How to Make Lists
One of the things that I see people doing wrong all the time is making unusable to-do lists. We've all done this: you decide to get your life in order and sit down and make a list of everything you have to do, and then you try to do it all in a couple of days. You burn out, and the list gets shunted off to the side.
My more practical way of dealing with this is to make extremely short to-do lists. The list contains at most five items, all must-do items, and all reasonable to finish in half the time you have for tasks in the day. Why half? Because the other half of your time gets lost on distractions, bad traffic, mistakes, other things that come up, and what have you.
The critical element of this is the ability to prioritize tasks. You should be able to look at something that needs to be done and know how important it is that it get done today, by the end of the week, or by the end of the month. When you know how important a task is, you can figure out the order in which you need to do things. If you know when the task needs to get done but it's very far in the future, write it on your calendar a few days before you have to start it, to remind yourself. If you want to finish it earlier, you can look at the calendar and see if there's anything ahead of it in urgency. Some people use a tickler system with folders and so forth to remind them, but I find my calendar is more useful because I look at it every day, and it's a single place to look for things I need to do. Your mileage may vary.
When a new task appears on the horizon, I ask myself if it can be put off until tomorrow or later, and put it on another day's to-do list if I can. If not, well, it's one of those time-eaters. But in general, if you're working through your daily to-do list regularly, a single drop-everything priority appearing is not too much of a setback. I try not to fill to-do lists more than a few days in advance, because that's a bad road to be going down: if you pack your schedule you have less time to adapt to new things coming on the horizon.
When I finish the items on my to-do list, or on days when there's not so much stacking up to get done, I might fill it in with less important tasks. Like refilling a prescription or organizing a dresser drawer, or anything else that can be done pretty much any time. I pull this task off a sort of backlog to-do list that I call the can-do list. The can-do list is huge, containing all the little tasks I have sitting around, low priority, waiting for me. When I realize I have to do something, but not right away, I'll add it to the can-do list.
The key to staying sane is to not let the can-do list take priority. The can-dos are things you fit in around everything else. They may eventually turn into must-dos (you should know when that's going to happen), but until they do they should be lower in priority and they should have to wait for the to-dos to be done. It's nice to check them off, but if you're spending your time ticking off items that are low in priority while the high-priority stuff falls by the wayside, you're not going to be getting much benefit from your lists. My can-do list is spread all over my calendar, roughly in the time frame when it gets more critical. When I'm low on to-dos, I just look forward in the calendar and work on to-dos or can-dos from days in the future.
For example, here's a bunch of tasks that came up today:
- Fill prescription
- Cancel daycare for Rosie during vacation
- Buy campus parking permit
- Work on design for class web site
I figured out when each item needed to get done:
- Fill prescription (must do by Sept 22)
- Cancel daycare for Rosie during vacation (must do by Sept 4)
- Buy campus parking permit (must do by Sept 10)
- Work on design for class web site (no set deadline, want to have it done by Sept 18)
So the first thing I did today was cancel the daycare. I did it before even thinking about whatever else had to be done, because it was the earliest-priority item.
Tonight I will buy my campus parking permit, because I need to get that done before we leave for vacation (we won't be back in time for me to do it afterwards), and I'll probably drop off the prescription to be filled, too, because it's fast and I don't want to forget, which is likely after a vacation.
I probably will not get around to working on the web site, but I've been planning to work on that after we get back from vacation, anyway.
Note that these are all items from my personal life. I keep professional to-dos separate from personal ones right now, because that works well with this particular internship. When I'm in school, school to-dos take over the list, but I always save one or two spots for personal things.
- Limit the number of things you try to do in a day
- Know when things need to be done
- Do things in the order in which they are due
- Do the most important stuff first
- Don't let unimportant stuff clutter up your time