Over the years, I’ve implemented several different ways to keep track of tasks. I’ve recently made yet another tweak to my system and it’s been a bit of a struggle.
First, though, some context... I’ve always been a fan of the standard to-do list—there’s something so crisp and consolidating about a well-written list. Somewhere in the middle of graduate school, however, my to-do lists started infecting my life with more chaos than order.
Just to clarify, I definitely didn’t have a problem making a to-do list. My problem was keeping the dang thing—like, literally not loosing the sheet of paper. And more figuratively, coming back to the list throughout the day to remind myself of what actually needed to be done, not just the oddball stuff my mind concocted spur of the moment, later in the day. I also had this problem that I was forgetting important birthdays and anniversaries. (Read: half the time I didn’t even know what date it was in general.) I attribute this to the dissertation and the resultant lack of few real-life, real-time commitments. For most of that phase in life, I lived in sort of a nebulous universe un-tethered to the coordinates of the time-space continuum. I’ll call this space “my brain” for shorthand.
So here is a glimpse into what it was like planning my day in my brain during this time... Every morning, I’d find any old scrap of paper lying around the house and sketch out the tasks that needed to get done—from housework, to dissertation, to random errands and grocery shopping, to emailing and catching up with friends or family. These lists would often have anywhere from five to twenty or more items on it. Sometimes I'd come back to the list later and scribble something haphazardly in sideways-facing text because (I was convinced) life was just that crazy that I couldn't slow down and just write it in normally. Then, I’d tuck the list into my pocket or leave it out on the counter—usually I’d lose it or accidentally throw it away. Rarely did I complete many of the items on the list, because I was always getting side-tracked and coming up with new items that needed doing on the spur of the moment. Making to-do lists was less a productivity tool and more an exercise I did each day to convince myself I was an adult.
Enter: the weekly planner.
I was three quarters through my dissertation, recently married and living in a new country. And I had just forgotten my mother-in-law’s birthday. For the third year in a row.
Things were out of control.
And so, even though it was the middle of summer (not the season to look for calendars), I announced to my husband I was heading out for something I hadn’t bought since high school: a planner.
It took a while to find a place that sold calendars in the off season, but I finally did. I selected a relatively affordable variety with a simple green, faux-leather cover. It had traditional calendar pages to get an overview of the whole month as well as sections for each week. Each day got about a third of the page, giving me space to write a moderate to-do list and note appointments.
This was definitely a step up from the previous system of finding scrap paper for to-do lists! At the very least, every time I sketched out a list in that book, it gave me an opportunity to join the time-space continuum by glancing at the day’s date. Sometimes I took that opportunity, sometimes I didn’t. But more and more, I did and my stress level thanked me.
But I still had the same problem as before: my to-do lists often became too long and unruly to really benefit me. Whenever I looked at a list with more than five or ten or twenty (or more!) items being flung at me from all corners of my life, I’d simply shut down. Who can compete with that?
This overwhelming feeling is one symptom of what Barry Schwartz calls the paradox of choice—the more choices we have, the more we increase negative emotions. As Daniel Markovitz says, "Looking at the 58 items on your to-do list will either paralyze you or send you into default mode: checking email for an hour instead of doing real work.” At that point, my life could basically be summed up as: all of the above.
Then, about a year ago, I added a new tweak to the mix by splitting each day’s little section of the planner into four quadrants. Each quadrant was labeled for “categories” of my life at the time: dissertation, creative work (my writing, blogging and any other creative task), housework and “other” (a catch-all category to include anything from email drafting to toenail painting).
In other words, I itemized my to-do list. At first, it was difficult to split my list items into categories. I think it forced me to actually stop and take stock of things more than I was doing. Previously, making to-do lists had been sort of a knee-jerk reflex to stave off looming feelings of stress, anxiety or lack of productivity. I’d throw a bunch of items onto the list and see if something stuck.
The more I stayed with the four quadrants, however, the more I was able to achieve each day.
Instead of going to my to-do list and seeing a smorgasbord of chaotic elements, I saw well-ordered categories. I also saw four short to-do lists rather than one long one. Somehow this was enough of a tweak to motivate me to get things done.
Another unexpected benefit to this system was that it helped me balance my time a bit more. My weakness in writing (or really any creative task) is becoming myopic—I get so single-focused on tasks and topics that I stop doing other things that need to get done or make me happy. Splitting my daily tasks into four categories helped me remember that my dissertation was only one part of my life—I could put “repot plants” or “take bubble bath” in the “Other” category if I wanted to.
I stuck with this way of doing things for about a year, and during that time I really got used to the four quadrants. When I finished my dissertation, I simply changed the “Dissertation” category to “Work”—I’m a freelance editor, writing consultant, and I work a part-time job in an office.
At first that little change was fine, especially in the early days when my clients were few and far between. Gradually, though, business has grown. Sometimes I have two or three clients at once, plus a few other stable freelance gigs—all of which are usually operating on vastly different schedules and time frames. I also have taken on a number of new creative ventures, like blogging and podcasting, which require me to write and produce content on a schedule (not just on a whim). All of these things necessitate a new, more scheduled attitude towards work, even creative work. When writing my dissertation, it was sometimes impossible for me to map out tasks more than a few days in advance because I never knew how the writing/ thinking/ research/ conceptualization was going to go. I’d wake up in the morning and, based on what I’d accomplish the previous day, think about what more could be done. Not that I’d recommend this way of writing, but that’s just how I operated.
What I’m saying is, once I started freelancing, it became necessary to think in advance about tasks, to schedule things more than a few days ahead of time. I needed to make sure I wouldn’t miss deadlines because now I was actually getting paid to do so. All of this simply requires an immense amount of juggling—and for someone who tends towards myopia, juggling is very difficult. I focus on one ball, and before I know it, the others have fallen to the ground.
So, more recently, I've made yet a third adjustment to my time management regimen.
I share all about it in my next post...
Writer's Loom Blog
In praise of tight writing in a world of loose ends.