unless they were urgent or on my mind. I also found myself working on something, and coming across another task that wasn’t urgent, but I was afraid I would forget about it, so I would just work on it then and there. This meant that newer things got done, but the original items on the list would keep getting postponed, giving me even less confidence in my list. Eventually I hated to even look at it, since I felt so terrible about not getting so many things done. 

Around this time I also started a monthly goals list in Evernote. This is basically concrete, actionable stuff, not just things like lose 10 pounds. I tried that initially and realized I would need to have actions attached to the goals. 

So if I wanted to market my book, I wrote down "email 20 reviewers". That was an actionable goal. I tried to keep the goals list manageable, full of things I could get done in a month, but also a bit of a stretch, so I would have to push myself. The advantage of the goals list is it gives a big picture overview of what I am hoping to accomplish within that month, and also sets out the overall priorities. It also helped me see areas of imbalance - were there too many goals related to one aspect of my work, and not enough related to others? 

The problem was that since I had all but abandoned my individual to-do lists, I was using the goals list for that purpose, and it wasn’t a good match. For instance, in order to email 20 reviewers, from my previous example, I would need to do research to find the emails, store that somewhere, and draft an email template to send. These are all individual tasks that is hard to capture in the list of goals, and I like to have a visual representation of how much I have done, or how far I have progressed in a task. 

So I started to write these out all over the place - in scraps of paper, in notebooks, again in Wunderlist. I spent almost as much time capturing my tasks as doing them, and I still didn’t have a good handle on what I was supposed to do next. 

Enter the final piece of the system - the monthly tasks list. I created one note, with 2 separate lists, one for work and one personal. I just started putting all the tasks, not separated by theme, in a running order as they occurred to me. The beauty of this is I only need to check one list for the month, and I can see at a glance how much I have gotten done. I even put the date next to the item after checking it off. If something is urgent and needs to be done next, I can simply highlight that particular task. 

So my new system: a monthly goals list, with all the big-picture goals of what I want to achieve this month. And my running monthly task list. Here’s what I love about my new system:

1. Big-picture and close-up view - I have the goals list to remind me of what is important for the whole month, while the task list lets me hone in what I need to be working on right now.

2. Work on one task at a time, without worrying about everything else. 

3. Capture ideas and tasks that come up that aren’t urgent, without getting derailed. I have a tendency as I mentioned earlier of getting an idea or coming across something and switching gears and wasting time - this way I can put a note in my task list (I even add links so I can easily find the webpage or whatever), and go back to what I was doing. 

4. Simple and uses tools that I already use everyday - I didn’t waste time in set-up or learning a new app. You can modify this system and use any tool or app, or even use a physical notebook to keep a running list. The system is effective because it’s so simple. In fact, I have started experimenting with trying this system in OneNote, because I have been having a lot of problems with the Evernote software hanging. Again, its a simple enough system, and can be duplicated using whatever you are already using.

5. Uses a monthly time-frame - which is enough time to make progress on big and medium-sized goals. Weekly would be messier, because I frequently take longer to complete my projects, but usually less than a month. And this way the running task list is manageable, because you start over in a month’s time, with a new list. 

6. Easy to archive, and see at-a-glance how much you have achieved in a given time frame. You can use previous lists to make plans for next month, to show your boss what you have accomplished, or to keep track of your project completion rate. 

I will update on how this new system is working, mainly because I do have a tendency to get bored with something, or outgrow it, and jump to something else. But I also believe that simple but effective is important, and at this time, I think it's both. 

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