Further lessons for managing the to-do list

Shall I show you my slightly-OCD side tonight?

I spent a very productive couple of hours today, sitting in a coffee shop between appointments, overhauling my to-do lists. I realized that although my lists are now digital rather than physical, they’re still the virtual equivalent of a pile of unidentified, untended papers holding up valuable desk real estate. Why, I asked myself, am I unable to make effective use of my to-do list, when I am an organized person? I have a fairly workable system, thanks to years of fine-tuning, but I still tend to let things slide when there’s a lot going on. I thought about where my system was failing me, pondered what would serve me better, and came up with the following truths:

There are actions and there are ideas. Everything on my list can be categorized as one or the other. The main difference is actions have deadlines, and ideas don’t. Find a place to live in Scotland is an action, because I have to complete it by a specific date. Write a blog post with a soundtrack is an idea, since I don’t care if it happens this month, or next year. I generate a handful of exciting new ideas every week, but when I let them take up space on my action lists, they obscure my true priorities.

New system? All ideas go into holding folders, where I can find them when I need them. Actions go onto the action list. That’s it.

Every action is accountable to multiple deadlines. There’s the ideal deadline, the one my inner perfectionist demands. There’s the forgivably-late deadline, which my inner perfectionist disdains but will still accept. When I miss that deadline, my inner perfectionist flounces away in disgust, but my inner realist says better problematically-late than never, and schedules a new deadline. And at some date the action becomes irrelevant, and that’s the true deadline: the last possible date at which I can carry out the action and still get some benefit from it.

In the past, my problem has been that I try too hard to make all the ideal deadlines, with the result that I get unnecessarily stressed and I have no idea what’s truly urgent. But having realized my deadlines usually have more wiggle room than I’ve granted them, I’ve notated all my actions with multiple deadlines. Example: find a place to live in Scotland now carries with it the notation i4/1, fl5/1, p6/1, x6/24. Translation: “It would be good if I accomplished this by 4/1, but if I can’t, I still have another month before things get too dicey. If I still haven’t attended to it by then, I can take another month if I really have to, but if I haven’t done it by 6/24 I’m screwed.” In short, this is an at-a-glance tool for panic management.

I really need to value my work. Yesterday, while driving to Berkeley (an hour away now) in the rain for an appointment that was really not that important, I realized that I devalue my work. Without consciously doing so, I tend to think that other people’s needs are more important, or that household tasks should take precedence, or that things like shopping can’t wait when honestly, they can. After four indulgent days in Houston all I wanted was to sit down at a desk and think and write and paint, but because I’d rated my work lower than my other obligations, I was now in the car heading toward an unnecessary appointment and several errands I’d tacked on to “justify” the drive. Worse yet, Erik knew how much I hate driving in the rain, and he’d kindly offered to drive me, so now I was eating his work time as well as my own.

The hilarious thing is that after we arrived in Berkeley, we realized we’d forgotten to change the car clock to daylight savings time (since we hadn’t driven the car since before the time change), so I was now too late to make my appointment. What was there to do but laugh? We ate a late lunch, did one of our errands, and then came home and worked for the rest of the evening. A lesson to me: do what’s most important, never mind the rest.

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